History of Agriculture and Farm Machinery

Tractor Parade
© 2010 Kim Knox Beckius

Farming and farm machinery have evolved greatly over the years. The threshing machine has given way to the combine, usually a self-propelled unit that either picks up windrowed grain or cuts and threshes it in one step. The grain binder has been replaced by the swather, which cuts the grain and lays it on the ground in windrows, allowing it to dry before being harvested by a combine. Plows are not used nearly as extensively as before, due in large part to the popularity of minimum tillage to reduce soil erosion and conserve moisture. The disk harrow today is more often used after harvesting to cut the grain stubble left in the field. Although seed drills are still used, the air seeder is becoming more popular with farmers.

Today's farm machinery allows farmers to cultivate many more acres of land than the machines of yesterday. Following are some of the key agricultural inventions over the past few centuries.

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Cotton Gin

Cotton gin

The cotton gin is a machine that separates seeds, hulls and other unwanted materials from cotton after it has been picked. Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin on March 14, 1794. The machine turned cotton into a highly profitable crop and revived the economy of the South but it sustained and increased the institution of enslavement, which helped to create conditions that led to the American Civil War.

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Cotton Harvester

Cotton Harvest
Radius Images / Getty Images

Mechanical cotton harvesters are of two types: strippers and pickers. Stripper harvesters strip the entire plant of both open and unopened bolls, along with many leaves and stems. The cotton gin is then used to remove unwanted material.

Picker machines—often called spindle-type harvesters—remove cotton from open bolls and leave the bur on the plant. The spindles, which rotate on their axes at high speeds, are attached to a drum that also turns, causing the spindles to penetrate the plants. The cotton fibers are wrapped around the moistened spindles and then removed by a special device called a doffer; the cotton is then delivered to a large basket carried above the machine.

The first cotton harvester was patented in the U.S. in 1850, but it was not until the 1940s that the machinery was widely used. 

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Crop Rotation

George Washington Carver, full-length portrait, standing in field, probably at Tuskegee, holding piece of soil, 1906
George Washington Carver, full-length portrait, standing in field, probably at Tuskegee, holding piece of soil, 1906.

Library of Congress / public domain 

Growing the same crop repeatedly on the same land eventually depletes the soil of different nutrients. Farmers avoided a decrease in soil fertility by practicing crop rotation. Different plant crops were planted in a regular sequence so that the leaching of the soil by a crop of one kind of nutrient was followed by a plant crop that returned that nutrient to the soil. Crop rotation was practiced in ancient Roman, African, and Asian cultures. During the Middle Ages in Europe, farmers practiced a three-year crop rotation by rotating rye or winter wheat in year one, followed by spring oats or barley in the second year, and followed by a third year of no crops.

In the 18th century, British agriculturalist Charles Townshend boosted the European agricultural revolution by popularizing a four-year crop rotation method with rotations of wheat, barley, turnips, and clover. In the United States, George Washington Carver brought his science of crop rotation to the farmers and saved the farming resources of the South.

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The Grain Elevator

Thursday Katy Trail Grain Elevator
David Fiedler

In 1842, the first grain elevator was built by Joseph Dart. The invention has become so integral to farming that by 2018, there were nearly 900 grain elevators and grain storage facilities in the state of Iowa alone, according to Statistica. In the top 10 farming states, there were nearly 5,500 grain elevators and grain storage facilities.

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Hay Cultivation

Combine Harvesting Grain collection

anucha sirivisansuwan / Treehugger

Until the middle of the 19th century, hay was cut by hand with sickles and scythes. In the 1860s early cutting devices were developed that resembled those on reapers and binders; from these came the modern array of fully mechanical mowers, crushers, windrowers, field choppers, balers, and machines for pelletizing or wafering in the field.

The stationary baler or hay press was invented in the 1850s and did not become popular until the 1870s. The "pick up" baler or square baler was replaced by the round baler around the 1940s.

In 1936, a man named Innes, of Davenport, Iowa, invented an automatic baler for hay. It tied bales with binder twine using Appleby-type knotters from a John Deere grain binder. A Pennsylvania resident named Ed Nolt built his own baler, salvaging the twine knotters from the Innes baler. Both balers did not work that well. According to "A Brief History of Twine":

"Nolt's innovative patents pointed the way by 1939 to the mass production of the one-man automatic hay baler. His balers and their imitators revolutionized hay and straw harvest and created a twine demand beyond the wildest dreams of any twine manufacturer."
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Milking Machine

Farmer milking cows in dairy farm, using milking machines
Peter Muller / Getty Images

In 1879, Anna Baldwin patented a milking machine that replaced hand milking: her milking machine was a vacuum device that connected to a hand pump. This was one of the earliest American patents; however, it was not a successful invention. Successful milking machines appeared around 1870. 

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Minneapolis Steamer Tractor
Jack Anderson's Minneapolis steamer and John Deere plow. F.A. Pazandak Photograph Collection, NDIRS-NDSU, Fargo.

John Deere invented the self-polishing cast steel plow—an improvement over the iron plow. "He forged the blade into a plow and the plow forged a farming revolution," according to Jackson Landers, writing in Smithsonian Magazine. Jackson adds:

"The modern plow has helped to feed billions, but also contributed to massive erosion that has damaged farmland and polluted waterways."
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Lithograph of the McCormick Reaper
The McCormick Reaper. Getty Images

In 1831, Cyrus H. McCormick developed the first commercially successful reaper, a horse-drawn machine that harvested wheat. A cross between a wheelbarrow and a chariot, the reaper was a horse-drawn machine that harvested wheat and was capable of cutting six acres of oats in one afternoon, the equivalent of 12 people working with scythes.

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Additional References

View Article Sources
  1. Shahbandeh, M. “Number of Grain Storage Facilities by States in the U.S. 2018.” Statista, 8 Oct. 2020.

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Bellis, Mary. "History of Agriculture and Farm Machinery." ThoughtCo, Feb. 7, 2021, thoughtco.com/history-of-agriculture-and-farm-machinery-4074382. Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 7). History of Agriculture and Farm Machinery. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-agriculture-and-farm-machinery-4074382 Bellis, Mary. "History of Agriculture and Farm Machinery." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-agriculture-and-farm-machinery-4074382 (accessed January 30, 2023).