History of the Plow

Young Man Sitting On Tractor In Field
Cavan Images/ Taxi/ Getty images

The farmers back in George Washington's day had tools that were no better than the farmers who lived during the time of Julius Caesar. In fact, early Roman plows were superior to those that were generally used in America eighteen centuries later. That was until the plow came along. 

What is a Plow & Moldboard?

By definition, a plow, also spelled plough, is a farm tool with one or more heavy blades that breaks the soil and cuts a furrow (small ditch) for sowing seeds. A moldboard is a wedge formed by the curved part of a steel plow blade that turns the furrow.

Early Plows

One early type of plow used in the United States was little more than a crooked stick with an iron point attached, sometimes using rawhide, which simply scratched the ground. Plows of this sort were in use in Illinois as late as 1812. However, plows designed to turn a deep furrow for planting seeds were needed.

Early attempts were often just heavy chunks of tough wood rudely cut into shape with a wrought-iron point clumsily attached. The moldboards were rough and no two curves were alike. At that time, country blacksmiths made plows only on order and few had patterns for plows. Plows could turn a furrow in the soft ground only if the oxen or horses were strong enough, but friction was such a big problem that three men and several animals were required to turn a furrow when the ground was hard.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson worked out very elaborately the proper curves for a moldboard. However, Jefferson was interested in many other things besides inventing to keep working on his moldboard and plow designs.

Charles Newbold & David Peacock

The first real inventor of the practical plow was Charles Newbold of Burlington County, New Jersey. He received a patent for a cast-iron plow in June of 1797. However, early American farmers mistrusted the plow. They believed it "poisoned the soil" and fostered the growth of weeds.

David Peacock received a plow patent in 1807 as well as two others later. Newbold sued Peacock for patent infringement and recovered damages. It was the first patent infringement case involving a plow.

Jethro Wood

Another plow inventor was Jethro Wood, a blacksmith from Scipio, New York. He received two patents, one in 1814 and the other in 1819. His plow was cast iron and made in three parts so that a broken part could be replaced without purchasing a new plow.

This principle of standardization marked a great advance. The farmers by this time were forgetting their former prejudices and were enticed to buy plows. Though Wood's original patent was extended, patent infringements were frequent and he is said to have spent his entire fortune in prosecuting them.

William Parlin

Skilled blacksmith William Parlin of Canton, Illinois began making plows around 1842 and traveled by wagon around the country selling them.

John Lane & James Oliver

John Lane patented in 1868 a "soft-center" steel plow. The hard but brittle surface was backed by softer and more tenacious metal to reduce the breakage. The same year James Oliver, a Scotch immigrant who had settled in Indiana received a patent for the "chilled plow." Using an ingenious method, the wearing surfaces of the casting were cooled more quickly than the back. The surfaces which came in contact with the soil had a hard, glassy surface while the body of the plow was of tough iron. Oliver later founded Oliver Chilled Plow Works.

John Deere

In 1837, John Deere developed and marketed the world's first self-polishing cast steel plow. The large plows made for cutting the tough American prairie ground were called "grasshopper plows."

Plow Advances & Farm Tractors

From the single plow, advances were made to two or more plows fastened together, allowing for more work to be done with approximately the same manpower. Another advance was the sulky plow, which allowed the plowman to ride rather than walk. Such plows were in use as early as 1844 or perhaps even earlier.

The next step forward was to replace animals that pulled the plows with traction engines. By 1921, farm tractors were pulling more plows and doing the work better. Fifty horsepower engines could pull sixteen plows, harrows, and a grain drill. Farmers can thus perform the three operations of plowing, harrowing, and planting all at the same time and covering fifty acres or more in a day.

Today, 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.