History of the Plow

Who invented the plow?

Young Man Sitting On Tractor In Field
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When it comes to farming tools, the instruments used back in George Washington's day were no better than those used during the time of Julius Caesar. In fact, some of the tools from ancient Rome—like their early plow—were superior to those that were used in America 18 centuries later. That was until the modern plow came along, of course.

What Is a Plow?

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. An important piece of the plow is called a moldboard, which is a wedge formed by the curved part of a steel blade that turns the furrow.

Early Plows

Some of the first plows used in the United States were little more than a crooked stick with an iron point attached which simply scratched the ground. Plows of this sort were used in Illinois as late as 1812. Evidently, improvements were desperately needed, particularly a design to turn a deep furrow for planting seeds.

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

Who Invented the Plow?

Several people contributed to the invention of the plow, with each individual contributing something unique that gradually improved the efficacy of the tool over time.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson worked out an elaborate design for an effective moldboard. However, he was too interested in other things besides inventing to keep working on agricultural tools, and he never attempted to patent his product.

Charles Newbold and 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, American farmers mistrusted the plow. They believed it "poisoned the soil" and fostered the growth of weeds.

Ten years later, in 1807, David Peacock received a plow patent and eventually procured two others. However, 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 whole new plow.

This principle of standardization marked a great advance. By this time, farmers 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.

John Deere

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

William Parlin

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

John Lane and James Oliver

In 1868, John Lane patented a "soft-center" steel plow. The hard-but-brittle surface of the tool was backed by softer, more tenacious metal to reduce the breakage.

The same year, James Oliver—a Scottish 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 those of the back. The pieces which came in contact with the soil had a hard, glassy surface while the body of the plow was made of tough iron. Oliver later founded Oliver Chilled Plow Works.

Plow Advances and 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 amount of manpower (or animal-power). Another advance was the sulky plow, which allowed the plowman to ride, rather than walk. Such plows were in use as early as 1844.

The next step forward was to replace animals that pulled the plows with traction engines. By 1921, farm tractors were both doing the work better and pulling more plows—50-horsepower engines could pull 16 plows, harrows, and a grain drill. Farmers could thus perform the three operations of plowing, harrowing, and planting all at the same time and cover 50 acres or more in a day.

Today, plows are not used nearly as extensively as before. This is due in large part to the popularity of minimum tillage systems designed to reduce soil erosion and conserve moisture.