Jethro Tull and the Invention of the Seed Drill

Jethro Tull

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A farmer, writer, and inventor, Jethro Tull was an instrumental figure in English agriculture, pushing to improve age-old agrarian practices by applying science and technology. (Jethro Tull is also the name of a British progressive-rock band, but their history is beyond the scope of this story.)

Early Life

Born in 1674 to well-to-do parents, Tull grew up on the family’s Oxfordshire estate. After withdrawing from St. John’s College in Oxford, he moved to London, where he studied the pipe organ before becoming a law student. In 1699, Tull qualified as a barrister, toured Europe, and got married. ​

Relocating with his bride to the family farm, Tull eschewed law to work the land. Inspired by agrarian practices he saw in Europe—including pulverized soil around evenly spaced plants—Tull was determined to experiment at home. 

The Seed Drill

Jethro Tull invented the seed drill in 1701 as a way to plant more efficiently. Prior to his invention, sowing seeds was done by hand, by scattering them on the ground or placing them in the ground individually, such as with bean and pea seeds. Tull considered scattering wasteful, because many seeds did not take root.

His finished seed drill included a hopper to store the seed, a cylinder to move it, and a funnel to direct it. A plow at the front created the row, and a harrow at the back covered the seed with soil. It was the first agricultural machine with moving parts. It started as a one-man, one-row device, but later designs sowed seeds in three uniform rows, had wheels, and were drawn by horses. Using wider spacing than previous practices allowed horses to draw the equipment and not step on the plants.

Other Inventions

Tull went on to make more “groundbreaking” inventions, literally. His horse-drawn hoe or hoe-plow dug up the soil, loosening it for planting while also pulling up unwanted weed roots. He mistakenly thought that the soil itself was the food for plants and that breaking it up allowed the plants to take it in better.

The real reason that you loosen soil for planting is that the act allows more moisture and air to reach plant roots. Coinciding with his theory on the way plants fed, he also believed that you should till the soil while the plant is growing, not just during planting. His idea that plants grow better with tilled soil around them, though, is correct, if not his theory on why. Tilling around plants reduces weeds competing with the crops, allowing the desired plants to grow better.

Tull also improved designs of the plow. 

These inventions were put to the test, and Tull’s farm thrived. Even spacing; less seed waste; better aeration per plant; and less weed growth all increased his yields.

In 1731, the inventor and farmer published "The New Horse Houghing Husbandry: Or, an Essay on the Principles of Tillage and Vegetation." His book was met with opposition in some quarters—especially his mistaken idea that manure didn't help plants—but eventually, his mechanical ideas and practices couldn't be denied to be useful and work well. Farming, thanks to Tull, had become a bit more rooted in science.