Jethro Tull and the Invention of the Seed Drill

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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. 

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 and Other Inventions

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 seeds on the ground. Tull considered this method wasteful since many seeds did not take root. Building the first prototype seed drill, Tull incorporated his musical knowledge, constructing the device with foot pedals from the organ of a local church. The finished drill, the first agriculture machine with moving parts, sowed seeds in uniform rows and covered up the seeds as well.

Tull went on to make more “groundbreaking” inventions, literally. His horse-drawn hoe or hoe-blow dug up the soil, loosing it for planting, which allows more moisture and air to reach plant roots, while also pulling up unwanted roots. He also invented a 4-bladed blow to cut even lines in the soil. 

These inventions were put to the test and Tull’s farm thrives. 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, but eventually, his ideas and practices won out. Farming, thanks to Tull, had become a bit more rooted in science. 

In yet another sign of Tull's enduring legacy, the British rock group Jethro Tull took its name from this agricultural innovator.