Mechanizing the harvest 1870-1900
Mechanizing the harvest 1870-1900

In 1851 two American exhibitors, Cyrus McCormick and Obed Hussey, had on display at the Great Exhibition reaping machines which aroused a considerable amount of interest. They were by no means the first reaping machines to be seen in Britain. There had been some earlier in the century, most notably Patrick Bell’s reaper invented in the 1820s. Bell’s reaper had been quite successful in operation, but had not caught on with farmers.

These new machines, however, came at just the right time, for farmers were beginning to experience difficulties with the supply of labour for harvesting, and were more amenable to mechanical assistance. The McCormick and Hussey machines were also reliable and efficient in use.

Slowly at first, but after 1860 with gathering pace, reaping by machine gained popularity. By 1871 about 25 per cent of the cereal harvest was cut by machine, and about 80 by 1900.

The machines demonstrated in 1851 were reapers only. The cut the corn and left it by gathered by hand. During the 1890s the process of mechanization went a stage further with the introduction of the self-binding reaper, which tied the cut corn into sheaves.

The hay harvest was mechanized at the same time. Mowing machines were introduced during the 1850s. The Royal Agricultural Society’s first major trial of mowers was in 1857, when Clayton & Shuttleworth’s American Eagle mower was awarded first prize. Cutting the hay by machine soon became an established part of farming, although mowing by hand was still to be found in 1914. The other implements for the hay harvest – haymakers, tedders, swath turners and rakes – all became more popular. Elevators for stack-building were another introduction of this period.

The new reapers and binders had another significance, for they were the first major agricultural implements to be introduced from abroad. They might trace their lineage to Patrick Bell’s machine, but the McCormick and Hussey reapers were American products. They became naturalized, adapted to British conditions and manufactured under licence by British firms, who added their own modifications and improvements. So it was that Hornsby, Samuelson and Albion were names better-known for harvesting machines among British farmers before the First World War. But the American manufacturers were looking for a more direct involvement in the British market. Some of their mowers and reapers were sold in Britain, and they established a foothold in the market for ploughs with the introduction of steel chilled ploughs.

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