Tracing a Harvester’s Timeline

How did farmers go from manually cutting, gathering and threshing wheat to modern combines?

If you have ever watched a modern combine harvest a field of wheat, you will quickly recognize that it is a miracle of mechanization, saving farmers hundreds of hours of back-breaking, rough and often dangerous work.  But how did we go from harvesting two acres a day by hand to harvesting more than 100 acres a day with a machine that does everything?

Before the early 1800’s, grain was cut using hand tools, usually a sickle or scythe.  The grain was gathered (or reaped), and threshed* by hand or trampled by horses to separate the grain and straw.  The straw was removed, usually with a pitchfork, and the grain was winnowed* to separate it from the chaff* and dirt.

Threshing grain by hand. Photo source

Threshing grain by hand. Photo source

*Chaff is the dry hull which surrounds the kernel of grain.  To thresh is to separate the kernel of grain from the chaff and dirt.  To winnow is to blow air across the grain to separate it from the chaff, dry stalks, leaves and dirt.

In the 1820’s, hand or horse-powered threshers were introduced.  One of the most popular was a hand-cranked model invented by New Englander Joseph Pope.  Grain still had to be cut and gathered by hand, run through the thresher and cleaned to remove the chaff and dirt.  At the same time, reaping was also being mechanized, with horse-drawn reapers able to clean 14-15 acres a day.  Companies like Case, McCormick, Holt and John Deere continued to innovate and improve harvesting machinery, and eventually, the header and thresher system came to dominate the 1800’s, especially in the west.

Headers generally consisted of a wide cutter bar and reel that cut the grain and knocked it back onto the draper, a canvas belt that moved the cut grain to a nearby wagon.  Headers were originally pushed through the field from the rear by horses in order to keep the crop from being trampled.  Early headers could cut approximately 30 acres a day.

Once the grain had been cut and gathered, it was moved to another machine, the thresher.  At first, threshers were powered by horses walking in a circle; steam engines would eventually take over.  These threshers were able to quickly separate wheat kernels from the straw and chaff.  The clean kernels would be gathered and sewn into burlap sacks.

By the late 1800’s, implement companies were beginning to manufacture machines that combined the header and thresher functions, giving rising to the first “combines.”  Pulled by up to 40 horses or mules, and needing a crew of about 6 men, combines could harvest 40 acres a day.  In most cases, the horses pulled the combine from in front of the thresher portion of the machine, with the header attached to the side of the thresher.  By the 1930’s, horses and mules had been mostly replaced by gas and diesel-powered tractors.  In turn, those pull-type combines would evolve to become today’s modern, all-in-one combines.

Horse drawn combine Photo source

Horse drawn combine
Photo source

Today’s combines are marvels.  The headers, threshers are finely engineered and computer driven.  The cabs have computers in them, with screens to assist the driver in determining the efficiency of the machine, and the number of acres harvested and number of bushels being cut.  Today’s combines have safety features to protect the driver, for example, the cab of the combine stays level when driving on the side of a hill.  Additionally, today’s combines harvest 150-250 acres per day!  Wouldn’t great-grandfather be amazed!

Modern combine harvesting wheat. Photo source

Modern combine harvesting wheat. Photo source

 Wheat Life magazine, February, 2015

 

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