Tractors, Combines, and Science:
Technological Innovation in Twentieth
As the twentieth century dawned on rural America, agrarian society found
itself performing the same tasks as those farmers one hundred years earlier, in
a slightly more efficient manner. As long as there were crops in the field,
farmers found themselves planting, weeding, and harvesting on a cyclical
basis. Thanks to a revolution in agricultural technology, however, those tasked
with these duties could now do them sitting down on machines pulled by
horses. The garden hoe, bane of the existence of young men responsible for
chopping weeds out of corn fields for hundreds of years, had been replaced by
riding cultivators that allowed farmers to do the same job much faster and
without the same level of physical labor. Corn, wheat, and other crops could
now be planted from similar machines. And while reapers and mowers of
various manufacture and design harvested wheat and other grass crops, corn
was the last major American field crop that required hand harvesting. Just as
farming changed drastically in the nineteenth century, harnessing the power of
horses in order to perform tasks, agriculture in the twentieth century faced an
even greater revolution of mechanization, and a myriad of innovations
continued to improve the lives of farmers through out the Midwest and the
rest of the country.
Perhaps the greatest innovation of the twentieth century was the adaptation
of the internal combustion engine to agricultural tasks, most notable in the
form of the gasoline or diesel tractor. Engines saw use from the middle of the
nineteenth century on with the development of steam traction engines. These
mammoth machines proved useful for tasks such as powering threshing
machines or other stationary objects, but were also practical for use in pulling
implements through the field. With a few exceptions, the vast majority of
these devices replaced horses and oxen only as a source of immobile power.
The gasoline traction engine, first developed in the 1890s, was initially of a
similar massive scale. Through the early part of the century, the tractor
evolved into a smaller, mobile power source that aided various tasks around
the farm. Some farmers chose not to adapt these new machines due to the
fact that unlike horses which reproduced naturally and offered benefits other
than transportation and power, tractors were loud, expensive, and a source of
As with the Civil War, the manpower shortage of the Second World War helped
to push the adaptation of tractors and other new technologies. Farmers
required fewer hands for tasks around the farm when aided by a tractor. With
the refinement of power take-offs and belt drives, more and more items around
the farm were adaptable to portable tractor power. Grain elevators, mills, and
other devices could now perform their tasks quickly and save more and more
labor for the small farmer.
The development of new harvesting technologies also aided the most
important task on the farm. Combines, initially developed for the large-scale
grain farms of the Great Plains, became more manageable in size and cost with
the development of the internal combustion engine. Farmers now completed
the tasks of harvesting and threshing as they traveled through the fields,
rather than in separate phases of work with different machines. Corn planters,
developed for horse power in the 1920s, were mounted on tractors by the
1940s, and soon were appearing as variations of grain combines, harvesting
and shelling corn at the same time.
Twentieth century science did much to change the life of the farmer as well.
Scientists developed chemicals that killed weeds, promoted growth, destroyed
fungus, and kept bugs at bay in the field. Hybrid crops, first developed on the
basis of physical characteristic in the nineteenth century, operate now on the
genetic level, allowing corn to emit its own form of herbicide. Plants have now
been developed that are drought resistant, blight-proof, and quicker to mature
in the field, allowing farmers to have a tighter rein on nature.
The life of the farmer at the end of the twentieth century is barely comparable
to the life his forbearers knew. Tractors have replaced horses on nearly all
American farms. In a nod to Star Trek and the science fiction of Jules Verne,
G.P.S. units linked to satellites now direct farmers on how to fine tune crops
while planting and harvesting. Global markets are linked instantly through the
internet to the desktop computer in a farmer's den. The setting of the sun no
longer stops field work; rather, a farmer can stay in the field as long as it
takes to take care of what he or she is doing. And the farmer may soon no
longer need to set foot in the field. Tractor technology has developed to the
point that companies have begun experimenting with tractors that are
completely G.P.S. controlled, and the farmer need not step into the machine
Robert C. Welch
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