Contact Webmaster
 Extended  American agricultural history bibliography
 Extended  European agricultural history bibliography
We extend a warm thank you to the Iowa State University Center for On-Line Learning and the Iowa State University Department of History for their support of this project.
Tractors, Combines, and Science: Technological Innovation in Twentieth Century Agriculture
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hoe, bane of the existence of young men responsible for chopping weeds out of corn fields for hundreds of years, had been replaced by riding cultivators that allowed farmers to do the same job much faster and without the same level of physical labor.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 noxious exhaust.

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 at all.

Robert C. Welch

References Accessed June 27, 2006.

Gray, R. B.
Development of the Agricultural Tractor in the United States, Compiled by R. B. Gray. St. Joseph: American Society of Agricultural Engineers, 1958.

Hurt, R. Douglas.
Problems of Plenty: The American Farmer in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002.

Mills, Robert K., editor.
Implement and Tractor: Reflections on 100 Years of Farm Equipment. Overland Park: Intertec Publishing Corporation, 1986.

Wallace, Henry A., and William L. Brown.
Corn and Its Early Fathers. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1988.

Further Reading

Ankli, Robert E. "Horses vs. Tractors on the Corn Belt." Agricultural History Volume 54, Number 1 (1980): 134-148.

Castle, Emery N.
Agricultural Industrialization in the American Countryside. Greenbelt, MD: Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture. 1998.

Cunfer, Geoff. "Manure Matters on the Great Plains Frontier."
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Volume 34, Number 4 (2004): 539-567.

Ellenberg, George B. "Debating Farm Power: Draft Animals, Tractors, and the United States Department of Agriculture."
Agricultural History Volume 74, Number 2 (2000): 545-568.

Culver, John C.
American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace. New York: Norton, 2000.

Huber, Donald S.
How Johnny Popper Replaced the Horse: A History of John Deere Two-Cylinder Tractors. Moline: Deere and Company, 1988.

Hurt, R. Douglas.
Agricultural Technology in the Twentieth Century. Manhattan: Sunflower University Press, 1991.

King, Alan C.
Advance-Rumley Thresher Company, Inc., La Porte, Indiana, 1910-1931: The Oil Pull Tractor. Radnor: A.C. King, 1993.

Lee, Harold.
Roswell Garst: A Biography. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1984.

Lee, Norman E.
Harvests and Harvesting Through the Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960.

Olmstead, Allan L., and Paul W. Rhode. "Reshaping the Landscape: The Impact and Diffusion of the Tractor in American Agriculture, 1910-1960."
Journal of Economic History Volume 61, Number 3 (2001): 663-698.

Rasmussen, Nicolas. "Plant Hormones in War and Peace: Science, Industry, and Government in the Development of Herbicides in 1940s America."
Isis Volume 92, Number 2 (2001): 291-316.

Rhode, Robert T.
The Harvest Story: Recollections of Old-Time Threshermen. West Lafayette: Purdue University, 2001.

Stapleton, Darwin H. "The Short-Lived Miracle of DDT."
American Heritage of Invention and Technology Volume15, Number 3 (2000): 34-41.

Wendel, C. H.
150 Years of J. I. Case. Sarasota: Crestline Publishing, 1991.

Wik, Reynold M.
Steam Power on the American Farm. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953.

Williams, Robert C.
Fordson, Farmall, and Poppin' Johnny: A History of the Farm Tractor and Its Impact on America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.