The Furrow Autumn 2001/Winter 2002
|"Shaking Off the Shackles of Manual Toil" - The Story of the Binder|
|Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4|
The next innovation was the Marsh Harvester that used the cutting principle of the reaper but added a canvass conveyor belt to raise the cut grain to a table where two men riding on the reaper could tie the wheat into sheaves and drop them in the field for shocking. This still required two workers who could be eliminated if the machine could tie the sheaves itself.
Countless efforts were made to build such a "self-binding" machine using either wire or twine. Successful wire binders became available in the 1870s but farmers hesitated to use them. They saw potential damage from the wire getting caught in the harvester's moving parts, getting mixed in with straw or grain where it could cause damage to animals who ate it or to milling equipment processing it.
Therefore, work continued on developing twine binders. A number of inventors worked on the project unsuccessfully.
One who was eventually successful was John Appleby, who from his youth had been interested in machines and whittling models of them. In the mid-1850s, when he was a teenager following a reaper and hand binding grain as a hired hand, John decided that he would invent a mechanism to tie the sheaves. It took some twenty-five years of trying various ideas, with time out to serve in the Civil War, before he patented a twine knotting device in 1875 that was adopted by a number of leading builders, including Deering, McCormick, and Buckeye.
William Deering was especially enthusiastic about the future of the twine binder and staked the future of his farm machinery company on its success. At first he found it wasn't so easy to develop a reliable, affordable machine that had the right combination of strength and delicacy to perform its job while being bounced and jerked across rough fields. But after a number of experiments and refinements Deering and others built and sold a large number of binders through the 1880s and 90s. During these decades the price of binders fell and more farmers could afford them. About 1880 the typical twine binder sold for $175 to $325 while in 1900 the range was $120 to $140.
Strangely, the biggest problem in winning farmer acceptance for the new twine binders was the cost of twine. If the wire binder seemed dangerous, the twine binder seemed too expensive. To some farmers, a season's worth of twine seemed to cost as much as a horse.
It was William Deering who persuaded a twine manufacturer to create new machinery for his factory that would make a single strand twine for binders that would be more affordable. The manufacturer never regretted his decision and made a fortune selling binder twine. With the tying device, cheap twine, and the invention of a sheave catcher that could be tripped to dump bundles of sheaves in one place for shocking, the binder reached its peak form. The Howell Farm binder represents this fully developed harvesting machine that was in wide use by 1900. It was only superseded when machines that combined harvesting with threshing were developed as "combines" between 1915 and the 1930s.
In 1894 Robert Ardrey published a book detailing the many inventions and agricultural machines developed in the 19th century. He describes the century as an era in which, "man has been shaking off the shackles of manual toil, and has secured advantages of education and intercourse with his fellowmen that lay a firm foundation for the future and insure against a relapse, in America, at least, into another slough of ignorance and helplessness."
He saw the automatic binder as symbolic of this movement both in its objective to reduce toil and also in the process by which it was developed. Long before there was a practical solution, he says, men dreamed of ways to alleviate the toil of each separate harvesting step - cutting, raking, gathering, tying, stacking - before there was any practical way to do any of it. Literally hundreds of people came up with ideas for one part of the process or another but the ideas all failed until a group of inventions came together in the McCormick/Appleby/Deering type of binder.
Ardrey divides the invention of the binder into three eras.
In the first era there were the numerous and varied attempts to develop an attachment to a reaper or create a separate machine to bind the grain. He says, "Every kind possible of material was used and every conceivable form of binder was tried, but all failed to the extent that none established itself in the market."
The second era was the time of experimentation with the Marsh harvester (where two men rode the machine and hand tied the sheaves) and various types of automatic wire and twine binders.
Finally, the last era was the present (1894) when, "all useless and impracticable devices have been eliminated, all material for bands has given place to twine, and all machines upon the market, with one or two exceptions, are substantially alike in form and general principles."
|Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4|
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2001 and Winter 2002 editions of The Furrow, the quarterly newsletter published by the Friends of Howell Living History Farm. The contents are © 2001, 2002 The Friends of Howell Living History Farm.