Mike’s Tidbit

Mike’s Corner: (submitted by Mike O’Brien):  

I hear people in the club talking about plowing.  So I thought I knew a little – a very little about plows, even though I own several.  Horse, pulled and 3 point versions.  I thought the original plow was invented by Cockshutt but I was wrong.  Here is what I learned.

The plow was invented more than 5 thousand years ago and it completely revolutionized the way that furrows were made to sow the seeds. The idea of the plow was based on the hoe or shovel used together with animal traction, and it was one of the major advances of prehistoric times. The use of the moldboard plow spread from the cradle of civilization, along the shores of the Mediterranean, and in Rome it marked a whole era; the plow is used in the same way today and improvements are continually being made to it.

The Roman plow evolved in areas of central Europe where it rains a lot, plow bits were developed, moldboard plows started to be used in this era too, and the double plow handles and plow carriages were incorporated. However with the fall of the Roman Empire it took a thousand years for the plow to reappear. Until the end of the 19th cenutry the barbarian tribes continued to make improvements to the production of metals, although they stuck to the traditional design of the moldboard plow.

Some of the first plows used in the United States were little more than a crooked stick with an iron point attached which simply scratched the ground. Plows of this sort were used in Illinois as late as 1812. Evidently, improvements were desperately needed, particularly a design to turn a deep furrow for planting seeds.

Early attempts at improvement were often just heavy chunks of tough wood crudely cut into shape with a wrought-iron point and attached clumsily. The moldboards were rough, and no two curves were alike—at that time, country blacksmiths made plows only on order and few even had patterns for them. Additionally, plows could turn a furrow in soft ground only if the oxen or horses were strong enough, and friction was such a big problem that three men and several animals were often required to turn a furrow when the ground was hard.

The first real inventor of the practical plow was Charles Newbold of Burlington County, New Jersey; he received a patent for a cast-iron plow in June of 1797. However, American farmers mistrusted the plow. They believed it “poisoned the soil” and fostered the growth of weeds.

Another plow inventor was Jethro Wood, a blacksmith from Scipio, New York. He received two patents, one in 1814 and the other in 1819. His plow was cast iron and made in three parts so that a broken part could be replaced without purchasing a whole new plow.

This principle of standardization marked a great advance. By this time, farmers were forgetting their former prejudices and were enticed to buy plows. Though Wood’s original patent was extended, patent infringements were frequent and he is said to have spent his entire fortune in prosecuting them.

In 1837, John Deere developed and marketed the world’s first self-polishing cast-steel plow. These large plows made for cutting the tough American prairie ground were called “grasshopper plows.”

In 1868, John Lane patented a “soft-center” steel plow. The hard-but-brittle surface of the tool was backed by softer, more tenacious metal to reduce the breakage.

The same year, James Oliver—a Scottish immigrant who had settled in Indiana—received a patent for the “chilled plow.” Using an ingenious method, the wearing surfaces of the casting were cooled more quickly than those of the back. The pieces which came in contact with the soil had a hard, glassy surface while the body of the plow was made of tough iron. Oliver later founded Oliver Chilled Plow Works.  This is the same company that became Oliver tractors, our featured tractor for this years show.

From the single plow, advances were made to two or more plows fastened together, allowing for more work to be done with approximately the same amount of manpower (or animal-power). Another advance was the sulky plow, which allowed the plowman to ride, rather than walk. Such plows were in use as early as 1844.

And here is what I learned about the Cockshutt plows that I thought were the first, but really were an improvement of the plow that held up for a long time. James Cockshutt opened up his little shop, called The Brantford Plow Works, in 1877, producing stoves, scufflers, and walking plows. He said he would make every item so well that its reputation alone would make the company grow. The next year he purchased a license to make the Wizard Junior Malleable Beam plow which the company sold, unchanged, for 53 years. James began to invent new models with more efficient chilled iron mould boards and shares. Five years later a sales brochure stated that The Brantford Plow Works was the only plow maker in the Dominion who have yet sold or exhibited Sulky Plows of their own manufacture. One model, the J.G.C. Riding Plow, was so popular that it became known as the plow that opened the west.  Well it opened up the west, but as they say all good things come to an end, and now we do No-Till farming as a method of conservation and the plow is not a very important farm implement.