Machinery Milestones: History of the combine harvester


Threshing machines have been a world success story for British producers, and the corporations concerned turned international leaders, however the combine harvester market proved a far tougher nut to crack.

Britain’s threshing machine success lasted for a lot of the 100-year interval from the 1840s, and at the peak of demand there was a protracted checklist of international locations the place British-built threshing machines have been the well-liked selection.

In the 1820s, whereas crops have been nonetheless being lower with scythes, the seek for new harvesting strategies had already began.

This was notably the case in the US and Australia, the place giant farms usually confronted manpower shortages whereas utilizing conventional harvesting strategies, and it was an issue in a lot of California the place the earliest ancestors of at present’s combines have been constructed throughout the Eighties.   

Best combine

Best combine © Idaho Historical Society

Credit for producing the first Californian combines often goes to Daniel Best’s firm, which began manufacturing in about 1885 – narrowly forward of the Holt brothers, who’re stated to have constructed their first harvesters in 1886.

Manufacturing was small scale initially, with most of the combines bought in California at first, and so they remained vital merchandise for each corporations till the early 1900s once they began tracklaying tractor growth initiatives.

In 1926 Best and Holt merged to kind the Caterpillar tractor firm.

The first harvesters from each corporations shared some design options, together with horses or mules to supply pulling energy, with as much as 40 animals on some of the largest machines.

The combines have been developed principally as a threshing machine on wheels, with a bagging-off platform for the grain plus a header that was side-mounted, and the draft animals additionally powered the threshing system by means of a floor wheel drive mechanism.

Providing the giant workforce of animals wanted to function the largest combines most likely triggered issues for some grain growers, however, fortuitously, steam traction engines have been launched in about 1890 as a substitute by each Holt and Best, and by different corporations that have been beginning combine manufacturing.     

Best or Holt combine

© Mike Williams

Using steam energy in a really dry harvest area carries apparent hearth dangers however, in spite of this, steam turned more and more well-liked till about 1910 when petrol fuelled tractors arrived to supply extra pulling energy.

Tractors with petrol engines had been obtainable in America since 1889, however low energy output and a status for poor reliability throughout the pre-1910 interval could have delayed their arrival in combine harvesters.

Petrol engine

Petrol engine © Mike Williams

Wartime growth

Tractor reliability had improved when the 1914-18 struggle introduced a significant enhance for energy farming.

Tractors and different gear have been wanted to extend farm productiveness throughout the US, Canada and the UK, and this was primarily to make up for the loss of manpower as farm employees have been conscripted for the battlefields of Europe.

Britain, specifically, wanted to extend home-grown meals output to compensate for decreased imports as German U-boats destroyed ships bringing provides from overseas.

Combine harvesters helped inprove meals manufacturing effectivity in a number of international locations however this didn’t occur in the UK, the place tractor imports have been the precedence.

While tractor energy was turning into well-liked on UK farms by the early Nineteen Twenties, combine harvesters failed to draw farmers or contractors throughout the struggle, and the lack of curiosity continued into the Nineteen Twenties.

Farm equipment census figures paint a bleak image for combine possession, with simply 4 machines engaged on UK farms in 1930, rising to 10 in 1931 and reaching about 50 by 1937.

It was a time when revenue margins have been usually low in UK farming, which clearly discouraged funding in high-cost equipment.

The lack of combines additionally meant elevated labour prices at harvest time, although combine possession might additionally generate earnings extra rapidly by having crops to promote a number of days after harvest – an alternative choice to ready months for the threshing contractor to reach.

UK pioneers

Clayton combine

Clayton combine © Mike Williams

In spite of virtually non-existent UK demand, Lincoln-based Clayton and Shuttleworth determined to change into a combine producer after a protracted historical past as a number one British threshing machine firm, and its combine undertaking began in 1928.

The first of its new tractor-pulled harvesters was in-built 1930, however the firm was going through critical monetary issues and it referred to as in the receiver in the similar yr.

Its belongings have been purchased by the Marshall firm – additionally a number one threshing machine maker – however the new homeowners determined combine manufacturing had no future and the undertaking resulted in 1932 when solely 5 had been constructed.

The sole survivor is in the wonderful harvest equipment assortment at the National Museum of Scotland.

While Britain’s solely Nineteen Twenties/Thirties combine manufacturing enterprise failed, the Claas household in Germany confirmed that European harvester manufacturing could possibly be a hit.

Its first combine was a wrap-around design obtainable from 1930 to work with a Lanz Bulldog tractor.

First Claas combine

First Claas combine © Mike Williams

Claas was at the forefront of introducing wrap-around combines constructed to connect on and round a particular tractor mannequin.

Small numbers of these harvesters featured in the surge in equipment growth following the Second World War, however demand was modest.

Smaller acreage farms which may have been attracted by a wrap-around combine usually favoured a trailed machine as an alternative, and plenty of Fifties farmers nonetheless selected to make use of a binder or name in a harvesting contractor.

Claas progressed to trailed combines in 1936 when it started making the first mannequin in its trailed harvester collection that turned the foundation for the firm’s post-war restoration.

The trailed combines have been joined in 1953 by the first Claas self-propelled harvesters, which led to the Dominator collection that achieved long run success following its launch in 1971.

Massey-Harris harvesters

MH21 Massey Harris

MH21 Massey Harris © Mike Williams

One of the largest developments in combine historical past was the introduction of the first self-propelled harvesters from Massey-Harris, which later turned Massey Ferguson.

Production of its MH-21 combine started in 1939 and the firm held bold plans for the future, however the Second World War additionally began in 1939, bringing with it the emergency rationing for metal and different uncooked supplies wanted for making navy gear, thus forcing Massey-Harris to cut back its combine harvester manufacturing.

This was a time of rising demand for combines as a result of of the US wartime meals manufacturing programme.

To enhance manufacturing, Massey-Harris assured that if supplies have been launched to construct a further 500 of the new combines, it might be certain that they harvested 2,000 acres every in 1944, offering an effectivity injection at a crucial time in the meals programme.

The deal was accepted and US farmers and contractors agreed to play their half in the programme, which was often called the Harvest Brigade, with some combines slicing their means northwards from the southern states and ending in the late crops in Canada.

The one million-acre goal was achieved and Massey-Harris, the MH-21 and self-propelled combines on the whole earned a giant, patriotic publicity enhance.

British growth and US enlargement

Britain’s temporary surge in combine recognition got here after the Second World War ended, and for a number of years the outcomes have been spectacular.

Combines from Ransomes, one other former threshing machine maker, achieved success primarily in the trailed sector, the Bamfords model identify appeared on combines imported from Italy and Sweden.

High-output Lely Victory combines have been assembled in Britain throughout the Nineteen Sixties with a folding header that attracted curiosity however modest gross sales.

There was a short-lived trailed combine enterprise from David Brown, and likewise from a number of well-established North American makers together with Allis-Chalmers and Minneapolis Moline, which transferred some of their manufacturing to the UK.

International Harvester and Massey-Harris produced each trailed and self-propelled combines in UK factories too. Britain was all of a sudden a favorite location to construct combine harvesters, however the enthusiasm quickly disappeared, other than Massey-Harris, which maintained large-scale manufacturing in Scotland.

Combine producers in the US loved a giant post-war enlargement in each gross sales and know-how, and John Deere’s self-propelled No 55 mannequin was half of the success story.

It was designed throughout the struggle, prepared for manufacturing to begin in 1946, and had a specification geared toward what was then the medium- to high-capacity sector.

As such, it got here with a 12ft slicing width, a 60hp engine powering a four-speed gearbox, was obtainable in each tanker and bagging codecs, and had Hillside and Rice variants for particular makes use of.

An indication of the No 55’s recognition, which helped to ascertain John Deere as the largest combine producer, is that the customary mannequin remained in manufacturing for 13 years.

Some variations have been nonetheless obtainable in 1969 – a rare 23-year manufacturing run.

Performance enhancements

Significant technical developments since the struggle embody a speedy change from spark ignition to diesel engines.

Tracks turned obtainable to switch the driving wheels on combines purchased by prospects, offering decreased floor stress and a narrower width for street journey, in addition to a smoother trip, whereas rotary separation was an International Harvester growth arriving in the late Nineteen Seventies.

Axial Flow

Axial Flow © Mike Williams

Rotary separation replaces the typical threshing cylinder with one or two rotors situated longitudinally as an alternative of transversely to attain elevated separation capability.

Axial Flow turned a significant success for International and was adopted by different producers introducing their very own variations.  

An early ancestor of the stripper header harvester arrived in Australia in the 1840s, when the concept of simplified harvesting by eradicating solely grains or grain heads made its first look.

The concept is now utterly up to date to work as a header on a contemporary combine, with the first manufacturing model launched in the early Nineties by UK-based Shelbourne Reynolds.

Stripper header attachment

Stripper header attachment © Mike Williams

Its stripper header makes use of fingers mounted on a powered rotor to take away the grains or seeds, leaving the relaxation of the plant rooted in the floor to be lower and baled or integrated.

The advantages embody a considerably decreased quantity of crop materials passing by means of the combine, and elevated work charges, with solely chaff and occasional straw to be separated.

Improved output

An indication of the sooner work price is the enlargement in working width, beginning with a 20ft most in 1990 and rising to 42ft now.

Much of the UK stripper header manufacturing is exported to reap crops akin to wheat, barley, rice, linseed and grass seed.

Another more and more well-liked header growth obtainable from some main producers is a draper model with belts to maneuver lower materials to the centre.

This is beneficial for a variety of crops, sending them by means of the combine head first to supply optimum efficiency with a relentless feed.

Cab consolation

For combine homeowners and drivers, some of the most vital developments are the elements affecting efficiency and operator consolation, and far of the progress has been linked to the arrival of cabs in the Nineteen Seventies and Eighties.

Enclosing the operator in a sealed workspace allowed gear producers to supply vital developments to handle the cab inside setting with decreased noise ranges, mud suppression and air-conditioning.

With the main controls accessible in the cab, the driver can full the beginning process and perform nearly all the working adjustment with out leaving the seat.

A latest growth is to permit the combine’s administration system to watch the efficiency and routinely modify the settings.

There is commonly a selection of choices to go well with area circumstances and driver preferences, and for steering the combine the checklist can embody a standard steering wheel, auto-steer utilizing GPS or a sensor to comply with the edge of the uncut crop.

An extra chance that’s presently attracting curiosity is utilizing a kind of joystick steering that may scale back the bodily effort required from the operator to finish a headland flip, whereas the absence of a steering wheel permits a greater forwards view.

Another vital progress space throughout the previous 20 years or so has been info know-how, gathering, storing and utilizing information, and on some of the newest combines this may embody yield monitoring linked by GPS to supply info that may assist determine downside areas in the area to help future administration.

This automation has taken some of the workload away from the driver throughout lengthy hours in the area.

Harvesting may be lengthy, tiresome work for operators, however the achievements throughout greater than 130 years of combine growth have made the job extra nice and have vastly improved harvesting output and effectivity. 


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