When was steam threshing invented?
August 25, 2009 5:51 PM   Subscribe

When did grain threshing become steam-powered?

I see that animal-powered threshing machines were first invented in 1784 by Andrew Meikle, but when did they become steam powered, and who was responsible for that shift? The images I see from the turn of the 20th century all show steam engines running the thresher, but I am wanting to pinpoint the shift. Thanks in advance for any insight!
posted by tnygard to Society & Culture (10 answers total)
If this is to be believed, steam-powered combine harvesters were never very widespread. It seems that most farmers stayed with horse-drawn harvesters right up until gasoline-powered ones became common in the 1930's.

Steam engines don't work very well for small mobile applications. I have no doubt you've seen pictures of them, but I wonder if those were advertising pictures from the manufacturers?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:15 PM on August 25, 2009

That is probably true of combines, but steam threshers were a different technology. Combines were pulled across the fields by horses, reaping and threshing all at once. Other farmers reaped the grain, then shocked it, and then brought it to a steam-driven threshing machine that stood in one place. Anyone have thoughts?
posted by tnygard at 6:28 PM on August 25, 2009

Note Chocolate Pickle that a combine is not the same as a threshing machine. Steam powered threshing was very common in the 1920-30s. Work groups would travel from farm to farm with their threshing machine which they would set up near either water or the silos. Grain crops would be transported to the threshing machine by farm workers and the traveling work gang would feed the machine with fuel and water and otherwise operate it. My grandfather spent several teen age years on the water gang of a mobile threshing crew.
posted by Mitheral at 6:29 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was just looking at this: the Western Minnesota Steam Thresher's Reunion is the weekend after next. According to these pages on Case, steam threshing went as far back as the 1870s, but in looking around elsewhere ("Steam traction engine", "traction engine" are probably the search terms you're looking for), steam threshers really were in their prime in the 1910s to 1920s - the 1930s saw the growth in efficient, powerful gasoline engines, which were safer (didn't require a licensed and trained boiler operator) and could run on pretty much any liquid that could burn, especially the kerosene that farmers used in lamps and heaters, so it was easily accessible.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:35 PM on August 25, 2009

Just because I like to share: this is a threshing machine, but powered by a gasoline powered tractor - better view of the thresher here. Threshers were around at least until the 1940s, despite more efficient combine harversters on the market.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:44 PM on August 25, 2009

The original horse powered threshing machine appears to have been invented in 1796, by Andrew Meikle. In the UK, experiments with powering such machine by steam engine power were underway by 1830, but the availability of coal fuel to power such machines limited their utility. In the U.S., a patent for a stationary threshing machine was issued to Samuel Mulliken of Philadelphia. By 1830,
"The portable horse-powered treadmill invented in 1830 by Hiram and John Pitts of Winthrop, Maine, was coupled with a thresher, or "separator."

The horse-powered treadmill was later replaced by the traction engine tractor, which both transported the threshing machine from farm to farm, and when a destination was reached powered the thresher."
A list of incorporation dates for U.S. firms producing steam traction engines is here. But in the U.S. grain belt, due to the roughness of rural roads, the scarcity and expense of delivering coal to power steam engines beyond the railroad lines, and the availability of inexpensive horses, the predominant form of the threshing machine through the 19th century remained the stationary, horse powered version. Only with the invention of liquid petroleum fuels in the early 20th century, and subsequently the internal combustion engines that ran on petroleum fuels, did the horse powered equipment fade away. It was certainly well after WWI that horse powered threshing crews ceased to roam the American Midwest, replaced by mechanical crews. The reason the stationary thresher crews needed so many hands, was that they were cutting wheat in the field, tying sheaves, and bringing the sheaves to the threshing machine. Once the internal combustion engine was available, it made sense to mechanize the whole process, and add cutters and conveyors, along the lines originally laid out by the earliest steam powered "combine harvesters" of the mid-19th century..
posted by paulsc at 6:46 PM on August 25, 2009

Around here we have the Rock River Thresheree, sort of an annual fair that grew out of reunions of threshers and has become an open-air museum and farm machine enthusiasts' and restorers' mecca. Here's what I believe is a steam-powered thresher at the first reunion in 1955. That whole site is a wealth of period photography. Last year there was an array of 29 steam threshers all operating simultaneously, apparently a world record.

I did find this which you may be interested in: a history of the "portable engine" up to 1896. In the UK an early model (this one is later) was exhibited by Ransomes as early as 1841; by the 1850s rich farmers in Britain and the US had them here and there, but widespread acceptance was slow because they were fire hazards, prone to boiler explosions, and labor was often plentiful. (As to the fuel objection raised by paulsc, it would seem that various appropriate biofuels such as straw were experimented with.) There was a key demonstration at the California State Fair in 1859. In England, a series of competitions with strict rules of entry seems to have served to make the design -- the "compound portable engine" -- a commodity around 1872. In America, thesher competitions resulted in more than one model being termed a "Sweepstakes" thresher, and by the 1880s they were relatively common, with some farmers owning them outright and others dependent on neighbors or traveling crews. I found a discussion of the economics here illuminating. The author concludes, "Actually, the horse-powered machinery [compared to steam, manual machinery, and hand flailing] might have been the cheapest system at least until the 1870s."

By the way, I found this a great use for the Google Timeline feature. Have fun!
posted by dhartung at 9:28 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

"... (As to the fuel objection raised by paulsc, it would seem that various appropriate biofuels such as straw were experimented with.) ..."
posted by dhartung at 12:28 AM on August 26

On the American Great Plains, with their fierce winters and limited stands of trees (mostly just along rivers and streams), the scarcity of wood and other dense biofuels made anything burnable valuable winter heating fuel. On the few rail lines that crossed the Great Plains, railroads brought coal from back East for their own engine fuel, and began selling it to developing markets in cities they passed through, as home heating fuel. But hauling coal out into the countryside, before the advent of the internal combustion engine, by horse drawn wagon, was hardly worth the effort, if you had to haul it far.

Farmers on the Great Plains plowed and reaped with draught horses and oxen through the Great War, and past 1920, because they could get their horses, and themselves, through the winter on less biomass than if they burned it inefficiently making steam for machinery boilers. So straw had other, higher uses, like bedding, animal fodder, and even stove fuel, for it to much to be used as steam engine fuel.

My grandfather was still playing fiddle at barn dances attended by big horse drawn thresher crews, as late as 1915, in Nebraska. But back in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee and even Arkansas, where river transportation, and the closer proximity of coal mines in Kentucky made the whole coal cycle more economic, coal fired steam traction engines had a better economic case.

The problem for the OP is that much of the arable land in these states, and in the deep South (Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina) were given over to cash crops like cotton and tobacco, which didn't need threshing equipment. Had the economics of Southern agriculture been markedly different, the development of steam powered threshing equipment in the U.S. may have more closely paralleled its earlier invention and development in Europe.
posted by paulsc at 11:07 PM on August 25, 2009

A recent BBC programme Victorian Farm went through a year in the life of an 1885 period farm. They brought in a steam thresher in one episode, and I think the discussion said that the travelling threshers were at that time gradually replacing traditional methods as they could do the work more quickly and cheaply by that point.
posted by crocomancer at 1:57 AM on August 26, 2009

A steam-thresher makes an appearance in Hardy's Tess, and in an 1883 essay The Dorsetshire Labourer Hardy was already lamenting that steam machinery was driving people off the land to the towns ("A depopulation is going on which in some quarters is truly alarming"), and had been known for some years:
Not a woman in the county but hates the threshing machine. The dust, the din, the sustained exertion demanded to keep up with the steam tyrant, are distasteful to all women but the coarsest. I am not sure whether, at the present time, women are employed to feed the machine, but some years ago a woman had frequently to stand just above the whizzing wire drum, and feed from morning to night...
posted by Abiezer at 4:09 AM on August 26, 2009

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