5 Inventions That Revolutionized Agriculture

From the plow to the cotton gin, agricultural inventions have not only revolutionized the industry but have created ripples that altered the social and economic fabric of the world itself.

Jan 9, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History
invention revolutionized agriculture
Source: Unsplash


Agriculture and its acceleration is the measure by which human existence has been able to grow (literally and figuratively) and succeed. Without the ability to feed, clothe, and economically support emerging societies with agriculture, the human race would have long ago run itself into extinction. Technological growth and invention in agriculture have long been an arbiter of human progress. While these changes can sometimes have negative fallout, without these morphologies, the world would certainly be a very different place. While it is easy to dismiss agriculture as simple farming, to do so would be a disservice to the nature of the human spirit of innovation.


1. The McCormick Reaper: Cyrus McCormick, 1831

agriculture invention mccormick reaper
A lithograph of the McCormick Reaper. Source: ThoughtCo


Cyrus McCormick was just a 22-year-old blacksmith in Virginia when he made one of the biggest contributions ever recorded to agriculture. His goal was to create a mechanical method to harvest or reap grain. He had watched his father attempt and fail to create and give up on such a machine. Cyrus decided to give it a try, and in about six weeks, his first prototype was ready for exhibition.


Looking like a large metal sled with a bunch of random machinery on top, local farmers and onlookers were unsure what to think of Cyrus’ contraption. It was pulled by a horse, and spinning parts would hold the stalks of grain in place while a cutting blade mowed them down. The farmer would simply have to walk behind the machine and bundle the wheat. Before this, farmers were forced to cut their wheat by hand with a scythe. Even someone skilled with a scythe would be limited in the amount of land they could cover in a day; for example, even an exceptionally skilled farmer could only successfully harvest two acres in a day by hand.


The McCormick Reaper drastically increased efficiency. McCormick successfully used his machine for his own harvest that fall. He found that many locals wanted to purchase his machine, and soon, he purchased a factory to keep up with demand.


agriculture invention reaper binder
A later-model reaper that also bound the sheaves of grain. Source: The Caucus Blog

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With this increased efficiency, farmers found that they could plant more acreage each year, with farms growing to hundreds or even thousands of acres. As time went on, Cyrus McCormick kept adding new, innovative features to his reaping machines. For example, later model reapers not only cut the grain but threshed and bagged it as well. This reduced the need for labor and made workers more effective with the use of their time.


agriculture invention civil war
A scene from the American Civil War. Source: American Battlefield Trust


Some historians note that the McCormick Reaper may have had an impact on the American Civil War. McCormick Reapers were much more common in the north, with their factory headquarters located in Chicago. As a result, when farmers and laborers went off to fight in the war, their absence may have been less glaring as those who remained home could still employ their machinery to keep the farms running—pure muscle and more bodies weren’t necessarily required.


agriculture invention haymarket
Wood engraving of the Haymarket Affair by Thure de Thulstrup, 1886. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica


McCormick’s company would play a role in another major historical event: the Haymarket Affair. In 1886, a struggle for workers’ rights was ongoing in America, and factory workers at the Chicago McCormick plant would play a heavy role.


Strikers, made up largely of McCormick workers, were protesting in favor of the creation of an eight-hour workday when they were confronted by police. Violence ensued, and the day ended with seven dead and 60 wounded police officers. Somewhere between 4-8 civilians were killed and 30-40 injured. Widespread hysteria followed the riot, including some suspicious trials and executions for those involved. The event would have a lasting impression on the labor movement in America.


2. The Self-Polishing Steel Plow: John Deere, 1837

agriculture invention plow
One of John Deere’s early plows featured in the Smithsonian. Source: the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC


A blacksmith like Cyrus McCormick, John Deere was born in Vermont but set up shop in Illinois in 1836. Upon moving to the Midwest, he heard many complaints from farmers about their plows. The cast-iron plow was commonly used at the time, and it caused complications. The prairie soil seemed to stick to it, and farmers were forced to stop their work and clean their plows every few feet, greatly decreasing their efficiency.


Known for his ingenuity, Deere decided that he would find a solution to this problem. He had the idea that using a highly polished surface for the plow blade would prevent the soil from adhering and eliminate the need to stop and clean the plow. Deere decided his first step would be to take an old steel saw blade and remanufacture it into a plow. He was successful, and demand for his steel “self scouring” plows skyrocketed.


In 1848, Deere moved his operation to Moline, Illinois, where it is still headquartered today. Deere & Company was incorporated in 1868 and later grew to produce a variety of farm equipment, including tractors.


agriculture invention john deere
The John Deere company would expand to create many other modern farming products, including tractors and expanded plows. Source: John Deere


Another innovation that Deere made in the agricultural world was on the business side. He was one of the first in the farming business to offer financing to his customers. As collections plagued his business, he decided to tackle the problem by offering financing directly to his customers. This was enormously successful, allowing him to reach his first million-dollar sales year in 1878-79 while at the same time strengthening relationships with his customers. Other large companies would follow suit, and the practice is commonplace among agricultural equipment retailers today.


3. The Cotton Gin: Eli Whitney, 1793

agriculture invention cotton gin
A cotton gin. Source: Have Fun With History


Without the cotton gin, the world of textiles may very well have been a different place than what we know today. In the late 1700s, demand for cotton was rapidly rising as new inventions increased the efficiency of textile production, particularly in England. While the newly formed United States was in a perfect position to grow a great deal of this cotton, the production process was greatly slowed by the requirement to remove the seeds from the finished bolls of cotton. This had to be done before the cotton could be spun, and it had to be done manually.


Eli Whitney of Massachusetts was conversing with a friend in the Southern United States, where a majority of cotton was grown, and learned of this problem. Currently unemployed, he decided to tackle the issue head-on. He designed a four-part machine that successfully separated the seeds from the cotton and obtained a patent in 1794.


Whitney and friend Phineas Miller went into business producing the gins, but their success was short-lived. Powerful southern planters often refused to pay for their services, and the machine was easy to pirate. Congress refused to renew Whitney’s patent in 1802, and he concluded that an “invention can be made so valuable as to be worthless to the inventor.” He would go on to create more technological innovations, such as milling machines, but would not patent any of them.


agriculture invention cotton slavery
Cotton production heavily impacted slavery. Source: PBS


An unintended consequence of Whitney’s original invention was its impact on the spread of slavery within the United States. The cotton gin turned cotton into a high-efficiency cash crop, and its production spread throughout the South. With it spread the need for a labor force to cultivate the cotton, and plantation owners turned to the cheapest source: enslaved Africans. It can be said with certainty that the cotton gin was a leading cause for the spread of slavery in several states, particularly Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.


4. Haber-Bosch Process: Fritz Haber & Carl Bosch, Early 20th Century

agriculture invention fritz haber
Photograph of Fritz Haber. Source: Medium


In the nineteenth century, there was a great deal of debate over which types of nutrients were most important in the growth of crops. Farming wasn’t new, but the science behind agricultural production was a developing area that farmers hoped to harness in order to increase yields and efficiency. Studies eventually determined that nitrogen was a key component in plant health, and today, farmers recognize it as the most important single nutrient in commercial fertilizers.


However, little was known about how to harness nitrogen from the environment or where to get it to improve crop yields. Though they didn’t work directly together, two German scientists would soon revolutionize farmers’ abilities to improve their crops.


haber world war i
Fritz Haber would go on to create poisonous gasses for use in World War I. Source: Medium


In 1909, Fritz Haber discovered that the chemical reaction between nitrogen and hydrogen produced ammonia, a compound that was applicable for nitrogen application to the soil. He continued his work to create feasible materials for large-scale fertilizer production. He received the Nobel Prize for his efforts in 1918.


One drawback that Haber discovered was that high temperatures and pressures were required to produce these compounds. Carl Bosch, another German chemist, created a machine that debuted in 1914 and could easily make these conditions and emit almost 200 pounds of ammonia in an hour. Their efforts, together dubbed the Haber-Bosch process, forever changed the face of agriculture by enabling large-scale, effective fertilization of crops.


In the modern world, food production to the scale it is currently running would be impossible without nitrogen fertilizer and the Haber-Bosch process. For most people on Earth, half of the nitrogen in their body originated with the Haber-Bosch method.


5. Track & Gasoline Tractors: Benjamin Holt, 1904 & 1908

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Photograph of Benjamin Holt. Source: National Inventors Hall of Fame


In the early twentieth century, American agriculture saw mountains of innovation, with steam engines ushering in a new wave of mechanization, making life easier for farmers. However, this new equipment was quite heavy, and in many cases, it would sink into loose, tilled soil and get stuck. Benjamin Holt, who owned Holt Manufacturing with his brothers, which produced combined harvesters and steam tractors, set out to solve this problem. In 1904, he introduced his first “Caterpillar” tractor, which used a system of interlocking metal tracks to travel over the soil, distributing weight more evenly.


agriculture invention farmscape
A New York Farmscape. Source: New York Department of Agriculture


Caterpillar was a success and would go on to become a popular agriculture and construction brand worldwide, still persisting today. His track system technology would be used extensively in World War I and the development of tanks. Holt kept innovating and, four years later, introduced a gasoline-powered tractor to replace the steam engine. These engines were more efficient and enabled farmers to do more with less fuel. Over one hundred years later, tractors still operate on gasoline and diesel fuel.

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By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”