Marginal Column

History: The mechanization of agriculture

July 2012


In just a few decades world agriculture will have to feed more than nine billion people. Modern technology is one key to mastering this enormous challenge.


What started with a pick and hoe about 10,000 years ago has by no means reached its zenith, even with today’s fully networked, high-tech machinery. The initial objective in mechanizing farming was to replace human labor with mechanical means and to relieve the farmer of strenuous physical exertion. Today it is a question of working as efficiently as possible and boosting productivity. This development is made quite clear by considering the following figures. A farmer in the German imperial era, about 1900, produced food for four other persons; in 1950 the number had grown to ten, in 1980 to 47. Now, at the start of the 21st century, a German farmer feeds 143 people.

The spectrum of mechanization continues to be broad. Fully automated, GPS-steered, high-tech machinery rolls across the wheat fields in the USA and Western Europe, while in less developed regions techniques dating back to the dawn of agriculture are still being used. The first wave of mechanization began in the early 19th century, with horse-drawn threshing and harvesting machines on the vast farms in the USA. In 1841 Alexander Dean, in England, built the first steam-powered thresher.

Early tractors were also driven by steam engines and, because of their weight, were not suitable for use in all kinds of soils. To accommodate European soils with less load-bearing capacity, the so-called “plow locomotive” was invented. Its action is indirect since, standing at the edge of the field, the machine uses ropes or cables to pull a plow across the field. The internal combustion engine was soon invented and it was adopted for use in tractors by the end of the 19th century. In 1935 the Canadian Massey-Harris company built the first self-propelled harvester-thresher – or combine – with an internal combustion engine. A year later the Claas company in Germany engineered a reaper-binder pulled by a tractor. By the start of the 20th century, the tractor was virtually ubiquitous on the huge farms in the U.S.. At the same time, because of the smaller farm plots, this development took several decades in Europe.