The Revival of the Gallic Harvester

By Peter Chuksin

In most solemn truth I tell you that unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains what it was – a single grain; but that if it dies, it yields a rich harvest. John 12:24

The history of the Gallic harvester has intrigued many historians and inventors. The Gallic harvester left the fields in the third century as the Roman Empire disintegrated and the quality of farming declined.

But the know-how of the ancient Romans continues to amaze modern society, stirs the minds and pushes others toward new inventions. Like that fertile grain in the Gospel parable, the Gallic harvester created a distinctive trend in harvester manufacturing. The harvester was progressive and effective. It efficiently stripped ears by combing plant stems with iron hackles. Using minimal resources the grain was transferred from the field to storage facilities. While ears were collected and transported, stems and straw remained on the ground. All harvest technologies that followed those of the Gallic used three to five times more energy to reap and transport the harvest, separate and recover straw and complete the threshing.

The Gallic harvester was revised and reintroduced later as a stripping harvester with technical properties unsurpassed.

English Colony Faced with Grain Shortage

The Gallic harvester was reborn in the middle of the 19th century when Great Britain colonized the re-discovered Australian continent. In 1836, the British declared the establishment of the State of South Australia.

The Colonial Lands Committee was established to promote immigration, and money raised from land sales in the newly founded state was used to provide free travel for settlers to Australia. At the same time Great Britain was suffering through an economic crisis and growing unemployment making it easy for the recruiters to persuade many to settle in the new land.

In Australia the colonists faced unforeseen difficulties. While bread had become a mainstay in their daily diet, there were not enough flour mills; severe bread shortages resulted in high prices. Exacerbating the problem was an unexpected loss of grain during harvesting because of dry climatic conditions. Ears and stems dried out, became brittle and broke off when cut.

The state had to rely on its own resources to solve the food shortage. Importing flour from overseas was a waste of resources when the local harvests were rich. Initially the government tried to tackle the problem by forming several associations to address the needs of the communities.

None of these organizations solved the problems and, therefore, were short-lived. Without financial, engineering and scientific resources the colony quickly had to solve the problem of food production and grain harvesting under the new growing conditions in Australia. The state government appealed to entrepreneurs and inventors for help.

Innovative Solutions

The colony resorted to a number of simple and innovative measures that resolved the problem of food shortage in a short time-period.

  1. Windmills were built to replace the water mills, due to limited water resources during the summer months.
  2. Two steam engines that arrived with the first colonists were used to grind grain into flour.
  3. To resolve the specific problem of grain loss during harvesting, they announced a prize-winning competition to design a harvester suitable for South Australia conditions. Annual harvester competition events were organized for the public and newspapers publicized the results. This stimulated the competitive spirit as many inventors and entrepreneurs wanted recognition.

A new and unprecedented piece of machinery was developed in South Australia – a stripper harvester. It was the first machine developed in South Australia, and allowed the sowing area to be expanded from 1,000 acres in 1840 to 168,000 acres in 1856 – nearly a 170 percent increase. Now Australia had enough grain for its own use, and also it was beginning to export it as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Australia Expansion of Wheat Crops
at the End of the 19th Century

In addition to encouraging innovation the government established measures to protect the new machine building industry. Around 1906 when the Australian industry faced a threat from the expansion of American-built harvesters, the government increased import duty on Canadian machinery and protected the domestic production of the combine harvester.

Who Invented the Australian Stripper Harvester?

There is no clear answer as to who invented the Australian stripping harvester, or gleaner. Most experts believe it was either John Ridley or John Wrathall Bull. Both were original colonists – John Bull arrived in Australia from Great Britain in 1839, and John Ridley a year later.

Upon arrival, John Bull sold his block of land to the colony treasurer and was employed as his managing director. Bull’s other business was wine trading; he eventually established his own winery in Australia. His business interests did not, however, prevent him from submitting his new reaping machine model for the announced competition. Unfortunately, neither the model nor its technical description survived, but there is evidence that the committee rejected the model. According to an 1878 description by John Bull in his book, Early Experiences of Colonial Life in South Australia, that machine model was the prototype of the stripper harvester.1 Bull wrote that his idea resulted from manually handling the stem and straw when he was gripping the ears with the fingers of one hand and breaking off stems with the outer edge of the other. This is possible, but Bull’s record states that John Ridley stole his idea as Ridley saw the first prototype and based the design of the stripper harvester on that model. No other inventions were attributed to Bull.

Figure 2: Ridley’s Stripper Harvesters

John Ridley remained an inventor and a mechanic throughout his life. The occupation of a miller was quite a commitment as mills were complex technical devices, but Ridley had strong technical skills. He knew his trade and the contemporary technology, and he was the first Australian miller to use a steam engine. Ridley did not make any submissions to the Committee on Inventions regarding his new harvester. He chose a simpler way – also in 1843 he built a prototype, and then the working model, of the stripping machine – a stripper harvester – and successfully ran the first series of field tests two months prior to the final stage of the competition. The results were impressive – Ridley completed his harvesting of 70 acres in seven days; it took a laborer a day to harvest one acre of crops using a scythe. And manual labor resulted in higher losses of grain. Many smith shops started to manufacture Ridley’s stripper harvesters immediately. Ridley produced approximately 50 units himself, before Joseph Miller’s company became a major producer. Within a few years it manufactured more than 3,000 strippers.

Ridley declined to patent his invention; to him the respect of the community and the honorable title of public benefactor granted by the colony government was enough recognition. He was quite wealthy due to his steam mills and investments in the copper mines. Having accumulated sufficient capital, Ridley and family traveled for a few years in Europe. Never returning to Australia, he settled in England and continued to improve the stripping machine. In later years, he did not have as much interest in technology, and became a preacher.

As previously mentioned, Bull stated in that Ridley stole his original idea for the stripper. Ridley was upset by this accusation. In 1886 in a letter to the Adelaide patent office, Ridley wrote that an article about the Gallic reaping machine in the Loudon Encyclopedia of Agriculture, explaining what triggered his concept of the stripper harvester, and that he had never borrowed any other ideas.2

John Ridley’s Reaping Machine

Ridley did not merely reproduce the Gallic reaper seen in the Loudon Encyclopedia of Agriculture, but he also improved the original design. When operating the Gallic reaper a laborer walked backward ahead of the reaper and pushed the ears into the collecting box with a stick-mounted crossbar. Not only was this awkward, but the laborer also trampled the ears causing some loss of grain. Another person followed the reaper and directed the movement of the animal and the vehicle by manipulating the shafts. The size of the open box for ear collection was not large, and the workers had to stop the reaper frequently to unload stripped ears.

Ridley’s reaping machine was not much more complex than its Gallic predecessor, but it was much more convenient to operate. (See Figure 3)

Figure 3: Stripper Harvester

The stripper harvester was modified into a four-wheel vehicle with two back wheels serving as driving wheels. Two or more draft horses pushed the vehicle forward. The dominant part of the vehicle was now a container for ear collection. The vehicle had a stripper hackle attached to its front edge. The hackle was comprised of cogs, attached parallel to each other with narrow slots between their side edges. Each cog narrowed toward its tip, but unlike the Gallic reaper, their side edges were not sharpened. A paddle beater was installed above the hackle inside the casing. The beater broke off the ears, partially threshed the crop and moved detached ears from the stripping cogs into the collector. It rotated on ball bearings by a transmission belt attached to the wheel of the stripping device. This attachment, invented by Ridley, eliminated the need for a laborer to push the ears with the stick-mounted crossbar.

One person could now operate a stripper harvester on horseback with greater ease, and the back driving wheels of the vehicle improved the directional accuracy of the harvester. Stripped ears were gathered into a covered collector, the ears were reloaded and threshed, and grain was winnowed out.

The reaping machine could efficiently harvest up to four hectares of crop per day substituting ten mower laborers. John Ridley’s reaping machine allowed Australia to become a grain exporter, and triggered a process which decades later led to the development of the first-ever stripping combine harvester in Australia.

The Birth of the Australian Stripping Combine Harvester

Numerous others worked on improving John Ridley’s original idea. The process of threshing and winnowing grain from stripped ears was labor-intensive and usually required two people to perform the task in cold and dusty conditions. One laborer delivered the pile while another operated the thresher, and filled and carried sacks. There was only one step remaining: to merge the stripper, the thresher and the winnower into a combine.

The government again demonstrated its desire to generate innovation. Beginning in 1855 the government announced competitions to improve the stripping machine and organized competitive events where farmers used different machines to compete. More than 30 participants participated – inventors, farmers and industrial manufacturers. Subsequently some participants, James Morrow and Joseph Nicholson among them, started the industrial production of stripping machines.

In 1858 one of the major producers of John Ridley’s stripper harvester, Joseph Mellor, announced a competition for the invention of a stripper harvester that would winnow grain as well as strip and thresh ears. His idea was not given much consideration initially, but it later influenced the evolution of the stripping machines.

James Morrow was the first to amalgamate the stripper, the thresher and the winnower in one machine. His first operational stripping combine harvester won a second prize of ₤75 during an 1883 competition – nobody won first prize.

Thanks to the attempts made by James Morrow, Victor McKay and a number of other inventors, the unique stripping combine harvesters were designed and built in Australia. While using minimal resources and energy, the Australian combine harvester was stripping and threshing ears, separating them from chaff and straw, packaging grain and reloading sacks without any operational interruptions. The combine harvester covered 100 acres (40 hectares) a day. Two men operated the machine – the first directed a three or four horse relay and the other filled, tied and unloaded sacks of grain. Significant physical effort was not required to operate the harvester – even teenagers could manage the job. The combine harvester exceeded all other harvesters by its straightforward and effective design, and surpassed the Australian stripper harvester in terms of energy consumption per ton of grain.

Benefits of Australian Ingenuity

Harvesting is a happy, but busy time for a farmer. It is a happy time because of the harvest itself – a joint “fruit of labor” of the farmer, the land and the sun. And also it is a busy time, because time is critical – if the right moment is lost, the crop might fall to the ground and perish in bad weather. Previous generations of farmers dreamt of a fast and easy harvest season. The ingenious Australian inventors managed to resolve major technological dilemmas and spearheaded the transition from manual to automated harvesting by using a combine harvester.

  1. These early inventors found the way to reap and process ears without stems. This saved significant amounts of energy when harvesting, threshing and separating grain. Because only a smaller part of the plant had to be processed, the machine could be compact, light and simple in design.
  2. They amalgamated reaping, threshing and winnowing into one mobile technological chain that did not require additional transportation, reloading and transfers.
  3. Using sacks while the machine was moving solved the problem of collecting, accumulating and reloading the grain. The sack provided other benefits as well – it was lightweight, easy to transport, load/unload and count. Because of the dry Australian climate the grain could also be stored in the grain sacks.

The Captains of the Harvester

Several individuals captained the industrial revolution in Australia overcoming the inertness of thinking, technical difficulties and creating the Australian stripping combine. Leading the way were John Ridley, the miller who resurrected the Gallic harvester, and James Morrow, the farmer turned manufacturer, who put Ridley’s reaping machine, thresher and winnower together in one operating unit.

Non-professionals developed this technological wonder – the Australian combine rather than experienced machine-building engineers trained at universities. It did not take long for the use of the combine to spread elsewhere in Australia and internationally. Perhaps part of the success of the combine was that the farmers and inventors from the field designed it. They worked on the idea with a clear understanding of what needed to be done to harvest the crops with minimal loss. The designers matched the properties of the harvested crop with those of the harvesting machine.

Victor McKay

Victor McKay played a key role in the development and promotion of the combine harvester. One of twelve children and the son of a farmer, he designed and built his first stripping machine from scrap metal at the age of 19 with the help of his father and brothers. Victor McKay became a well-known businessman and in 1895 started a mass production of stripping combine harvesters and other agricultural machinery. He became one of the major producers in the southern hemisphere. McKay developed an excellent stripper harvester, successfully advertised and sold under the name the “Sunshine Harvester.” McKay chose bright, shiny, striking colors for the products and for the harvester emblem (Figure 5). Even the dispute between him and James Morrow over the authorship of the invention of the stripping combine harvester cannot diminish his contribution to the development of harvester machine-building.

Figure 4: Victor McKay

Figure 5: The Sunshine Harvester

Headley Sheppard Taylor

Another captain of the Australian harvester was Headley Sheppard Taylor, a farmer and an inventor. In 1911 he invented and manufactured a stripper harvester with a cutter device. The cutter immediately improved the harvesting of wet crops that could not be reaped well with the stripping hackle. Taylor’s cutter, connected to the stripping hackle, made it possible to use the stripper harvester on wet and weedy fields of grain and leguminous crops. The inventor went back to the sharpened edges of the Gallic harvester. The improved Gallic harvester was especially productive in Central Europe where the climate was far from dry.

McKay invited Taylor to work for the Sunshine Company and the company started producing Taylor’s stripping headers in 1916. These headers became very popular in the 1930s, leading to significant sales growth. Taylor generated many ideas, including a self-propelled harvester, or “auto header.” He developed a machine elegant in its simplicity. The harvester had a simple type of transmission – gearing from engine cogwheel to the ring gear of one of the three wheels; it featured a symmetrical stripping header and unloading of sacks on the move. Taylor developed many unconventional models of pull-type and self-propelled stripping combines, and he developed purpose–build stripper adapters to harvest various crops including rice.

The Australian stripper harvester underwent several stages of technological change:

  • Harvesters that delivered un-winnowed bulk – a mixture of grain and ears that had to be winnowed and separated
  • Horse-pulled stripper harvesters, which threshed, winnowed and loaded separated grain into sacks
  • Harvesters toed by tractors
  • Self-propelled stripper harvesters

The Australian Stripping Combine Harvester in Other Countries

In 1902 Australia experienced a severe drought and most crops were lost. Victor McKay had 200 stripper harvesters in unsold stock and decided to export them to South America. He shipped 50 stripper combines to Argentina. All the machines were sold and Argentina entered the boom of the stripping technology in harvesting. Argentina had 2,500 combines in 1908 and around 8,500 in 1914.4

Many countries attempted to introduce this type of combine harvester, but not all attempts were successful. The stripper harvester proved effective when harvesting grain crops in Argentina and South African countries with similar climate conditions. In the humid climate of the British Isles the passive hackle did a poor job stripping damp and resilient ears.

The stripping harvester also attracted interest in Russia. In 1908 professor D. Artsybashev, a leading specialist in agricultural machinery, wrote in his book, The Stripper Harvesters (Gleaners and Headers), “The climatic conditions in the south of Russia are conducive to experimenting with the modern Australian stripping machines. The most attractive feature of the machine is simplicity of design, potential to finish harvesting in the shortest possible time and, finally, cost-effectiveness of the whole process.” Further he wrote, “The stripper harvester is of great interest to our agriculture both from the point of view of its productivity and reliability of design. All that needs to be done is the replacement of horse traction with automobile traction”.3 In 1911 a newspaper columnist B. Ousovsky wrote about the stripper harvester, “…this is a universal machine of the future unique in its significance.”6

All attempts in the nineteenth century to make the stripping machine work in the climates of Europe, North America and Russia were unsuccessful. Green stems of weed plants plugged the cog slots and the hackle could not strip the resilient straw. The explanation then was that the machine was designed for the unique Australian climate, where at the time of harvesting grain plants dry out to a degree when ears brake off on minimal physical impact.

Differences in the Gallic and Australian Stripping Harvesters

The Gallic harvester, which had been effective in Europe, and its Australian successor – the stripping machine – were not designed on exactly the same principles. The cogs of the Gallic harvester had sharpened edges and could cut both weeds and resilient stems of the grain crop. The Australian stripping machine, conversely, had blunt cog edges. Regretfully, nobody attempted to analyze these details and examine the process of ear cutting and understand the flaws of the process. Times were hard, the First World War was at the breaking point and priorities were different.

There were other drawbacks to the Australian stripper harvester. It was not a multi-purpose machine and was not suitable for harvesting soy, corn and sunflower; farmers had to use other machines to harvest these crops. The American harvester, however, had a number of replaceable reaper adaptors as attachments that allowed the farmer to harvest all of these crops with one machine. In spite of this fact, however, the annual production of stripping combine harvesters was between 10 and 15 thousand until the 1860s.5

The American Combine

At the same time at the opposite end of the globe an amazing story on the development of the American combine was unfolding in the United States of America. And it began in England in 1826 when Patrick Belle invented the reaper-cutting device.

On June 28, 1836 the two American inventors, Moor and Hascall, were granted a U.S. patent for the invention of the combine harvester. They built the only model of the combine that was successfully operated until 1856 – first in Michigan and then in California. That working model is considered to be the ancestor of all American combines. In 1867 D.S. Matteson built his own version of combine harvester, and Hauser and Heins Company started to manufacture those machines in California.

The Californian combines were complicated and bulky machines. A combine with five to six meters of coverage had to be pulled by 32 horses. The team servicing a combine had to have at least one driver, two people to control the header and the machine, and six to seven workers to pick up straw and package grain into sacks. It was like having a factory on wheels. These combines never became very popular. They were only used in California and were nicknamed “the Californian combines.” As Table 1 shows, the Australian machine surpassed the American combine in both energy and manpower consumption, and the American lost badly in terms of pricing.

Table 1:Comparing the American and Australian Combines
Combine HarvestersNumber of PersonnelNumber ofHorsesCoverage/FootDaily Productivity/Hectares
The Australian Combine24 – 69 – 114 – 7.5
The American Combine7 – 1122 – 40*16 – 2011 – 35
* Or 70-120 Horse Power Steam Engine

On the occasion of the Paris International Exhibition in 1900 an American author wrote a book on harvesting machines, but the combine harvesters were hardly mentioned in it. That was a reflection on how the Americans perceived the future of these machines at the time. At the beginning of the 19th century, however, during transition to tractor traction and the use of internal combustion engines, the Californian combines became simpler in design and served as the prototype for the American self-propelled and pull-type combines.

Why Did the Australian Combine Lose to the American?

The Australian stripper combine harvester has been described with enthusiasm and fascination, and referred to as a nearly ideal machine. So why has this nearly ideal machine not survived?

Some U.S. and Canadian combine manufactures entered the Australian market for profit. The lower cost of the Australian stripper harvester was not beneficial to their business. And the manufacturers found sufficient reasons to enable the international corporations to put the stripper harvester out of business.

The Americans were producing complex and expensive combines that had a cutter reaper, and they did not intend to look closer at the design details of the Australian stripper combine harvesters but rather increase their own sales. The developers did not care that the American combine was more expensive and less productive. They promoted their machinery as new and advanced. Victor McKay had good reasons to refer to these companies as “Canadian and American pirates.” In 1950 foreign owners acquired the controlling stock of Sunshine Harvester Works along with all intellectual property rights. The U.S.-owned International Harvester Company started the production of the A8-2 combine with the stripper reaper in Australia in 1952, and in 1978 it introduced a self-propelled 711SP combine as well as a 710 pull-type model with the stripper and cutter headers. But those were entirely new machines. They were not originally designed to have a stripper header, but rather had the American “mower” header as a prototype. The production of those combines became the final stage in the evolution of the Australian stripper harvester. By then the machines lost their main advantage – a simple threshing and separating system, which processed a stripped pile only – making the cost of the combine low. By the 1870s all Australian combine manufactures were gone, and there was no one to settle the dispute.

A simple combination of the stripper header with the classical combine did not maximize the use of all the benefits of the stripping technique. This is an important lesson learned and the major conclusion achieved on analyzing the history of the merger of the American combine with the Australian stripper header.

Since 1980 not a single tractor or header has been produced in Australia. The country imports all combines, tractors and other agricultural machinery.

Instead of an Epilogue

During the period of deep crisis in food production in Australia during the 19th century, the government created favorable conditions for innovation and the development of an unprecedented harvester. Without research centers, machine builders or a historical background in development, a stripper harvester was created in a short period of time. The inventive Australian millers and farmers, and not the industrial corporations, were the brainpower that produced the stripper harvester.

The Australian stripper harvester was developed for the purpose of ear threshing and it harmoniously integrated the features of stripping, threshing and separating devices. The attempts to integrate the stripper header and the thresher of the American combine, which was designed for threshing of an unseparated plant pile, eventually destroyed the Australian stripper harvester. The main benefits of the stripping technology based on the simplicity of design of the thresher and separator were lost.

On the basis of the Gallic reaping machine a new generation of stripper harvesters was designed and developed in Australia, and it surpassed the American combines in quality. Yet again there was a strange turn of events: in the middle of the 19th century the stripper harvester followed the path of its ancient Roman predecessor into oblivion. The idea of the Gallic reaping machine did not die and was resurrected in the new generation of stripper harvesters – but that is another story.

References:

1.J. C. Loudon. Encyclopedia of Agriculture. Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans and Roberts, 1858.
2.D.D. Artsybashev. The Combines, Their Modern Designs and Usage. Selkhozgiz Publishers, Moscow-Leningrad, 1930.
3.D.D.Artsybashev. Stripper Harvesters (Gleaners and Headers). St. Petersburg, 1908.
4.Rodolfo G. Frank. Cien Anos deCosechadoras de Trigo en Argentina, 2005.
5.A.Sh. Jambourshin. Stripper Machines and Devices. Kainar Publishers, Alma Aty, 1972.
6. Youzhno-Rousskaya Gazeta (“South Russian Gazette”), 1911, No 38.