This is David Badger’s “History of Grain Harvesting” in its entirety. Dave spent several months this past winter putting all of the research together. If you have any questions, you may contact Dave directly by calling 419-869-9022. Editor.

                                  Evolution of Harvesting Grain with Combines


The development of what we Americans call a combine spans 175 years but acceptance was not universal.  The evolution moved by spurts in different parts of the country.  The working innards came after learning about using threshing machines. Threshing machines went through considerable evolutionary changes.  We are skipping over some very colorful history by not studying threshing machines.  For those interested in their history I recommend reading The Grain Harvesters by Dr. Graeme Quick.  I have attempted to make this article primarily for Massey–Harris and Massey Ferguson combines but have added a sprinkling of information on other makes to add to the historical insight of changes along the way. The companies learned from each other’s new ideas because of the competition of trying to have the best.


Threshing in simple terms is the act of separating grain (edible) from hulls, stalks, and chaff. (non-edible). Man or animals originally did this by flailing or trampling.   The methods have changed considerably to improve speed and efficiency over the years but the end result is the same.  The history of threshing machines starts about 1850 with hand-cranked “ground hog” threshers and was continually improved to around 1950.  A great amount of information was learned as to what worked and what did not.  Many material-handling steps were involved to separate the edible from the non-edible making the grain, chaff and straw usable.



The “combined harvester” incorporated cutting, threshing, and cleaning into a single machine.  Also it was pulled around the field not always keeping the separator level.

When setting a threshing machine “old thresher men” might actually use a level to get the machine “set just right”!   Later the name was shortened to “combine”.  This word is not universal as a combine in Australia is associated with a cultivator/grain drill.  Probably to our younger generation combines simply appeared on our farms.  This idea is far from the truth!


The first workable combine that we have records of was the Moore and Hascall machine built in 1834 in Michigan.  The operators quickly learned the high humidity of the “east” made harvesting standing wheat difficult.  One of their machines was shipped to California via around Cape Horn of Africa in 1853.  It was a 10-foot cut and pulled by 16 horses, hitched two-abreast.  Separating was done by tumbling the straw in a large barrel like structure on the back of the combine.  In 1854 they were able to harvest 600 acres of wheat near Mission San Jose, California.  The times were hard so the farmers did not pay their harvesting bill.  So Moore did not operate the machine in 1855.  A new crew was hired for 1856.  The crew was “green” and did not properly lubricate the bearings such that the machine caught fire burning the combine and the wheat field. 


Meanwhile at the turn of the century perhaps 100,000 men helped with the wheat harvest in the Western Plains.  Labor was so short in Western Canada that recruiting programs gathered train loads of men to help with the wheat harvest.  The binder, shocking wheat, and using a stationary thresher worked in the eastern USA because land holdings were relatively small and local labor managed the harvest with

threshing groups that helped each other.  This is still done in Amish communities.


In western states a separate machine called a header was used for cutting wheat.  It was pushed by 4 or 6 horses elevating the cut material into barge wagons. (These wagons had a low side for filling with a high side away at the back.)  The cut material was then taken directly to the stationary thresher or stored in big stacks.  This method greatly cut the labor required.  But this method required the standing grain to be ripe and dry to work.


It was the very large farms of California that quickly brought the scarcity of labor into focus.  In 1869 California’s 16 billion bushel wheat ranked eighth among the state in wheat production.  It took just eleven years to make California the number one wheat growing state.  Derricks and forks were used to build stacks for temporary storage.  Even the 12-foot headers were lacking in ability to gather grain fast enough.  Wheat was selling for $3.00 per 100# bag (1870’s).  One man, the largest wheat grower, holding 100 square miles of Colusi County harvested one million bushels using 600 men and 800 draft animals. Later wheat dropped to $1.00 per 100# (1880).  This forced a new look at costs of operation. Switching from headers to combines saved labor costs (man and animal). 


During the period 1858-1888 twenty-one or more combine manufacturers took on the challenge to build combines in the Pacific region.  Manufacturers had names such as Marvin and Thurston, Young, William Patterson, Shippee, Houser, Myers, Best, and the Holts.  Stockton, CA became the” combine capital” of the world. A typical thresher crew needed 20 to 30 workers while the combine crew needed crews of four or five men.


Competition was keen between the manufacturers but slowly Benjamin Holt kept buying up his competitors.  In 1925 Holt and Best joined to form Caterpillar.  By this time Caterpillar had the dominant market share. Benjamin Holt liked to travel the sales territories to keep abreast of what was happening out there. One of his sales men complained that the combines would not work on the steep hills of the Palouse regions of Oregon and Washington.  It was estimated that 2 to 6 bushels per acre were lost out the back of the combines when the separator tilted on the hills.  Holt’s answer was to make the combine rear wheels in separate “wheel modules” that could be raised or lowered as needed.  The year was 1891.  An operator sat on top and moved a lever to activate the leveling device and could work on slopes up to 30 degrees.  The leveling mechanism used large screws or sometimes a rack and pinion to run the wheel modules up and down.  This opened up a whole new  area to grow wheat.


“Picture of hillside combine”


Holt (Caterpillar) combines evolved to the 34, 36, and 38 models.  In 1936 Caterpillar sold the entire combine line to Deere and Company. Caterpillar wanted to concentrate on building crawler tractors and road machinery.  Deere replaced the 34 and 38 with their models 33 and 35.  These were only built a short time but Deere continued with the model 36 up into the 1950’s.  It could be ordered in level land or hillside versions.


Animals pulled the first big combines, meaning horses or mules.  The book This was Wheat Farming shows teams of mules that used 33 mules. (Mules could endure the heat better than horses.) The front team was three and the driver’s lines only went to those three.  The others were tethered to follow.  The team was so long that the front mules were out of sight as they crested hilltops. This did indeed create apprehension for the drivers.  Game birds flying up, bumblebees, machine lurching, and hailstorms could be devastating!  When these things occurred the animals might be spooked and run off!  Soon manufacturers learned to install a large band brake around the bull (drive) wheel.  This helped the operator keep the combine in control on down slopes.  The men required were the mule driver, sack filler, sack sewer, header controller, and, if a hillside combine, a man to continuously operate the levers to keep the machine level.  A very early Holt combine is at Smithsonian Institute but I am told not on display now.


Examples of these monster combines can be seen today.  One is at Arthur and Lillian Bright’s private museum at Le Grand, CA.  This combine is made of wood.  The sides look like tongue and groove barn siding.  It sits on tracks like those of a D6 Caterpillar. I would say the separator body is 35 feet long and 6 feet wide inside at the cleaning area.  The present engine is a Cat D6.  The header was originally 26 feet but they added another 15 feet.  It takes a Cat 75 or the later D8 to drag it around the fields.  I had to back up so far to get the machine in my camera viewfinder that the flash did little good.  I just stood in awe looking at the gigantic machine.


Two recently restored monster combines are located at University of Davis at Davis, CA.  One is a Holt restored to be “near original” when it was pulled by a mule hitch.  In June of 2008 they did pull it with a team of 27 mules to demonstrate the combine at a big antique machinery show.  Most of these machines were converted to bulk bins to hold the grain.  The restoring team located parts to restore it back to the sack-filling version with ground drive.  It had to be a labor of love!


“Picture of these restored Best and Holt combines


The same crew has restored a Best combine.  The pictures of it are just beautiful!

It is complete with pin stripping like the original.  Again a labor of love!  I am still trying to get better pictures to include here. 


A farmer, George Stockton Berry, made the first self-propelled combine.  The machine was made by taking a steam traction engine, operated in reverse with a 22-foot cutter bar across the back.  The separator was on the left side.  Men forked straw from the rear of the separator right back into the firebox of the steam engine.  It cut and cleaned 50 acres a day.  The story does not say how many men it took to keep the fire going as there would be no let up!  Those were the days of real men!  So far as I know only one such machine was built.


Meanwhile “down under” - the Australian harvester took a different path.  The standing grain was very dry because of their low rainfall.  John Ridley made a successful stripper harvester that simply stripped the grain heads from the wheat stalks.


“Picture of Ridley’s machine”


 This greatly reduced the amount of mechanism needed to thresh and clean the wheat.  A name that soon emerged was Hugh Victor McKay.  He detested cranking the winnower (fan) to clean the grain on his father’s farm.  One day when driving the stripper header, a solution dawned on him.  He told his family that he would build a machine that would strip the standing grain heads, thresh the grain, and clean it in one operation.  Friends were not convinced.  At the age of 17 he and his brother built a crude blacksmith shelter and set to work.  They used scraps from an old reaper, a binder, a winnower, and a stripper comb.  In February 1884 a prototype with a width of cut 2 feet and 9 inches harvested two acres of wheat.  It worked!  H.V. McKay had made a machine that did what he promised.  The machine was named the “Sunshine” harvester. 


The name Massey-Harris actually starts in 1891 when A. Harris and H.A. Massey joined forces.  They were making virtually the same products (i.e., self-raking reapers) and the same type warehousing systems.  This allowed them to reduce production costs and retail prices. With the absorption of the Patterson and Wisner companies, Massey-Harris became the largest implement and harvester company in Canada.


Massey-Harris did a lot of business selling grain binders but did not have a combine.  In 1900 Massey-Harris joined with H.V. McKay and wasted no time getting into the Australian market with their stripper/thresher.  This machine stripped the grain heads off and sent them directly into the threshing cylinder and on to the cleaning shoe.  The Australians were quick to adopt the bulk-bin concept.  The bin could dump directly into a waiting wagon or could drop the grain into sacks for hauling away.  Sacking required two people and quickly dropped in favor.


“Picture of horse-drawn McKay harvester”


Combines continued to gain ground in the western states.  The hold out was the mid-west.  Farmers were just not convinced combines would work in the high humidity areas; my father being one of them.  He along with a local group ran their own threshing group clear into the early 1950s.


But “Yankee ingenuity” was at work!  Harry Merritt of Allis-Chalmers pushed development of the “baby” combine made especially for the corn-belt farmers.

It weighed only 3000 pounds. A limited number were produced in 1931. The thing worked!  It was easy to adjust.  It was small.  A two-plow tractor’s PTO could power it.  The cost was in range for these farmers.  It had a five-foot threshing cylinder and cut six feet.  It became know as the “ALL-Crop” 60. By the time production ended in 1952 75,000 All Crops had been built!  It was an unusual machine in that the separator sat cross-wise to travel making it a short machine.


“Picture of AC All-Crop 60”


Allis-Chalmers also built the 40-inch cut straight-through combine.  It was known as the model 40.  It was only built for three years.  Other machinery companies quickly followed with their own small combines.  The MH six-foot cut ”Clipper” was Massey’s entry. These small combines spelled the doom of the threshing machines.


Now, another concept began to appear. The self-propelled combine seemed out of reach for average farmers. So how did we arrive at today’s self-propelled (SP) configuration?   Searching Graeme Quick’s book The Grain Harvesters brings us back to H.V. McKay in Australia.  Quoting from the book (page 120)  “in 1909 McKay developed one of the world’s first gasoline-powered self-propelled combine harvesters, an experimental model having a 24 foot cut.  It was judged too costly to produce, however and never reached production.”


Benjamin Holt designed a SP combine in 1909.  It looked like a pull type of the time.  It did not gain much interest. Farmers still liked a crawler tractor pulling the combine for control on hilly ground.  Both the Holt and Best machines had the engine, separator on the left side with the header on the right. 


The first “T” shaped configuration (like today’s machines) credit goes to the Sunshine “Auto Header”.  It was a joint venture of Taylor and McKay in Australia.  They took out the first patent in 1923.  The “Sun Auto Header” was the first commercially sold combine with header clear across the front feeding at the center to the threshing cylinder.  This made a symmetrical shaped combine.  This configuration prevented running down standing grain when opening the field.  The first production models came in 1924 with a 12-foot cut.  It was powered by a Fordson tractor engine and propelled by one drive wheel at the left side.  The header was a comb type stripper already well accepted in Australia.  In 1957 it came under the Massey Ferguson name introducing the MF585 SP header.  Massey-Harris had loose ties with McKay as far back as 1930 so Massey had early connections to self-propelled combines.  The Australia contribution was adopting machines that involved large acreages, which required harvesting at speeds up to seven mph.  Due to low rainfall their cereal crops were relatively thin stands.  Using stripper headers allowed high work rates for a given horsepower.


“Picture of McKay SP “T” shaped harvester”


So what moved Massey Harris ahead toward SP combines?  Massey Harris Sales Organization merged with H.V. McKay Limited of Melbourne.  Massey Harris sold its assets in Australia to H.V. McKay and bought stock in the company amounting to 26 percent.  Massey-Harris kept their identity in the Australian market by changing their name.  It was now H.V. McKay-Massey Proprietary Limited.  McKay was given the rights in perpetuity to manufacture MH machinery in Australia, which would plague Massey-Ferguson 25 years later.


The 1924 Australia Taylor-McKay Sun Auto-Header SP combine attracted the attention of another farm boy, Thomas Carroll.  Carroll gained experience with two other companies and in 1911 was hired by Massey-Harris.  He became Massey-Harris’s harvester expert in South America.  He helped introduce the horse drawn No. 1 Massey Harris Reaper-Thresher in Argentina.  The No.1 did not work well in the Argentine conditions so Carroll helped redesign what became the No. 3 harvester. He joined the Toronto staff as design leader.  In 1917 he helped introduce the No.5 being one of the first machines designed by Carroll.  He helped introduce mechanical improvements such as welding, roller chain, oil bath gear sets, ball bearings, and detachable tables (headers) to make road transport much easier.  He returned to Argentina in the 1930s where he saw pull-type combines converted to self-propelled.  They used two engines.  One ran the thresher and the other was hooked to the transmission to propel the machine. (No other details given.)  In 1936 Carroll realized his company must produce a self-propelled combine for Argentina or local manufacturers would fill this demand jeopardizing Massey’s largest export market at that time.


In 1935 James S. Duncan was appointed general manager in Canada.  He was just fresh from reorganizing Massey’s Argentine operation.  Duncan’s attitude, experience and enthusiasm were just the things needed to pull Massey-Harris out of the Great Depression.  He had two goals: 

1)    To develop the US market. He perceived the US to be the largest consumer of agriculture implements.

2)     To develop a SP combine.

When he was made Company Director, he set to work to achieve both goals.  One immediate result was the “Clipper” combine made in Racine, WI.  The “Clipper” was direct competition for the Allis Chalmers “ALL Crop”.  The clipper was a straight-through machine starting with a 6-foot cut.  A piece of MH literature dated 12/45 shows pictures of grains and says,  “A few of the 110 grain and seed crops you can harvest with a Massey-Harris Clipper. “


Tom Carroll was put in charge of developing Massey’s first SP combine.  There were no constraints for size, weight, or cost.  He used several tractor parts for engine, transmission, and drive wheels.  The No.20 was tested in late 1937 in Argentina just eight months after he was given the go-ahead.  The No.20 had a 16- foot cut and proved to be too heavy and expensive.  With the No.20 the word reaper-thresher was dropped and “combine” was adopted in Massey–Harris advertising literature. As a little sideline, presently there is a beautifully restored No.20 in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI.


Picture of MH No. 20 combine


Carroll quickly set to work designing a smaller SP combine to be two-thirds the size of the No.20.  It had a 12-foot cut.  It was built much lower with the engine underneath. The table (or platform) had three draper canvases. These did a nice job of feeding the grain heads into the feeder house. It was priced within range of the ”average” farmer.  It was the model 21 and came just ahead of World War II -1940.

Massey rushed the 21 into production with the first units coming off the line in 1941 just as emergency freezes were issued by the US government to conserve critical materials for war needs.  Of course steel was one of the critical items.


Picture of MH No. 21 combine with draper platform.


When a new more expensive machine is introduced, the Sales Dept. is always nervous.  Will the product fly or fail?  Timing is everything.  But when you are on the cutting edge of the project, timing is guess work!  Hindsight after a few years will tell if timing was right.  The first move to push ahead with the No.21 gave Massey-Harris a greater boost than could ever have been imagined at that time.  The boost came from the prized US market.


Enter now World War II.  It brought labor shortages and unprecedented demand for food.  Ironically North America - by now - had highly mechanized machinery available for agriculture.  Acreage and intensity of cultivation increased dramatically.  The 1942 grain crop was the largest in North American history. The American wheat crop approached one billion bushels.  The Canadian wheat crop topped previous records to be over half a billion bushels.  Grain storage bins were filled yet the insatiable demand for food continued.  Farmers were pushed to produce more while farm machines and parts were in short supply.  The war took manpower away from agriculture purposes.


For the 1943 model year the No. 21 was upgraded to the 21A.  The 21A now had the auger across the table or platform to convey cut material to the central feeder house.  The auger was much simpler to maintain and keep adjusted.  It lacked the disappearing feeder fingers.  That was still an area to be improved.


Picture of 21A combine with auger platform


In 1944 the US Food Production Board set a goal of one billion bushels of wheat.  Implement manufacturers asked that they be permitted larger allocations of scarce materials.  Farm machines needed steel.  Steel was needed for ships, tanks, and guns.  The best that the combined War Production Boards could offer was some lessening of restrictions.  Implement men struggled over the situation.  No one struggled more so than Joe Tucker, vice-president and sales manager of Massey- Harris USA.


Preposterous as it sounds Joe Tucker went to the War Production Board and persisted in requesting permission to build 500 combines beyond Massy-Harris’s quota.  He proposed this would help the war effort.  Tucker convinced the Board that SP one-man combines could harvest more bushels for a given investment in steel that any other machines in existence.  The combines were to be sold to custom operators who would contract to harvest 2000 acres under Massey-Harris’s assistance.  Operating on this scale the SP combines of the “Harvest Brigade” expected to harvest over one million acres and bring in 15 million bushels of grain.  The SP combines would release over 1000 tractors to do other work.  This would save a half-million gallons of fuel and a half-million bushels of grain that would be trampled opening up fields when pull-type combines were used. 


Early in March of 1944, 30 flat cars loads rolled out of Toronto on rail cars. They headed for the lower parts of Texas-the Corpus Christy area.  They were bright red No.21 combines with a big decal on the grain tank that said “MASSEY-HARRIS SELF-PROPELLED HARVEST BRIGADE”.  Another trainload of 21 combines arrived in May to join the harvest crews.


The long, well organized trek came to an end 1500 miles north from where they started.  It now it was September 1944. Tucker was able to report to Washington that Massey had made good on their promise.  The 500 machines had harvested 1,019,500 acres bringing in 25 million bushels of wheat and other grains.  One third of a million-man hours and half a million gallons of fuel were saved. The top operator was Wif Phelps of Chandler, Arizona having cut 3,438 acres.  500 American farmers had never seen a combine before!


When Massey Harris completed their “arms contracts” for the Canadian and British governments in 1944, they received recognition from the Canadian government.  The government relieved Massey of further war production so they could concentrate on farm machinery.  Massey was able to convert to peacetime manufacturing nearly a year before Japan’s surrender.  In the same timeframe the US-Canada free trade agreement removed the customs barrier.  Now Massey Harris could continue integration of their North American operations.  So in 1945 Massey Harris was in a unique position, because they had already converted to peacetime production.  There was tremendous post war demand for farm machinery in more than 70 countries where M-H implements were sold.  New products included a SP version of the ”Clipper” combine.  Also new tractors and implements were introduced.


Allis Chalmers came with their model 100 SP combine in 1948.  This was an unusual machine as the separator sat cross-wise following the design of the pull-type No. 60.  The first Gleaner-Balwin SP came in 1951.  The Oliver model 33 SP was released in 1949.  The Cockshutt’s SP model 525 was released in 1964.  International Harvester Company produced the No. 123 SP from 1942 to 1948.


Deere started with the No.9 pull-type separator body.  Deere had experimental units running in 1944 and 1945 but could not go into production with wartime curtailments.  Many configurations were tried for engine and operator placement. The first production of the 55 SP was available for the 1946 season.  The company settled on the auger feed with the retracting feeding fingers to prevent wrapping at auger center.  The 55 used a rasp-bar threshing cylinder.  Previously only the spike-tooth type was used.


In 1946 American sales of Massey-Harris machinery exceeded Canada’s sales largely due to the popularity of their SP combines.  In 1947 SP’s revolutionary influence gave rise to custom combining on an unheard of scale.  Custom cutting crews with combines in tow would start at the lower end of the wheat states, Texas, or Oklahoma, and follow the ripening grain to end up in the Dakotas, Montana, or even Canada.  The crew I worked with started May 20 and usually went until Labor Day.  I have written a separate article on my trek with such a harvest crew.


In 1938 Massey-Harris with only pull-type combines had a US market share of 3%.

By 1948 MH had a US market share of 52.9 % thanks to the new SP combines.  Overseas sales of SP combines were increasing too.  In 1946 MH decided to build SP combines in Britain.  The first SP was the model 726 coming off the production line in 1946.  In 1953 production of the 890 started at Marquette, France.  Eschwege Works in Germany came with the SP 630.  Growth there was remarkable exceeding 5000 units per year.  Gross sales exceeded those of North America in 1957. About this time the 72, 82, and 92 MH SP ”Streamliners” were introduced.  They had a low-racy look. They were beautiful looking machines—ready to take the word on!


Picture of 82 and 92 Streamliners.


Harry Ferguson, famous for the little Grey Fergie and the three-point hitch negotiated with Massey-Harris Corporation to a merger of the two companies.  This in itself is quite a story.  In the negotiation Ferguson wanted to be in charge of any machine designed for Ferguson’s hitch.  Massy-Harris CEO James Duncan agreed to Ferguson’s demands only to regret this later.  Ferguson proved to be difficult to work with.  Turmoil developed within the organization.  Originally the merger intentions were to maintain two sales product lines.  Some machines were to be exclusive to Ferguson dealers and some to Massey-Harris dealers.  This lead to rifts in the dealer organization.  Also the economy had taken a down turn.  There were lines drawn between the “reds’ and the “grays”.   The company was consumed in internal struggle.  The result was huge losses in 1956 and 1957.  The company had big-time losses. Meanwhile Deere and International were powerhouses gaining market share.  Deere was moving ahead aggressively with prototype 4 and 6 cylinder tractors being tested in field conditions. They were constantly upgrading their combines. International was a strong contender but experiencing internal strife.


In 1956 there were management upheavals with repercussions throughout the Massey-Harris-Ferguson Company (MHF).  It is sad to see a great company slip downhill. It takes years to build goodwill but it can all be lost in a short time!   We need to remember all the companies building farm equipment are competing for the farmer’s dollars. It is all very competitive! 


Ferguson made demands that did not go over with the MHF staff.  Finally Ferguson sold his stock and turned away. The company name was changed to Massey Ferguson Limited (MF).  The year was 1958.  The company consolidated product lines into a single product line, dropping some things in the process, to improve company expenditures.  By 1966 the MF tractor became sales leader and combines amounted to 17% of total company sales. The “low down” MH and MF combines continued to the 72, 82, and Super 92 models into the early 1960s.  During this time MF built an elaborate combine test and development laboratory located near Toronto.  It included a torture test track.  It also included an indoor laboratory for machine and crop analysis.


Picture of MF 300 Combine


New experimental models were being tested that became known as the 300 SP.  The Model 300 was a drastically different machine with the engine sitting up beside the operator. The grain tank sat in a saddle tank configuration to center the tank load on top of the combine. Most roller chains were eliminated and V belts used for drives.  Drives were redesigned to improve efficiency of power flow.  In 1963 the model 300 was introduced to the public.  The 410 came a year later.  Addition features of the 300 and 410 were the closed turret-type bin-unloading auger. This allowed the operator to swing the auger out or in without grain loss.  Other innovations included: the cascading shaker cleaning shoe to improve airflow through the discharging chaff material, a tailings re-thresher which discharged directly onto the cleaning shoe, instead of a tailings elevator, a dynamic balancer to smooth cutter bar vibration and allow it to run faster, a high inertia threshing cylinder which helped when taking in corn to handle slug feeding, a rotary screen to improve airflow to the radiator, and a Power-Flow Table or platform to improve feeding.  (This was a draper approx two-feet in width across the entire cutter-bar length, which helped feed cut material heads first into the platform auger.)


Massey Ferguson was now faced with a worldwide decline in combine sales. Production was divided into four locations.

1)     North America had design and testing and production at Toronto, Canada.

2)     South America went to Brazil.

3)      European production to Marquette, France’

4)      Australian design and production to Sunshine, Australia.


In 1959 Massey Ferguson purchased F. Perkins Limited to strengthen their position in diesel engines. By 1978 all MF combines had diesel engines.


For the 1970 model year John Deere came with a new line of combines dropping all previous models.  The models were 3300, 4400, 6600, and 7700. The horsepower and machine size were off to a race that is still going on. 


For a while MF sold two models made by Claas in Germany.  In the mid-1970s the move was toward large rotary combines.   The reason for rotaries was to get more threshing capacity for a given set of outside dimensions.  Those dimensions are what can be shipped by rail or by trucks.



Certain crops posed special problems.  The first written record of soybean cultivation was in China in 2838 BC.  Soybeans were slow to reach the new world.  A Yankee Clipper ship stocked some for emergency food.  As late as 1920 the primary purpose of soybeans was legume hay for livestock feed.  My father tried growing some for hay, cutting them with his grain binder.  One time was enough!  The tangled growth mass gave the binder fits! 


Trying to gather soybean plants to carry to a threshing machine made great losses from handling damages.  It took the combine that could direct-cut the standing crop.  However, the bean pods grew along the whole stem length starting at ground level.

Tests were run in Illinois.  The tests showed a high percentage of loss to be at the cutter bar.  Certain western states grew peas and they had greater losses than soybeans.  Harvesting these crops attracted two inventers: Horance D. Hume of Mendota, Il and J. Edward Love.  Hume figured out how to make the finger pickup reel.  This reel gently lifted tangled crops so the cutter bar would slide underneath.  Love came up with the floating cutter bar in 1929.  It could flex, riding on small runners, keeping the cutter bar very close to the ground.


Picture of the Hart-Carter flexible cutter bar and the finger pickup reel.


Hume and Love formed a partnership.  They hauled a sample around for four years demonstrating to farmers.  Educated men kept saying the inventions could not possibly work.  When farmers saw how well they worked in use - they bought them - because they did work!  These two inventions made combining soybeans a whole lot more efficient and easier to do.  Finally all combine manufacturers got into offering their own versions of the Hume reel and Love cutter bar.  The manufacturers also learned to make long divider points to prevent wrapping at the reel ends. 


Edible beans while not a large acreage crop grew in pocket areas such as the thumb of Michigan.  The stalk stands straighter and not as tall as soybeans and has yellow blossoms.  These beans, Navy and Great Northern, are grown for human consumption so the value is considerably higher - at least in some years.  The beans are somewhat larger than soybeans.  Threshing cylinder speed and concave settings are critical to reduce damage.  Normal elevator chains and augers can do damage, so special belt/cup type elevators are optional equipment made by local concerns to handle the crop gently.










Corn is the number one crop grown in North America.  Corn is known as maize in many countries of the world.  In 1976 six billion bushels of corn were grown in the US.  For comparison wheat frown in the same period produced 900 million bushels.  Corn was domesticated by the Indians dating back 5000 years, originating in southern Mexico.  Researchers learned how to cross different stains of corn by 1930  and this is what we call hybrid corn.  Crosses were made to get desired characteristics such as stiffer stalks, ears turn down when ripe, higher yields, tolerance to thicker population, season length, stalk rot resistance, the traits go on and on.


Corn proved difficult to harvest.  For years there was much hand labor involved to cut, shock, husk, and shell the corn to be used for animal feed and a smaller portion for human consumption.  (I have Amish neighbors that still do it that way!)   Mechanical corn pickers arrived at about 1925.  The picker solved some of the hand labor required.  The corn would be put into cribs with slatted siding to air dry for several months.  When the corn had dried down sometime in the winter large shellers came to the farm.  This meant more shoveling. Corn pickers mainly changed to improve capacity and efficiency.  A popular version was a two-row mounted picker that fit around a row-crop tractor with narrow front wheels.


The concept of shelling corn with a combine was very appealing but it took a lot of years until it really took a hold for the average farmers. There were many attempts tried.  The history of these attempts takes us to Australia to start with.


The first corn combine credit goes to George Iland in Toowoomba, Quensland, Australia.


Picture of The World’s first corn combine


The year was 1921.  He was ahead of his time, as old hands could not see the future in the new-fangled harvester.  In 1924 agriculture authorities turned him away.  This harvester had long points on the front to guide the corn stalks in much like a corn binder.  As the corn stalks reached the back of the gathers saw blades cut the stalks into 14-inch lengths.  The cut stalks, ears and all dropped into a threshing drum-probably much like what we know as a cage sheller with lugs on a rotating drum. The threshed material then went to what we know as the cleaning shoe with shaker screens. An air blast blew air up through the screens to help remove the lighter material.  The ground-up stalks make a mass of material for the shoe to separate.  They reported harvesting costs were brought down to 2 ½ pence per bushel.  (That would be approximately 2 ½ cents in American currency.)  This was a great reduction compared to hand harvesting.  George Iland was able to get 42 orders to build machines.  However the Eclipe factory decided they had more important projects and turned down the orders.  George was incensed and proceeded to tell the Eclipe people what he thought.  It was to no avail!  


Eight years later (1929) the Gleaner-Balwin Company built a corn combine following the model “R” pull-type combine.  Balwin had their rasp-bar threshing cylinder down front.  It had a four-bat reel eight feet in diameter, designed to take in the whole plant. 


Picture of Gleaner corn combine


Experiments showed the machine worked well in corn.  Plans were made to build 1000 corn heads for 1931.  Then the stock market crash came bringing the Great Depression.  The company could not sell their inventory and landed in receivership.


In 1936 Allis Chalmers began work to make a corn attachment for the All-Crop 60 combine. A picture of the experimental corn head is shown in Wendel’s book The Allis Chalmers Story page 69.  It had long curved dividers.  It was reported to do an excellent job of shelling but they had problems getting corn into the cylinder.  As it turned out, it was another 20 years until 1957 that Allis Chalmers offered a corn head.   Development of corn heads was set-aside during WW2.  In 1955 Allis Chalmers bought the Gleaner Company and assets. Soon a Gleaner “A” is shown in Wendel’s book with a three-row corn head.


Corn pickers were the common method of harvesting in North America.


Picture of MH Self-propelled corn picker


As related from Bill Smidt in the early 1950s a farmer came into Smidt Machine (Masse-Harris dealer) at Upper Sandusky, Ohio area, and asked if they could take his snapping unit from his MH SP corn picker and attach it to his MH SP combine. Smidt Machine is known for their innovations and readily made an adapter to do this. Bill said it was the first such conversion in Wyandot County.  That could easily have been the first such conversion in Ohio.  At that time combines were not made strong enough to handle ear corn but that did not daunt the fellows trying. For best results the front of the concave needs to be set the width of the corn ear. The rear of the concave needs to be set for the width of the cob.  Set this way the ears can roll through the concave giving clean efficient shelling with rasp bar cylinders.  Husks do not pose a problem. Filler plates need to be added to the threshing cylinder to solve several problems.  They help add inertia to the cylinder.  When combining soybeans the plates help bat stones away from the cylinder and into the stone trap.  When combining corn they prevent chopping the ears and keep them rolling through the concave to aid shelling.


Older combines used spike-tooth type cylinders.  These will not work as they chew the cobs into small pieces, which greatly increases the load on the cleaning shoe.


As related from a former John Deere dealer at Upper Sandusky, they put some Case corn picker front ends on model 55 John Deere combines.  The winds of change were blowing!


Deere and Co. responded in 1954 by introducing the model 45 combine built for the corn-belt farmers.  Along with it came the No.10 Corn Head.  For the 1954 season 20 heads were put in customer’s hands for their feedback. Actual production came in 1955. That spelled the death knell for corn picker sales. Corn picker sales peaked in 1959 but quickly fell as combine-harvesting popularity found acceptance.  Another necessary development was the batch crop dryer to allow shelled corn harvesting even in the 30-35% moisture range.


A break-through on corn heads was the addition of snapping bars or sometimes called stripper plates.  These plates prevented the corn ears contacting the snapping rolls and thereby prevented ear butt shelling.  The rolls have to be more aggressive to pull the stalks down through the stripper plates.  It took fluted rolls spaced close together to accomplish this.  Corn pickers used cast iron rolls with spirals and little pockets that snapped the ears off.  The cast rolls polish in use and become less aggressive.  These rolls sometimes plug and operators would get hands or feet caught when the machine had not been shutoff while removing plugged stalk material. 


To make a corn head most efficient the gathering chains speed needs to be matched to the combine ground speed.  (Some combines have a variable speed control to the head.)  The matched speed prevents pulling or pushing the standing stalks.  They should come into the head and quickly disappear straight down.  Now the rolls are digesting the complete stalks and only the ears go into the combine.  When the combine is working this way efficiency is greatly improved because the cleaning shoe does not have to handle a great amount of material.


To make the combine work smoothly there are several adjustments that help. The flex-grain-head is by far the most complicated part of a combine.  It can take an hour or even two hours to get everything set right.  Now the flow of material will go in a smooth ribbon into the combine.  Setting the cylinder and concave can be in the middle of the operator’s manual specs and they will work well.  There is one exception to this.  When combining high-moisture corn, start at the low end of cylinder speed specs. And work up in small increments until shelling is satisfactory.  Shelling high moisture corn is the test of anyone setting a combine!   One of our servicemen had to go out on a complaint of grain damage.  The customer was blaming the combine.  After looking at several possible things it was found the damage came from a high grain leg at the dryer/storage facility.  The corn was traveling so fast down the long shuts that the impacts at the bottom did damage to the corn.  We actually had servicemen go through USDA Grain Grading Classes to learn how to measure grain damage. 


Another corn that challenges combines is harvesting popcorn.  I have been involved with field days at Weaver Pop Corn Company at Van Buren, IN.  In feed grains we measure loss in full one percent figures.  With popcorn they measure losses in one-tenth of one percent.  If the kernels are cracked they will not pop so this quickly affects quality. Each truckload batch has a sample checked in the lab and the farmer is docked according to what the tests show.  We have observed that worn rasp bars are gentler in shelling popcorn.  Cylinder speed is critical.


To list when various companies actually started production of corn heads for combines has proved difficult.  I have a piece of MH literature that shows the head from SP corn picker on the 50 Series Clipper and the 60 Combine.  The model 60 MH SP combine was built 1953-1959.  This head had the spiral cast snapping rolls.


Picture of50 Series Clipper and MH 60 combine with SP corn picker head


Picture of No. 15 Head


According to Bill Smidt the first corn head designed for combines was the No.15.

Also confirmed by Dave Helman, former Massey Ferguson dealer. It is shown in literature as the “new” head with literature on the MH 82 Combine.  The model 82 was built 1957-1963.  Bill and Dave tell that the No.15 did not perform well-the stalk rolls were not aggressive enough.  The No.15s were recalled to the Branch Houses and reworked.  When the heads were returned they were labeled No.20

I have literature that shows the No. 20 had snapping plates. The pictures do not show what kind of rolls were used.  Bill said the No.20 still had problems with the snapping rolls not being aggressive enough.  From this we can see that there was a learning curve to learn what worked and what did not.  Crop handling varies and poses problems for the design engineers.  We can all look back and say what should have been done but when we are on the cutting edge life can dish out some tough choices!


From C. H. Wendel’s book 150 Years of International Harvester page 57 shows a picture of the No. 141-SP combine, built from 1954 to 1957, was the first IH machine to use a corn head.


From C. H. Wendel’s book The Allis Chalmers Story page 77 shows a Gleaner model A with 3-row experimental corn head. Gleaner “A”s were built 1951 to1963.

Graeme Quick’s book The Grain Harvesters page 180 showed a 2-row corn head attached to a  60 All-Crop combine. The picture shows this head did have snapping plates.  It was released in 1957.


 It appears all the major companies came with corn heads in the period of 1954 to 1957.  They all started with 2 rows but quickly increased to 3 rows, 4-rows and by 1966 had 6 row heads. In this time period most corn moved to 30 inch row spacing.  There were a few attempts to grow corn in 20-inch row widths but that quickly dropped from favor.  Corn downed by windstorms made harvesting 20-inch rows difficult.  As combines increased in size 8 row heads and finally 12 row heads were introduced.   Today all major brands have 12 row heads.  It is just awesome to see a combine take down 8 or 12 rows at a time and do it with ease! 


Another significant change came in this period of time.  September of 1966 was extremely wet.  Our farm show Ohio Farm Science Review was one big mud field.  When corn harvest came in October we had rotten stalks that broke about two feet above the ground.  Some corn heads would just bull doze the bent stalks.  The head simply would not move through the down corn.  I was personally involved with one of these complaints. A factory man had been called out to observe the situation.  It did not take but a few minutes of observation and he said “Take it to the work shop”.  He took a piece of chalk and made marks around the backs of the divider points or snouts.  We slit the sheet metal at the marks.  Then crowed down the sheet metal to make the snouts have a low profile.  We soon had the sheet metal parts bolted together again.  Then we took the machine right back to the problem field.  It worked beautifully!   By next season the corn heads came with low sheet metal.  They are still made that way!


Picture of Super 92 Hillside combine


Hillside combine are another special adoption.  Massey-Harris built some Super 92 Hillside Specials built in the 1960s.  The areas of use are quite limited being in central California, Eastern Oregon, Eastern Washington, and Idaho.  A leveling control box operated hydraulic cylinders to move the wheels up or down to keep the separator level on slopes up to 37 percent.  The separator must be keep nearly level or grain just spills out the back of the combine. Otherwise it slides to the low side and rides right out the back of the combine. IH, Gleaner, and John Deere also built hillside combines. Some hillside combines list leveling to 42 percent. That means you mark off 100 feet horizontally and then go up 42 feet.  Now connect the first and last points. This is approaching the limit of a crawler tractor’s ability to follow the slope!  It takes nerves of steel to drive a hillside combine on these slopes!


About the mid-1960s hydrostatic transmissions began to appear as options on combines.   Hydrostatic is defined as a pump sends oil under high pressure to a motor to turn an output shaft to do work with infinite variable speed.  Pressure will be whatever it takes to propel the combine.  The relief valves are set at 7000 pounds per square inch. These valves protect the hydro from destroying its self.  The advantage of this type control gives the operator instant speed change and by simply moving the control lever the opposite direction gives instant reverse with infinite speed range.  This may sound trivial but working in muddy soybean and cornfields soon convinces an operator that it is a welcome feature. Operator acceptance was slow at first but continued to gain popularity.  By mid-1990s it was the only drive system offered.


When a combine is equipped with hydrostatic drive another option can be added.  Rear wheel hydrostatic drive motors can be driven from the high-pressure circuit.

There is a manifold junction block controlled by the 12-volt combine electrical system.  Now with just a little toggle switch the operator can select two-wheel or four-wheel drive.  I saw the concept demonstrated at a sales meeting.  They had prepared a mud pit and had the fire dept. haul enough water in to make real mud.

While we watched the operator drove a JD 7700 off into the mud.  The mud was oozing in around the combine frame.  The combine struggled a short distance and just spun its wheels to a stop.  The operator flipped the toggle switch and all the wheels began to take a bite.  It just walked right out of that mud pit!  We were amazed!   Today that option is found on a good share of the combines that have to harvest soybeans and corn.  When doing these crops, harvest may go into November, December and even later when ground conditions can be very marginal.


Cabs began to be offered in the 1960s.  For operator comfort heaters and air-conditioning need to be part of the package otherwise the cab is very hot in summer and very cold in winter.  There are days when both systems are used to compensate for the temperatures swings.  I have observed combining corn with the snow flying.

It did not take many years until cabs were regarded as necessary features,


Once the operator was put in a cab, he or she is insulated from the noise and vibrations of machine operation.  To solve this situation, monitoring systems were added to read certain crucial shaft speeds and alert the operator if some shaft gets out of preset range.  A buzzer goes off to get the operator’s attention.


Another concept that has piqued peoples’ interest is rotary separation and axial flow combines.  A lot of inventers have played with a great number of concepts that were forms of rotary threshing. The goal was to make a machine that did not have to be larger in physical size and to eliminate straw walkers.  When “ideas” were actually built into working prototypes problems encountered were higher horsepower requirements, chopping up the straw, and difficulties in separating the grain from straw and chaff.  Curt Balwin experimented with rotary threshers in the 1930s.  Massey Ferguson actually built a conical thresher in a prototype combine in the late 1950s but it was not marketed.  John Deere built prototype rotary axial flow combines in the late 1950s.  They were not satisfied with their tests.


In Canada another concept machine came out in 1974.  It was the Western Roto Thresh Combine. It had a conventional threshing cylinder but used a 5-½ foot diameter rotating separator drum. The drum turned at 30 rpm using centrifugal force to help separate the grain from other material. My information does not say how long it was built


New Holland introduced the TR 70 Combine with twin rotors in 1975.   In the late 1970s Australia engineers designed a single rotor PTO pull-type combine called the Leader.  Graeme Quick was the designer. Unfortunately they were caught in an economic down turn so the Leader project was shelved.  Versatile in Canada was also developing a pull-type rotary combine for their wheat growing areas. 


In 1978 International Harvester Corp. introduced their axial-flow 1440, 1460, and 1480 combines using a single, large-diameter rotor for threshing and separating. 

These combines represented 15 years of development.  One million hours of engineering and development went into developing this group of machines. 


The White Farm Equipment launched the 9700 Harvest Boss 1980. It was a big machine.  Graeme Quick was on the engineering team that designed these machines.


One of the problems with some makes for these rotaries was that the feeding into the rotor gave problems when the crop was not acceptably dry.  For example soybeans with green stems would rope making feeding into the rotor difficult.


The answer came as a feeder beater ahead of the rotor that actually threw the incoming material on into the rotor.


John Deere continued to run tests to learn these answers.  They did come with their rotor models in the mid-1990s.  Acceptance came quickly.  Today that is the only type combine John Deere builds in North America.  If you want a conventional type machine it must come from the JD Zweibrucken plant in Germany.


Picture of Massey Ferguson 9000 Combine


As machines get larger (now 30 and 35 foot platforms) bigger grain tanks are required.  Some machines now have 300-bushel tanks.  This requires larger and faster unloading augers.  The 900 Series MF combine specifications list unloading rates of 2.2 bushels per second.  The tank is unloaded in a little over two minutes.

Now, That is moving grain!


Slogan from 9000 MF literatures says “The Fieldstar Precision Agriculture System Makes Massey Ferguson Combines Even Smarter.  Fieldstar offers the Data TOUCH Command Center terminal gives you fingertip control over all functions.

Harvest data, such as yield, combine capacity, ground speed, grain tank volume,

fuel consumption rate, engine fluid temperatures, crop settings, etc.  This can all be recorded and mapped and stored on the Data TOUCH.   The inside of the cab might well remind one of an airplane cockpit!  


The latest addition is GPS (Global Positioning System) to guide the operator and now can actually take over steering.  Accuracy is now down to a few inches!  It is absolutely mind boggling that signals from satellites can steer the combine to more accuracy than a human operator can do!


A concept that did not fly was the idea of wrapping a combine around a tractor. Several companies made attempts.  Graeme Quick’s book The Grain Harvesters

Shows a Gleaner wrapped around a Fordson tractor.   They built 100 units for the 1924 season.  Also in Quick’s book page 235 shows a Claas combine wrapped around a Lanz tractor.  The year was 1931.


Picture of Ferguson Combine on Ferguson tractor


Along in the mid-1950s Harry Ferguson began working on a combine that sat side-mounted on his TE-20 Ferguson tractor. He planed to sell it in the USA and UK.  A handful were built in the UK.  Looking back I’m sure some people were glad it never reached production.  If I may take the liberty to list reasons:

1)     Operator sat low right in the dusty environment

2)      Chaff would plug the tractor radiator

3)      Tractor did not have live-PTO  (Some pictures show an auxiliary engine

4)       Tractor was underpowered for this application

5)       There was no way to balance weight of combine on tractor.

6)      With header ahead of front wheels, turning would sweep standing grain down

7)      Operator had to endure noise and dust at close range.

8)      Operator could not see the cutter bar.  Anyone who has operated a combine would know this limits the operator to monitor crop flow into the combine.

As brilliant as Ferguson was, this was not one of Ferguson’s better ideas!


In 1994 AGCO purchased Massy Ferguson and gained access to their trademark rights and European manufacturing operations.