1699-1741: Jethro Tull’s persistent innovating – the seed drill revolutionises European agriculture

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Seed Drill, from Horse-hoeing husbandry by Jethro Tull, 4th edition, from 1752

From the BBC

Jethro Tull was born in 1674 into a family of Berkshire gentry. He studied at Oxford University and Gray’s Inn in preparation for a legal political career, but ill health postponed these plans and, after his marriage in 1699, he began farming with his father.

At the time, seeds were distributed into furrows (‘drilling’) by hand. However, Tull had noticed that traditional heavy sowing densities were not very efficient so he instructed his staff to drill at very precise, low densities. By 1701, his frustration with their lack of co-operation prompted him to invent a machine to do the work for him. He designed his drill with a rotating cylinder. Grooves were cut into the cylinder to allow seed to pass from the hopper above to a funnel below. They were then directed into a channel dug by a plough at the front of the machine, then immediately covered by a harrow attached to the rear. This limited the wastage of seeding and made the crop easier to weed.

Initially the machine was only a limited success. In 1709 he moved to Prosperous Farm in Hungerford, and two years later decided to travel around Europe to improve his health and study agricultural techniques there. Upon his return in 1714, he perfected both his system and machinery. He pulverised the earth between the rows, believing that this released nutrients would act as a substitute for manure. While apparently successful – he grew wheat in the same field for 13 successive years without manuring – it is more likely that he merely prevented weeds from overcrowding and competing with the seed.

Tull’s other innovations included a plough with blades set in such a way that grass and roots were pulled up and left on the surface to dry.

Eventually, as agricultural improvement became fashionable, more interest began to be taken in Tull’s ideas. In 1731 he published his book, ‘The New Horse Hoeing Husbandry’, detailing his system and its machinery. It caused great controversy at the time, and arguments continued for another century before his eventual vindication. While several other mechanical seed drills had also been invented, Tull’s complete system was a major influence on the agricultural revolution and its impact can still be seen in today’s methods and machinery.

Tull died on 21 February 1741.

From Royal Berkshire History

Jethro Tull was a major pioneer in the modernization of agriculture. He was born in Basildon in early 1674, the son of Jethro Tull Senior, a gentleman farmer of that parish, and his wife, Dorothy, the daughter of Thomas Buckeridge. He was baptised in the parish church there on 30th March.

At the age of seventeen, Tull matriculated at Oxford, to St. John’s College, on 7th July 1691, but appears to have taken no degree. He was admitted as a student of Gray’s Inn on 11th December 1693; and called to the Bar on 19th May, 1699. In his admission entry, he is stated to be of two years’ standing at Staple Inn, and to be the only son and heir apparent of Jethro Tull, of Howberry in Oxfordshire.

After being admitted as a barrister, Tull made a tour of Europe and, in every country through which he passed, was a diligent observer of the soil, culture and vegetable productions. On his return to England, he married, in 1699, Susannah Smith, of Burton Dassett (Warwickshire). They had two children named after themselves and he settled, with his new family, on his father’s farm at Howberry, in the parish of Crowmarsh Gifford, just across the Thames from Wallingford. Determined to improve agricultural methods and increase yields, he pursued a number of agricultural experiments there. By intense application, vexatious toil, and too frequently exposing himself to the vicissitudes of heat and cold in the open fields, he contracted a pulmonary disorder, which, not being found curable in England, obliged him a second time to travel, and to seek a cure in the milder climates of France and Italy. He returned, considerably improved in health, but greatly embarrassed in his fortune. Part of his property in Oxfordshire, he had sold and, before his departure for the Continent, had settled his family on a farm of his own, called Prosperous Farm, in the parish of Shalbourne, near Hungerford. There, he revised and rectified all his old instruments and designed new ones suitable to the different soils of his new farm; and demonstrated the good effects of his horse-hoeing culture. But though Tull was successful in demonstrating what might be done by improved culture, he was not able to turn it to his own advantage. His expenses were enhanced in various ways, but chiefly by the stupidity of the workmen employed in constructing his instruments, and in the awkwardness and maliciousness of his servants, who, because they did not or would not comprehend the use of them, seldom failed to break some essential part or other, in order to render them useless.

The drill-husbandry had been probably known and practiced for ages; but was first adopted upon a regular and permanent plan by Tull, who professed to have caught the idea from the vine-culture upon the Continent, and to whose ingenious mind the mechanism of an organ suggested the rudiments of an implement for the delivery of seed in drills. “It was named a drill,” he says, “because when farmers used to sow their beans and peas into channels or furrows by hand, they called that action drilling” and it could sew three rows of seeds simultaneously. Later, he devised a horse-drawn hoe to clear away weeds

Tull became a Bencher of Gray’s Inn on 5th May 1724. About this time, he was prevailed upon, by some of the neighbouring gentlemen, who were witnesses of the practical utility of his system, to publish his theory, illustrated by an account of it in practice, which he undertook to do, at no inconsiderable expense, and, at a time too, when he was much harassed in his pecuniary affairs. His first publication was a ‘specimen’ only, in 1731; which was followed, in 1733, by ‘An Essay on Horse-Hoeing Husbandry’ folio; which was translated into French by Du Hamel.

In the course of thirty years culture of his own grounds under every disadvantage of ruined health and embarrassed circumstances, this enthusiastic genius reduced the tillage, seeding, and weeding of land to a system, which being founded in nature and philosophical truth, no length of time will be able to overturn. For, despite initial resistance to Tull’s revolutionary ideas, they were eventually adopted by large landowners and, in time, formed the basis of modern agriculture. Most subsequent drilling and hoeing implements were either copies, or improvements upon the invention of Tull; and his book, in which theory and practice are properly combined, was long in popular esteem. Whatever were his defects, it would probably be difficult to name a man, whose works have conferred a more solid and permanent benefit upon his country. Yet, whilst so many others, for services of a very different nature and tendency, have enjoyed the most splendid rewards, Jethro Tull, whose honest labours were to contribute to the feeding and the employment of countless millions, was suffered to pine out his days in misery and distress. His reward consists in being recognised by posterity as the illustrious ‘Father of British Agriculture’.

Tull died at Prosperous Farm on 21st February and was buried, in his native village of Basildon, on 9th March, 1741.

From wikipedia

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Tull was born in Basildon, Berkshire to Dorothy Buckridge and Jethro Tull and baptised there on March 30, 1674 [1]. He matriculated at St John’s College, Oxford at the age of 17 but appears to have not taken a degree. He was later educated at Gray’s Inn.

He became sick with a pulmonary disorder, and as he went in a search for a cure he travelled Europe seeking more knowledge of agriculture. Influenced by the early Age of Enlightenment, he is considered to be one of the early proponents of a scientific (and especially empirical) approach to agriculture. He helped transform agricultural practices by inventing or improving numerous implements.

Jethro Tull invented the seed drill, a device for sowing seeds effectively. At the time his workers did not like the idea because they thought they were going to lose their jobs. In fact, the Sumerians used primitive single-tube seed drills around 1,500 BC, and multi-tube seed drills were invented by the Chinese in the 2nd century BC.

Tull also advocated the use of horses over oxen, invented a horse-drawn hoe for clearing weeds, and made changes to the design of the plough which are still visible in modern versions. His interest in ploughing derived from his interest in weed control, and his belief that fertilizing was unnecessary, on the basis that nutrients locked up in soil could be released through pulverization. Although he was incorrect in his belief that plants obtained nourishment exclusively from such nutrients, he was aware that horse manure carried weed seeds, and hoped to avoid using it as fertilizer by pulverizing the soil to enhance the availability of plant nutrients.

Tull’s inventions were sometimes considered controversial and were not widely adopted for many years. However, on the whole he introduced innovations which contributed to the foundation of productive modern agriculture.

Tull published his famous book, The New Horse-Houghing Husbandry, c.1731, with the sub-title “an Essay on the Principles of Tillage and Nutrition”

Tull tried to persuade European farmers to adopt what he called ‘horse-houghing husbandry’, which involved growing crops in rows and hoeing them thoroughly. These may seem to be obvious and necessary processes to a modern reader. But they were not practiced in Europe until the eighteenth century and he was the major contributor in this conversion. The Chinese were doing this at least by the sixth century BC, and were thus a good 2,200 years in advance of the West in one of the most sensible aspects of agriculture. [2]

Tull died in Shalbourne, Berkshire (now Wiltshire), and is buried in the garden of St Bartholomew’s Church, Lower Basildon, Berkshire.


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