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History of the Plow

Inventing the Plow and Moldboard

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Young Man Sitting On Tractor In Field
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The farmers of George Washington's day had no better tools than had the farmers of Julius Caesar's day; in fact, early Roman plows were superior to those in general use in America eighteen centuries later.

Definition: Plow & Moldboard

By definition a plow (also spelled plough) is a farm tool with one or more heavy blades that breaks the soil and cut a furrow (small ditch) for sowing seeds. A moldboard is the wedge formed by the curved part of a steel plow blade that turns the furrow.

Early Plows

One early type of plow used in the United States was little more than a crooked stick with an iron point attached, sometimes with rawhide, which simply scratched the ground. Plows of this sort were in use in Illinois as late as 1812. However, plows designed to turn a deep furrow for planting seeds were needed. Early attempts were often just heavy chunks of tough wood, rudely cut into shape, with a wrought-iron point clumsily attached. The moldboards were rough and the curves of no two were alike.

At that time, country blacksmiths made plows only on order and few had patterns for plows. Plows could turn a furrow in soft ground only if the oxen or horses were strong enough - but friction was so great a problem that three men and several animals were required to turn a furrow when the ground was hard.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson worked out very elaborately the proper curves for a moldboard, however, Jefferson was interested in too many things other than inventing to keep working on his moldboard and plow designs.

Charles Newbold & David Peacock

The first real inventor of a practical plow was Charles Newbold, of Burlington County, New Jersey, who received a patent for a cast-iron plow on June, 1797. However, early American farmers mistrusted the plow. They said it "poisoned the soil" and fostered the growth of weeds.

David Peacock received a plow patent in 1807, and two others later. Charles Newbold sued Peacock for patent infringement and recovered damages - the first patent infringement case involving a plow.

Jethro Wood

Another plow inventor was the Jethro Wood, a blacksmith from Scipio, New York, who received two patents, one in 1814 and the other in 1819. His plow was cast iron, made in three parts, so that a broken part could be replaced without purchasing a new plow. This principle of standardization marked a great advance. The farmers by this time were forgetting their former prejudices, andwere enticed to buy plows. Though Wood's original patent was extended, patent infringements were frequent, and he is said to have spent his entire fortune in prosecuting them.

William Parlin

Skilled blacksmith, William Parlin, of Canton, Illinois, began making plows about 1842, and travelled by wagon around the country selling them.

John Lane & James Oliver

John Lane patented in 1868 a "soft-center" steel plow. The hard but brittle surface was backed by softer and more tenacious metal, to reduce the breakage. The same year James Oliver, a Scotch immigrant who had settled at South Bend, Indiana, received a patent for the "chilled plow." By an ingenious method the wearing surfaces of the casting were cooled more quickly than the back. The surfaces which came in contact with the soil had a hard, glassy surface, while the body of the plow was of tough iron. James Oliver later founded the Oliver Chilled Plow Works.

John Deere

In 1837, John Deere developed and marketed the world's first self-polishing cast steel plow. The large plows made for cutting the tough American prairie ground were called "grasshopper plows."

Plow Advances & Farm Tractors

From the single plow advances were made to two or more plows fastened together, doing more work with approximately the same man power.

The sulky plow, allowed the plowman to ride rather than walk. Such plows were in use as early as 1844, perhaps earlier. The next step forward was to replace animals that pulled the plows with traction engines. By 1921, farm tractors were pulling more plows, and doing the work better. Fifty horsepower engines could pull sixteen plows, and harrows, and a grain drill, performing the three operations of plowing, harrowing, and planting at the same time and covering fifty acres or more in a day.

Today, plows are not used nearly as extensively as before, due in large part to the popularity of minimum tillage to reduce soil erosion and conserve moisture.

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