Patent no. 30858. Filing year 1889.
"Machine for Thrashing and Separating Grain," George White.
Nineteenth-century Canada faced a labour-shortage problem, and the farm sector was hardest hit, particularly at harvest time. Little surprise, then, that the concept of automated harvesting machinery was popular among Canadian farmers, and inspired much invention. In fact, when the Upper Canada patent office first opened in 1824, seven of the first 30 patents concerned designs for threshing machines.
Modern harvesting machinery first emerged in Britain in the late 18th century, with a different type of machine for each task. Horse-drawn reaping machines used a blade and wheel system to cut the grain and guide it onto a conveyor belt, which deposited the cut grain to the side of the machine. Workers fed the cut grain into threshing machines, which were large, rotating cylinders that separated the grain from the straw as they spun. Fanning mills, or winnowing-machines, used a series of sieves to separate wheat from chaff and other impurities.
Threshing cylinders were initially stationary, with horse-pulled, wheeled versions becoming standard by the late 1860s. Unlike today, when one model of combine (or car or appliance for that matter) fits all, most machines in the 19th century were locally designed, built and sold, and customized to the specific needs of regional farmers. Threshers were also expensive, and smaller farms typically rented threshing services rather than purchase their own machines.
The 1889 threshing machine built by George White of London, Ontario, contained features common to other North American threshers. Grain was separated from straw in a cylinder and on an angled metal deck with built-in "agitators;" these were metal "fingers" that tossed the stalks, while a fan pushed air through the gaps in the deck, blowing the lighter chaff away as the heavier grain dropped onto a collector below.
One interesting feature of this machine is that White specified an entirely metal construction, with "no woodwork being used as heretofore in machines of this class." In this regard, he seems to have been ahead of his time. Metal parts were more durable than wood and could better withstand the significant wear and tear encountered in high-volume harvests. However, it is likely that wood was used for the machine's frame and side panels (not mentioned in the patent), as all-metal machines were first introduced in 1904 by farm machine magnate J.I. Case of Wisconsin. Fittingly, White was one of the first Canadian manufactures to follow suit with his own all-metal machine.
There are several other Canadian patents for threshing machines, including Gillespie's "Improved Threshing Machine" (1873) and "Hamlet's Harvester" (1893). Since White owned his own farm machine manufacturing company, his designs were more likely to be developed than most.
By the 20th century, the industry was consolidating, as manufacturers became more specialized, while rail connections allowed companies to market their machines further afield.
"Collection Highlights: Threshing Machines." Canada Agriculture Museum.
(accessed October 30, 2005).
Brown, J.J. Ideas in Exile: A History of Canadian Invention. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967.
Nostbakken, Janis, and Jack Humphrey. The Canadian Inventions Book: Innovations, Discoveries and Firsts. Toronto: Greey de Pencier Books, 1976.