Patent no. 38409. Filing year 1892.
"Fanning Mill," Ninian Michael Newkirk.
For thousands of years, the process of harvesting grain consisted of very specific steps. Ripe stalks of grain were cut or "reaped" by hand with a scythe. The cut grain was then gathered and bound into sheaves and taken to the granary, where labourers whipped the grain with leather thongs to separate the edible grain from the straw. Finally, the heavier wheat was separated from the inedible chaff, a process called "cleaning" that was typically accomplished by pouring the grain from a height, allowing the lighter chaff to blow away.
When harvesting machinery first emerged in the late 18th century, these three steps -- reaping, threshing and cleaning -- required their own separate machines, with the cleaning process handled by devices known as fanning mills or winnowing machines. Although several patents for threshing machines incorporate fans for winnowing, including George White's, the large number of patents for fanning mills at the time suggests a need for a separate process (or at least a cheap alternative to a thresher).
The various fanning mills in the database (including no. 3627, no. 6577, no. 15386, no. 17875 and no. 36246) feature different arrangements of similar parts, mainly fans and vibrating sieves. In this one, designed by Ninian Newkirk of Chatham, Ontario, grain was fed into the top of the machine and passed through a vibrating "shoe" containing inclined planes and sieves. As the grain dropped from one level to the next, wind from the fan blew through it, separating the chaff and other impurities and sending them out another chute. The grain was collected in a hatch that, when opened, subjected the grain to another blast of wind as it fell through the opening. It is this double air blast system that Newkirk claims as his innovation.
Despite advances in automation, the harvest was still a labour-intensive process. Workers were required to bind the cut wheat, feed the wheat into threshers, and the grain into fanning mills, while mechanics were needed to service the temperamental machines. Yet as the industry became more consolidated, so did the machines. Thresher manufacturers, for example, offered attachments that handled winnowing. The pinnacle of technological achievement was the self-propelled combine, introduced in the 1920s and more or less the industry standard by the time of the Second World War. A self-propelled machine that handled reaping, threshing and cleaning in one unit cut the number of required workers to about three, and made fanning mills instant relics for agricultural museums.
"Fanning Mills." Appleton's Cyclopedia of Applied Mechanics: Agricultural Machinery.
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"Collection Highlights: Threshing Machines." Canada Agriculture Museum.
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Nostbakken, Janis, and Jack Humphrey. The Canadian Inventions Book: Innovations, Discoveries and Firsts. Toronto: Greey de Pencier Books, 1976.