Jethro Tull, the ‘Father of British Agriculture
When Jethro Tull was born at the end of the 17th century, the ‘scientific revolution’ was taking place in Europe. This scientific revolution made possible the agricultural revolution and the following Industrial Revolution. Indeed the agricultural revolution can be considered the warm up act for the industrial revolution and without the scientific revolution none of it would have happened at all.
Jethro Tull was hailed the ‘Father of British Agriculture’ by those followed his agricultural practices and inventions decades later but who was this gentleman farmer who spent a lifetime seeking to perfect the seemingly simple process of putting seed in the ground?
Tull would seem to be an unlikely candidate as an inventor. He was born in Upper Basildon in Berkshire in 1674 the son of gentry farmers, Jethro Tull senior his father and his mother Dorothy Buckeridge.
At the age of seventeen, Tull went to St Johns College, Oxford University and then left to study law at Grays Inn London. Having spent two years at Staple Inn he was called to the Bar. A bout of ill health caused him to leave England for a European Tour and whilst on this tour he was able to explore different agricultural systems and move amongst people who enlightened thinking proved influential in his own life and works. He studied different soils, techniques and crops.
He returned home and married and rather than practice law, he inherited his father’s farm, Howbery Farm at Crowmarsh Gifford in Oxfordshire and set about trying to improve the efficiency and yield of his own farming practices.
Jethro Tull observed that he had two problems, a problem with his soil structure and soil nutrition and an inefficient method of placing seed in the ground.
The broadcasting method for sowing seed
For thousands of years, across the world, the quickest method of sowing seed was the broadcast method. With seed in a sack, the worker would walk the field, flinging out the seed in a wide arc. This method resulted in a patchy crop, some areas of the soil bare and therefore subject to soil erosion and leaching of nutrients. Weeds could exploit the gaps and compete for moisture and nutrients. Over sowing in patches led to the crop competing for the same resulting in a weakened crop and poor yield.
During his trip on the Continent Jethro Tull had observed seeds placed in furrows but the seeds were placed in the ground by hand and took far too long. His own workers were reluctant to adopt the more laborious sowing technique and the precision that was required.
So Jethro Tull invented a mechanical seed drill
He determined that if his farm workers could not and would not apply his new methods he would design a machine to do the job. The seeds were placed in a hopper which fell into a grooved rotating cylinder, this fed the seeds in a controlled manner down a funnel. The front of the machine had a plough which created a channel into which the seed fell and at the rear a harrow covered the seed.
The advantages of the seed drill
- Less seed was wasted
- The crop grew in rows and so was easier to harvest
- The area between the rows could be weeded easily
- The mechanization allowed for several channels to be drilled at once, cutting sowing time
Tull experimented with different designs suitable for different soil types but initially met with limited success. Neither the people who manufactured his machines not the workers who used them were skilled enough and indeed were truculent and destructive in their behaviour. The result was that Tull lost a considerable part of his fortune. In 1709, he moved to Prosperous Farm in Hungerford, he was taken ill again and two years later decided to travel around Europe to improve his health and revisit some of the practices he had studied there. In 1714, he perfected both his system and machinery. He introduced new ideas pulverising the earth between the rows, believing that this released nutrients. He built a hoe and rake for lifting weeds to the surface where they could dry.
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 and he invented a hoe that could be drawn by a horse.
Tull became a Bencher of Gray’s Inn on 5th May 1724. There amongst his fellow gentry farmers he found a following. They had seen the improvements Tull’s system had had on his land and they called for him to publish his work which he did. In 1731, he published his book, ‘The New Horse Hoeing Husbandry’, detailing his system and its machinery. Not everyone was convinced and it caused great controversy at the time. It took decades before the genius of Tull’s system was fully appreciated and understood. His ideas were the forerunners of the inventions of the Industrial Revolution but whereas many of those men reaped enormous rewards for their revolutionary inventions, Tull’s system caused him great financial stress.
Jethro Tull’s contribution
Cannot be underestimated, the Industrial Revolution brought about a population explosion. The population needed feeding and improved crop yields were made possible by Tull’s system. It was the lead system in the agricultural revolution and its impact can still be seen in today’s methods and machinery. His genius and contribution to society and science should be ranked alongside that of much more familiar great names of his time.
Tull died on 21 February 1741.
You can see the context of Tull and his seed drill with other science and technology developments on our industrial and agricultural page where there is a searchable table you can scroll through. Click here to go to the table.