From wooden combine harvesters to robot machines: the history of harvest


The combine harvester is the coming together of many constituent parts. The header was a development of the reaper. It was a Scotsman, Patrick Bell, who developed it. He was a Scottish preacher who thought his invention should be available to all, so he didn’t patent it. However, Cyrus Hall -McCormick did patent it, over in the States. And that lead to the creation of the McCormick-Deering company and then further on from there international.

Going back to Scotland and Andrew Meikle. He had developed the threshing system that separated the grain from the chaff and the straw and added a fan into the system that blew the chaff away and allowed the grain to drop through.

The straw walkers were developed by Richard Garret of Leeston in Suffolk, and so it was a bringing together of many constituent parts.

This one person, Hirham Moore, was the man who did that. He was in the eastern states of America and developed the threshing machine-reaper all in one, the ‘combined harvester’ as it was called. He built it out of wood in about 1840 and had to ship it to drier climates.

Before America was completely joined up by transportation links through the Rockies, he shipped it around Cape Horn, around South America, and back up the Chilean coast to Stockton, California, where he successfully ran his combined harvester in the tinder-dry crops found in California.

As you might imagine, the wooden combines were quite a fire risk. In tinder-dry, 100F combine conditions, they were quite known to set themselves on fire.

So as the combine developed, the Holt Company of Stockton, California, started to build them out of steel which was much more reliable. But this didn’t happen until the turn of the century – 1900 or so.

The combine really hasn’t changed that much since then. You can still find Patrick Bell’s reciprocating knives and header. You can still find Richard Garrett’s straw walkers in the smaller combines we can buy today. And the thrashing cylinder was a concept developed in medieval times and is still at the heart of many a combine. Even the rotary combine was developed by Robert Malmesbury in Marylebone in about 1750. So some of these technologies go back a long, long way.

In terms of harvesting technology, there’s not a lot that can be changed – we’re still harvesting a commodity off the field. There is talk of autonomous machines gathering the straw material, the crop, the grain – everything – and taking it back to the farm for processing there, at any moisture. You’d simply dry it and thrash it at the farm and take the straw material and crop residue back to the field and spread it at any point.

I think it’s going to be a while. I can see autonomous machines helping in other areas of farming, but when you’re harvesting a commodity crop such as wheat, you really don’t want to be adding cost and you do need to be adding efficiencies.

The Hands Free Hectare trial has got on with harvesting pretty well. They’ve improved the guidance system so it’s able to steer much straighter these days. They’ve developed the tractor to drive alongside the combine to collect the grain autonomously as well, so that’s an improvement as well. It’s an exciting and interesting way to harvest grain. The challenge is getting lighter machines to run together and to get one operator, who is out in the field today with a 40ft cut combine, to run perhaps four 10ft combines with trailers alongside. That will be the challenge.

The obvious benefit is that a 10ft-cut combine could weigh 5 tonnes, and a modern 40ft-cut combine would weigh probably 35 to 40 tonnes with a full grain tank.

One of the stand-out points of the AHDB Machinery and Labour Review, which we did with the Monitor Farms, was to review the way you get combine harvesting capacity. The traditional way is that you buy the combine and you make payments and eventually own the combine which you keep for a certain amount of years and start the whole process again.

A stand-out point was that the cheapest combine, at £41/ha was not owned – it was rented. There are a lot of benefits to that. The combine is owned by the people you rent it from, so if it breaks down they come out and fix it. If it breaks down seriously, they’ll replace it. All you need to do is put the driver and fuel in it and off you go. You’ve quickly got rid of all the worries about depreciation – you just pay a set fee.

It might seem like you’re reducing the equity within the business, but of course machinery is an equity which is always depreciating at different levels, so is it really equity? Or is it a liability?

Find out more about AHDB’s harvest resources at

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Based at Ashkam Bryan near York, Harry grew up on a beef farm in his native north Wales. Subsequently, Harry developed an interest in farm machinery that took him around the world working in agriculture. Having managed a plant breeding farm near Cambridge for Monsanto, in 2005 Harry joined John Deere as Crop Systems Specialist, from where he was recruited by AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds.