Cohort Outtake: Claas Columbus Combine – In Praise of the Combine, the Ultimate Mechanical Monster

Yes, the combine harvester is one of the greatest inventions of the industrial era. Maybe another time we’ll take a deeper look at its history and economic significance. But when I ran across this picture of a vintage Claas combine posted at the Cohort by Hannes, it reminded me of that these were the ultimate mechanical monsters when I first saw them as a little kid. They were a seductive and terrifying mix, thanks to all the  endless gears, chains, belts pulleys, sprockets, shafts, cutting blades wheels, augers, blowers, eccentrics, flails, cams, rods, and a dozen other mechanical devices I still don’t have the names for. Rube Goldberg was of course the inventor.

They looked like straight out of nightmare, clattering along and threatening to suck up any wayward children and turn them into into high-protein flour. And although I’m not exactly scared of them, I give them my due respect.


Surely it can’t be sheer coincidence that the combine looks so much like a grasshopper, the original harvester.


Hiram Moore is credited with developing the first functional combine harvester in 1835, which combined the functions of reaping, threshing and winnowing of grain cereal crops. The soon became scaled up for America’s large farms, pulled by twenty horses or mules, as in this case.

Now that’s a lot of horsepower at work.

When I used to spend summer during my grade school years on a Mennonite farm in Iowa, these old hulks rusting away were common sights. And I spent plenty of time climbing up, in, through, down and out of their innards. Not that I properly understood them as a consequence, but it gave me a healthy respect for all the mechanical thought that went into them.

Mr. Yoder had an an old tractor-pulled combine, powered by a Wisconsin air-cooled V4, for harvesting the oats. And he had an Allis Chalmers WD45 tractor to pull it with. He was going to use it to harvest the oats for another farmer, and he filled the tractor’s rear tires with water, to give extra traction. I kind of wondered about that. Sure enough, one of the tires ripped wide open.

So he had to hitch up the ancient and much less powerful John Deere Model B, which had all of 16hp. The drive to this farm a couple of miles away was already interminable, as the B was very slow on the road, topping out at 12 mph. I can still see the gravel going by so slowly as I looked down at the drawbar I was standing on; every pebble was distinct.

And then combining this field had to be done in one of the B’s lower gears, due to it being so light and low-powered. It was one of the longest days of my young life, either riding along behind the seat or sitting under a tree watching that rig slowly work its way through he oats. And of course the combine broke down…


So let’s get back to the self-propelled kind, which are even that much more compelling. Here’s another shot of a Claas, a German brand, showing some of all that wonderful machinery.

This video of a vintage Claas shows all that in action, with a more modern Claas in the background.

Apparently Claas is active in the US now, and also holds records for the most productive combines. Here’s their biggest combine, the Lexion 780 at work. Impressive, but where’s all the gears, chains, rods, belts and other clattering machinery?