Ag History: Ford N Series Tractors And The Handshake That Changed Farming Forever

(first posted 2/21/2015)    Two men, both of Irish descent, both christened Henry at birth and both raised by a mother named Mary. Each fathered a single child. Raised in rural, agricultural areas, they were both considered to be mechanical geniuses. One was an agnostic and the other believed in reincarnation. Both were involved in aviation and each raced automobiles under the numbers “99” or “999.” Neither could read blueprints well and both hated horses.

Dear readers: This story takes a while to tell, so you might want to grab a cuppa before you start…

Henry George (“Harry”) Ferguson was born November 4, 1884, on his parents’ farm in County Down (Northern Ireland). Harry was fourth of eleven children and was raised in a strict Plymouth Brethren home. Stopping school at age 14, he found himself ill-suited to the rigors of work on the family farm, being of small stature. Constant clashes with his father over religious and other matters led him to plan to emigrate to Canada in 1902, at age 18, but his older brother Joe instead talked him into working in his motor and cycle shop in Belfast. Harry, a bit full of himself, promptly crashed the first automobile he ever drove (along with its owner) right through a shop window.

Early driving skills notwithstanding, Harry quickly became known for his talent with engines, and took up motorcycle racing as a way to promote the business, soon earning himself the nickname “The Mad Mechanic.” Fascinated with the exploits of the Wright brothers, he attended air shows in Reims and Blackpool with friend and future employee John Williams, where they took measurements off various aircraft. He subsequently built an aeroplane in 1908 and managed a flight of 130 yards on December 31, 1909, becoming the first Irishman to take to the air. Harry’s aviation exploits came to an end in 1913 upon his marriage to Maureen Watson, daughter of another strict Plymouth Brethren family (who looked somewhat unfavorably on the match).

After friction with his brother Joe over a girl (and perhaps jealousy over Harry’s growing fame), Harry left and opened his own business, in Belfast, in 1911, initially called May Street Motors and renamed in 1914 to Harry Ferguson, Ltd. He employed his friend John as well as a talented engineer named Willie Sands, who would become Harry’s right-hand man for decades. Marques offered included the British Vauxhall and French Darracq motorcars. Perhaps seeking new thrills after having given up aviating, Harry also involved himself in gun-running for the Ulster Volunteer Force (an anti-Catholic organization) in 1913-14, which finally earned him begrudging respect from Maureen’s Protestant parents.

Harry’s first business involvement with tractors (a conjunction of the phrase “traction motors”) came when, with The Great War looming, the Irish Board of Agriculture appointed him to oversee tractor maintenance and records for all of Ireland as part of the effort to rapidly increase food production. Harry started selling Waterloo Boy Model N tractors imported from Iowa, USA and offered in Britain as the “Overtime.” John Williams had joined the RFC, so it was left to Harry and Willie to perform tractor and plowing demonstrations as part of the educational efforts they made with Irish farmers.

In the course of the demonstration tours, Ferguson, who already had several patents under his belt, realized that there were numerous drawbacks to the practice of using tractors as a motorized horse substitute for drawbar (pulled) implements. Ferguson felt the main problem was not with the tractor, but rather with the heavy and crude plows of the day. With Sands, he set about to create a lightweight “wheel-less plow,” which could be easily raised and lowered by a system of linkages and springs, making it much easier to maneuver around the field.

Ferguson’s two-bottom (two-row) Belfast Plow was patented in late 1917, and was designed to be attached to a Ford Model T with an Eros Tractor Conversion, one of over forty-five conversion kits available on the market. Stepping back for a moment, at the start of WWI, it was estimated there were 500 tractors in all of Britain. The need for rapid increases in food production through mechanization meant many more were needed, which now brings us to take a closer look at Henry Ford…

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