Invention of the Harvester

Author: Scott Jensen   Date Posted:14 March 2023 

Invention of the Harvester main image Invention of the Harvester image

Invention of the Harvester

The header harvester, also known as the combine harvester, is a piece of agricultural machinery that revolutionized the harvesting process, particularly for cereal crops such as wheat and barley. The invention of the header harvester is credited to Hugh Victor McKay, who was born in Scotland in 1865 and emigrated to Australia with his family in 1880. McKay was a talented inventor and businessman, and he founded the Sunshine Harvester Works in 1904 in the Melbourne suburb of Sunshine.

However, the development of the header harvester owes much to a small town in southern New South Wales called Henty. In the late 19th century, Henty was a hub of wheat farming, and farmers in the area were struggling to keep up with the demands of the growing industry. The traditional method of harvesting involved cutting the wheat by hand using a sickle or scythe, which was slow and labor-intensive.

Stripper Harvester Model - H.V. McKay, 'Sunshine' Harvester, Ballarat,  Victoria, 1899

Image: Sunshine Harvester, Henty NSW

In 1885, a local farmer named John Ridley developed a reaping machine that could cut the wheat and gather it into bundles. However, this machine still required a team of laborers to follow behind and collect the bundles, which was also time-consuming and inefficient.

Enter Hugh McKay. In 1889, McKay visited Henty to demonstrate his new invention, the stripper harvester, which could strip the grain from the plant without cutting the stalks. This was a significant improvement over the previous machines, but McKay knew that he could do even better.

Over the next few years, McKay continued to refine his design, incorporating elements of Ridley's reaping machine and other innovations. In 1892, he unveiled his new invention, the header harvester, at the Henty Agricultural Show. The machine could cut the wheat, thresh the grain from the stalks, and collect it all in one operation, using a series of belts, pulleys, and sieves.

The header harvester was a game-changer for the wheat industry, and it quickly spread throughout Australia and beyond. Farmers could now harvest their crops much more quickly and efficiently, with fewer laborers required. McKay went on to become one of the most successful agricultural machinery manufacturers in the world, and his legacy can still be seen in the modern header harvesters used on farms around the globe.

Image: Modern John Deere Combine Harvester

In conclusion, the invention of the header harvester was a significant milestone in the history of agriculture, and it owes much to the farmers and inventors in Henty, New South Wales. The header harvester transformed the wheat industry, making it more productive and efficient, and it remains an essential tool for farmers today.