Agricultural Engineering with Irish Roots

Until the second half of the 19th century, agriculture in Ireland was barely mechanised. As a result, the increase in yields associated with this process was unable to remedy the catastrophe of the Great Famine. It was only when the rural population was bled dry by starvation and emigration that the mechanisation of agriculture was also promoted in Ireland at the end of the 19th century.

The late and low-level mechanisation was certainly not due to a lack of genius on the part of the Irish, but to the fact that there were hardly any funds available for investment in agricultural machinery. On the other hand, the economic activities of the Irish were also kept to a minimum by English rule. In England, for example, there were import restrictions on Irish products, which were in competition with English production.

Ford and Ferguson – successful examples with Irish roots

In the history of agricultural engineering, there are two examples of Irish people, or pioneers of Irish descent, who advanced the mechanisation of agriculture worldwide with their ideas. The two of them even worked together for a certain time. However, it must also be said that neither of them achieved this success in Ireland, but in the USA and England.

One of them, Henry Ford, revolutionised tractor construction by using assembly line technology to build tractors for the first time. In addition, Ford’s tractor was significantly lighter and more cost-effective than the conventional frame type tractors of that time, thanks to its design with a load-bearing engine and transmission box. This also made the Ford tractor affordable for smaller farms.

On the other hand, Harry Ferguson came up with the idea of significantly improving tractive power during ploughing work by connecting the plough directly to the tractor via the 3-point linkage, a system without which no tractor in agriculture would be sold today. Ferguson was also an advocate of the small, cheap tractor for the broad mechanisation of agriculture. Here are more details about these two tractor pioneers.

Henry Ford

A Ford Model T in front of the castle in Leiben.

The son of Irish immigrants and farmers, Henry Ford was born on 1863 in Wayne County near Dearborn. His parents came from Cork in the south-west of Ireland. Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company based in Detroit in 1903. In 1908, Ford brought the Model T onto the market. He established the success of his company, which continues until today, with this car. 15 million units of the Model T had been sold by 1927.

Henry Ford in 1919. (Photos: Ford, Library of Congress)

As a farmer’s son, he turned his attention to agricultural engineering alongside car production from 1907 onwards. In that year, he produced the first prototype of a tractor. It was based on many parts from automobile production. A 4-cylinder petrol engine with 20 hp was used as the drive engine.

Tractor development had reached the point that series production could begin in 1917. For this reason, Henry Ford withdrew from automobile production and founded Henry Ford & Son, Inc. together with his son. As the rights to the Ford name remained with the automobile factory, he called the tractors Fordson.

The cost-effective design and cost-optimised mass production allowed Ford to offer his tractors at unrivaled low prices. Only 4 years after the factory was founded, two out of three tractors sold were Fordsons.

A Fordson tractor at a show in Rechnitz, Austria in 2015.

Ford temporarily ended tractor production in the USA in 1928. By then, he had already sold 750,000 Fordson tractors. Production was initially moved to the Ford plant founded in Cork, Ireland, in 1917. Cork was his parents’ region of origin. In 1933, production was transferred to Dagenham in Great Britain, although Ford cars continued to be built in Cork.

The Ford N8 in the court of the Castle of Leiben.

Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson met in 1938. At this meeting, Ferguson demonstrated his tractor design. Henry Ford immediately recognised the advantages of the Ferguson 3-point linkage. This meeting ended with the famous handshake agreement, which gave Ford the right to build Ferguson’s tractor design. Ford thus resumed tractor production in the USA from 1939. Over 300,000 units of the Ford N9 were built by late 1946. Henry Ford died in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1946 and a dispute arose between Harry Ferguson and Henry Ford II. Ford no longer wanted to pay licence fees to Ferguson for the new N8 tractor design.

Despite the dispute, which Ford lost, the company remained active in tractor construction and launched the Fordson Major on the market in 1952.

Ford tried to expand its agricultural machinery program from the 1940s onwards. In addition to the tractors produced in-house, combine harvesters, threshing machines and corn pickers from Wood Brothers were added to Ford’s range in 1943. In 1950, Wood Brothers was finally taken over by the Dearborn Motors Company, a subsidiary of Ford. Production of the machinery taken over from Wood Brothers was discontinued in 1965. Ford also co-operated with other companies whose designs were then offered under the Ford brand name, for example, combine harvesters from Oliver and Cockshutt. Finally, from 1965 on, combine harvesters from Claas were sold in Ford colors in North America. This co-operation lasted until the 1970s.

Ford took over Sperry New Holland, from which Ford New Holland emerged in 1986. This was then merged with the agricultural machinery division of Fiat in 1990, with the Italians holding 80 % of the shares in the newly created New Holland Group. Finally, in 1999, the further merger of New Holland with CaseIH created Case New Holland, the second largest agricultural engineering group after Deere & Co. The blue corporate color of the tractors, which had been the standard color of Ford tractors since the Fordson Major, remained as a legacy from Ford.

Harry Ferguson

Harry Ferguson (

Harry Ferguson was born in 1884 in Growell in County Down in Northern Ireland. His parents ran a farm in Dromore. He moved to Belfast in 1903, where he learnt the trade of mechanic in his brother’s workshop. This was followed by a degree in engineering at the University of Belfast. It was here that his interest in aviation was awakened. He constructed his own aero plane in 1908, with which he carried out the first powered flight on the Irish island the following year. The flight distance was 120 meters.

Ferguson founded a company in Belfast to build agricultural equipment in 1911. This included a plough that was not supported by wheels but was firmly connected to the tractor – a precursor to his later developments. Ferguson built his first tractor, which was based on Ford Model T technology, in 1916. In the period after the First World War, he pushed ahead with the development of his tractor design and became known above all for his development of 3-point linkage. This made it possible to achieve higher tractive power, e.g. when ploughing, even with less powerful tractors. Ferguson initially had his tractors built by Coventry Climax. 1,350 units were manufactured then by transmission manufacturer David Brown in the 1930s. However, this collaboration was terminated in 1937.

A Ferguson-Brown built by David Brown. This tractor is part of the David Brown collection of Phil Green, Ireland.

As mentioned above, Harry Ferguson met Henry Ford in 1938 and he demonstrated the Ferguson tractor to Ford. Henry Ford recognized the advantage of Ferguson’s tractor design with its 3-point linkage and the two agreed in the famous handshake agreement that Ford would be allowed to produce the tractor developed by Ferguson. However, Ford never obtained the rights to the design and in particular not the rights to the patented 3-point linkage.

The 3-point linkage was developed by Ferguson.
Ferguson 3-point linkage. These examples can be seen in the Irish Agricultural Museum, Johnstown Castle, Wexford.

Subsequently, the Ford N9 with the Ferguson system was built in a quantity of 306,000 units. Ford ended production of the N9 in 1946. Ferguson started production of the TE20 in Coventry in the same year. The TE20 was later known in agricultural engineering history as the Little Grey Fergie. 517,000 units of the TE20 and the tractors derived from it had been built at the Coventry plant by 1956. Ferguson also began to export the TE20 to the USA with the end of production of the N9.

The Little Grey Fergie, Ferguson TE20 on display in the Irish Agricultural Museum, Johnstown Castle, Wexford.

The break between Ferguson and Ford came in 1947/1948, when Henry Ford II launched a tractor very similar to the Ferguson system – the model N8 – but did not want to pay license fees for it any more. Ferguson then began a patent lawsuit against Ford, which he won in 1952 and received fees of US$ 9.25 million from Ford. In addition, Ford had to cease production of the N8. Harry Ferguson finally sold his company to Massey Harris Co. Ltd. of Canada in 1954. This gave rise to Massey Ferguson, the leading agricultural machinery manufacturer for decades, which in turn is now part of the AGCO group.

Harry Ferguson thus withdrew from tractor construction. He had already founded the company Ferguson Research in 1950 together with Freddie Dixon and Tony Rolt. The main focus was on research into four-wheel drive. In 1960, Formula 1 world champion Stirling Moss competed in a race at Oulton Park, England, in a four-wheel drive car – the P99 designed by Ferguson. The four-wheel drive developed by Ferguson was also installed in the first passenger car with four-wheel drive, the Jensen FF.

Harry Ferguson died in England in 1960.

Written by Albert Kühnstetter for the ÖLM (Österreichisches Landwirtschaftsmuseum Europaschloss Leiben / Austrian Agricultural Museum in Leiben Castle)


Irish Farmers Journal: 100 years of machinery at the 1916 mechanisation village

Photos without source given are property of the author.