Glossary of Early Australian Wheat Farming Machinery

Glossary of Early Australian Wheat Farming Machinery

Contents

Binder
Drill
Harvester
Header
Reaping Machine, Reaper or Stripper
Winnower

This section explains some of the items which you will find listed in clearing sales by wheat farmers during the period of this book, particularly those not well covered by dictionaries. It is sad to note that even the Maquarie dictionary does not include the meaning of most of the following terms as they would be understood by an Australian farmer. I do not give references in this section, but you can find them in my separate article “Ridley’s Reaper, Hugo’s Harvester and Headlie’s Header”.

Binder

Short for reaper-binder, this is a machine which cuts off the stalks of wheat, oats or other cereal and ties them into bundles (sheaves). The binder superseded the earlier American type reapers which required the sheaves to be tied manually. (The first mechanism to tie knots in string was invented in 1876.) Sheaves were arranged in “stooks” in the field to dry. In the case of a grain crop they would later be fed into a threshing machine to separate the grain.

In the early 20th century it seems to have been universal for Australian farmers with a stripper or harvester to have a binder as well. I believe this was almost exclusively for cutting hay. Before binders became widespread, most farmers had a mower and horse rake. This indicates that hay was not stooked but was left on the ground to dry, then raked up and stacked. Nowadays hay harvesting is done a similar way except that the hay is picked up by a mechanical baler. Hence hay harvesting using a binder was transitory phenomenon.

Drill

A machine to sow seed in rows. Jethro Tull advocated the seed drill in the 1730s, but in Australia they did not start to replace broadcasting of seed until about 1890, well behind America where about 50% of farmers used them by 1880. South Australian farmers were even further behind, many still using broadcasting as late as 1910, detracting somewhat from their reputation for being at the technological forefront of wheat growing. By placing the seed more regularly the drill prevents competition between plants.

Drills which have a separate box for fertilizer are called combines, a term which to an American is short for combine harvester.

Harvester

More descriptively called a stripper harvester, these were basically just a stripper (see below) with added mechanisms to more thoroughly thresh and clean the wheat and to bag it. They started to displace the stripper in the early 20th century, although discussions about the relative merits of the two machines continued until the 1930s. The most famous maker was H. V. McKay, but there were a number of others with their own designs. The Canadian firm of Massey Harris came to the Australian market with what was basically a copy of McKay’s machine.

Header

This was invented on the farm by Headlie Taylor, and manufactured by H. V. McKay from 1916. It had a unique design consisting of a stripper type comb with a knife under it. A large toothed spiral above the comb forced the heads against the knife. A second parallel spiral then carried them to an elevator and thence to the threshing and cleaning apparatus. The great advantage of the header was that it could harvest crops which had been flattened or tangled by storms.

In American terminology, a Header is a machine which juts cuts off the heads, which are then carted to a stationary threshing machine. This type of machine was mainly used in 19th century California. Also in American terminology, a combine harvester is a combination of a header and a threshing and cleaning apparatus. The Australian header is therefore a type of combine harvester. All other combines have a large horizontal revolving reel to push the heads against a reciprocating knife (as in the original McCormick reaper from 1831), and do not have a comb. The Australian design allowed less straw to be taken into the machine, and therefore faster harvesting with the same horsepower. This became less important when horses were replaced by the internal combustion engine.

Reaping Machine, Reaper or Stripper

In 19th century South Australia, reaping machine or reaper referred to a wheat harvesting machine of the type first built by John Ridley in 1843, and subsequently by many others. Unlike any machine previously invented, this was designed to beat the wheat out of the heads in the standing crop.

Principle of Ridley’s Harvesting Machine1

It is unfortunate that Ridley’s machine was not given a better name since the dictionary definition of reap is to cut with sickle or some substitute thereof. Everywhere except in South Australia a reaping machine referred to American type machines built by McCormick and others which did nothing more than cut off the stalks and form them into bundles (sheaves). When Victorians started to use the South Australian machines they became known as the Adelaide stripper to avoid confusion - the first written mention is from 1861. Stripper eventually became the accepted name.

When it was invented the stripper brought the labour requirement to produce bagged wheat down to less than 3 hours per acre, compared to 14 hours for the best overseas technology of day (the McCormick reaper and steam powered threshing machine).

Strippers were superseded by the harvester and later the header, but continued to be used well into the 20th century.

Winnower

The stripper collected a mixture of grain and other material, which then had to be passed through a winnower to produce clean grain. This was usually done in the field with a portable hand-cranked winnower, a tough job in hot weather. As well as using a fan to blow away lighter material (chaff), winnowers also included at least two shaking screens or sieves to separate the grain from larger material such as straw and the smaller seeds of weeds. The larger material would include heads of wheat which had been broken off by the beaters without detaching the grain, for example immature heads known as white heads.

Hand Cranked Winnower and Stripper, circa 1880s

At least two men were needed to operate a hand cranked winnower, one to shovel the grain and the other to crank. Often there would also be a boy to sow up bags. One winnower could handle the grain from more than one 5 foot wide stripper on typical crops. At Agery for example Richard Triplett had four strippers but only one winnower.

copyright © Jeffrey E. Triplett

1  Drawing from Jones, L. J.; John Ridley and the early progress of South Australia