Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Let us hear it for Jethro Tull: Inventor of the Horse-drawn Seed Drill

by Mike Rendell

Jethro Tull was an unusual character – he was born into a family of land-owning gentry in Berkshire in March 1674. He studied law at Gray’s Inn, and qualified as a barrister in 1699, although he never practised law.

In the same year as he qualified he embarked on a cut-down version of the grand Tour (it only lasted four months instead of the more usual two years). He returned from this glimpse of agricultural practices outside England and married Susanah Smith. They went on to have a son and four daughters.

He had seemed destined for a career in politics but it appears that he took over the family farm known as Howbery Farm, Crowmarsh Gifford – perhaps he inherited it, or perhaps an outdoor life was considered beneficial to him (he suffered from a lung condition which caused him breathing difficulties).

In 1710 Jethro and his family moved to Prosperous Farm near Hungerford. In some ways he was an unlikely farmer – farmers need to have patience. The one thing Tull was not was patient – and he hated waste. He hated paying his men to broadcast seeds -- i.e. scattering them by hand into ploughed furrows – when this was totally hit and miss.

The idea of paying for good seed which was then going to be cast to the winds and lost amongst the stones and weeds was anathema to him. He berated the labourers for being incompetent because their wastage cost him his profits. He instructed his workmen to sow the seed at very specific densities and depths. They either refused or were unable to achieve his targets and Tull set about experimenting with a mechanical seed drill of his own design.

The machine was intended to eliminate wastage and maximize efficiency. It had a revolving cylinder, fed with seed from a hopper and funnel. The seed was fed straight into a channel dug by a plough attached to the front of the machine, and the channel was then filled in by a harrow at the rear. Significantly, Tull decided that the contraption was best suited to being pulled by horse, rather than by oxen.

Tull travelled to Europe again, this time in search of a cure for his tuberculosis. He combined this with checking out continental farming methods, especially in France and Italy where he saw at first hand the practice of ploughing vineyards instead of using manure. He returned to Prosperous Farm and implemented this method with great success.

The original idea of the seed drill had not caught on at first, and Tull modified the design on his return from Europe and experimented with new techniques, coming up with a way of pulverising the earth between the rows. This had the effect of killing off weeds which might otherwise have competed with the growing seeds and Tull was able to demonstrate that he could grow crops year after year without the need for manure, and without needing to leave the land fallow.

In addition to the mechanical seed drill, he worked on a mechanical hoe, and made modifications to the traditional plough, which not only tilled the soil but cut off the weeds and left them on the surface of the soil where the natural nutrients could be recycled. Mind you, he was a product of his Age – brought up to believe that all life represented a balance between the four elements (i.e. of earth, air, fire and water). He believed that the roots of plants had tiny mouths which could eat the goodness in the earth. His science may have been a bit flaky but his machines were a huge advance, as was his empirical approach to measuring and perfecting farming methods.

In 1731 he published his ideas as “Horse-hoeing husbandry : or, An essay on the principles of vegetation and tillage. Designed to introduce a new method of culture; whereby the produce of land will be increased, and the usual expence lessened. Together with accurate descriptions and cuts of the instruments employed in it.”

This was followed in 1733 by a second version with a slightly modified title “The horse-hoeing husbandry: or, a treatise on the principles of tillage and vegetation, wherein is taught a method of introducing a sort of vineyard culture into the corn-fields, in order to increase their product and diminish the common expense.

His methods were ridiculed by others. He was attacked in the agricultural periodical "The Practical Husbandman and Farmer" and accused of plagiarizing earlier writers.

The controversy over his invention was to last for another century, but he was eventually vindicated and in many ways can be regarded as the forerunner of modern farming. Many editions of his Horse-hoeing Husbandry were published subsequently, and in 1822 William Cobbett edited it. It was translated into French, notably by H. L. Duhamel Dumonceau the naturalist and agriculturalist, between 1753 and 1757.

He died at Prosperous Farm on 21st February 1741, but because the Old Style of calendar was used on his gravestone he appears to have been buried on  9 March 1740. He was definitely not buried alive a year before he died!

But of course his name lives on, thanks to Ian Anderson, the lead vocalist, flautist and acoustic guitarist of the rock band known as Jethro Tull. He founded the rock band in December 1967. All of which enables me to repeat this splendid pastiche used by a Czech tribute band by the handy name of  Bratranci Veverkové.

Thanks guys! And if you fancy a quick blast of the real thing, here is a link to the magnificent "Living in the Past" courtesy of YouTube.


  1. I have to admit, when I hear the name Jethro Tull, I think of the band before reminding myself that it was taken from the name of a real person! ;-) Nice post! I new who he was, but none of the details.

  2. A typically fascinating post from the Georgian gentleman!

  3. My neighbor just used a version of this to plant Timothy hay in our field. My husband thought the way it worked was wonderful. Wait 'til I tell him this story!


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