Inside the Collection

Industrial Revolution in Australia: impact on the wheat industry

Black and white photograph of posed workers in a paddock working around machinery. The boss or overseer is mounted on a horse, an engine driver tends the steam portable engine while labourers fill the baler with hay and remove the bales.
Posed photograph, taken in the late 1800s, of a horse-drawn wagon with hay being forked into a baler driven by a steam portable engine from its flywheel. Comprising a steam engine on wheels, portables were pulled to the work site by horses. This one has a special firebox, so it could be operated with timber instead of coal. MAAS collection: 85/1284-340. Photograph by Charles Kerry & Co., part of the Tyrrell Collection

After the British settled the colony in the early years from 1788, they struggled to grow enough food to survive. For them, the soil around the settlement was shallow and infertile, rainfall erratic and climate alien. Yet, Geoff Raby author of Making Rural Australia: an economic history of technical and institutional creativity 1788-1860, says that within two generations they had altered the land with European plants and animals (though at great environmental cost), changed their traditional Western wheat farming practices, and created such prosperity that Australians were better clothed and fed than their European counterparts. By the 1930s Australia was the third largest exporter of wheat after Canada and Argentina. How was this achieved?

Early attempts to grow wheat near the coastal districts of NSW failed leading to an expansion of wheat production in Tasmania and its export to the mainland to feed the colony. Between 1840 and 1860 black stem rust and other wheat diseases continued to ruin the European-derived crops until an agricultural “sweet spot” was eventually discovered with just the right amount of rainfall. Wheat was eventually grown down the centre of NSW, across northern Victoria, the Eyre Peninsula of SA, and a wheat belt east of Perth in WA.

Rapid agricultural development in Australia throughout the 1800s and early 1900s was enabled through ready access to existing global technological and scientific knowledge and development of communication and transport systems, all hallmarks of the Industrial Revolution. However, direct technological transfer from Britain and America didn’t guarantee such success. Creative adaption by blacksmiths and tinkerers all over the country saw machinery and implements for wheat growing modified for local conditions, some of which were taken up by Australian manufacturers. Adding to this, agricultural societies and shows, ploughing competitions, experiment farms and later on, scientific organisations and “field days” all advised farmers of technological innovations, new strains of disease-resistant wheat and where to plant them, and different ways of farming.

Black and white photograph showing rows of farmers ploughing sections of land in a field. Each plough is drawn by two horses. In the background there are crowds of people and horse-drawn vehicles are parked nearby
Photograph of a ploughing competition in the late 1800s. They were organised to encourage excellence, and to inform farmers about new practices and machinery. MAAS collection: 85/1284-70. Photograph by Charles Kerry & Co., part of the Tyrrell Collection

Ploughs were used to prepare the soil before planting. The earliest ones used here were made entirely of timber but by the late 1820s iron components were introduced. Technological development saw wrought iron and then steel applied to ploughs which meant they were more reliable, worked better and broke less often. This was especially important when soil preparation was time critical.

Wooden plough with a beam made from a forked tree, iron coulter or blade, a metal hoop to attach to a bullock, and two wooden handles.
Wooden mouldboard plough, probably drawn by a bullock. Its use is attributed to convict farmer, James Ruse, and possibly used c.1811. MAAS collection: H3321. Gift of William Ashley, 1920. Image: MAAS

Quite quickly, a wide variety of ploughs became available, especially from America, for different soil types and ploughing operations to be undertaken. However, after clearing the land of trees, the stumps and rocks left hidden in the ground destroyed the shares and mouldboards of many of these imported ploughs regardless of how strongly they were made. The stump-jump plough, invented in South Australia in 1876 by R.B. Smith, solved this problem and enabled the Mallee country of NSW and Victoria to be opened up for cereal production. Further developments were made by John Whitlock, a ploughing champion and blacksmith of Wagga Wagga, NSW, and brought into mass production in Sydney, by Clyde Engineering. Whitlock went on to work for H.V. McKay designing the famous “Sunrise” and “Sunlock” stump-jump ploughs.

Model of a type of plough with four metal discs for turning the soil, a seat for the operator and three handles to make adjustments, all set on a frame with three wheels. It is finished in red and yellow.
Model of a “Suncog” stump-jump disc plough made by H.V. McKay Pty Ltd, of Sunshine, Victoria, 1920-30. This plough design was largely devised c.1900 by the plough-maker, Peacock, and McKay’s tillage manager, J.B. Garde. It was typically used on new ground in the Mallee region. MAAS collection: B554. Gift of H.V. McKay Pty Ltd, 1929. Image: MAAS

The earliest method of sowing wheat was by broadcasting, either flinging it manually or with mechanical broadcasters. This wasteful and haphazard system of planting continued well into the 1890s when the seed-drill began to replace it. These machines enabled seed to be deposited evenly in the right amount at a uniform depth. Combine drills provided a compartment for the addition of fertiliser. The first American combines arrived here in the 1880s. Australia’s contribution to the improvement of the combine was made in 1916 by R.A. Squire, a farmer from Quirindi, NSW, who invented a spring-tine drill cultivator which combined sowing, fertilising and cultivating into one machine.

Black and white photograph of two, combined seed and fertiliser drills, each drawn by 10 draft horses, across a paddock to plant seed.
Photograph of two 10-horse teams pulling spring-tine drill cultivators for planting wheat. As implements became larger they required more horses to pull them. Many areas of valuable farm land were needed to grow food for horses. MAAS collection: 2006/93/1. Photographer unknown

Up until the 1840s sickles and scythes were used here for harvesting wheat just like in Britain and Europe. Also, as in Britain, the first mechanised farm equipment were winnowers and threshing machines used by wealthy colonists in post-harvest operations, instead of flails.

A hand tool with a long, curved timber shaft, two handles and a curved iron blade at one end.
Scythes were held with both hands, used with a long sweeping movement, were less tiring than using sickles, did not require constant bending, cut much closer to the ground, but were difficult to master. MAAS collection: H9448. Gift of H.H. McKern, 1979. Image: MAAS

The mechanisation of many aspects of agriculture began simultaneously in Britain and the USA, with Australia a ready market for imported harvesting machines because of our large areas of land and limited labour. However, John Ridley’s invention of the stripper in 1843, a harvester ideal for long dry summers in South Australia, brought rapid mechanisation of wheat harvesting to that state and foresaw the role of Australian manufacturers to adapt machinery to our unique conditions. As the manufacture of the American reaping machines of McCormick and Hussey did not go into production until the 1850s, Raby says that in the 1840s South Australia led the world in the adoption of harvesting machines.

Coloured photograph of a harvester made of metal and finished with red lining and a blue frame. A comb at the front the crop drew it in towards enclosed beaters which removed the heads of wheat and forced it into a large box at the rear. The farmer sat on the harvester while holding the reins of the horses.
Horse-drawn stripper made by James Martin & Co. Ltd, of Gawler, South Australia, in 1889. The stripper was a lightweight, inexpensive harvester, and so successful in South Australia that by 1864 nearly 90% of the wheat crop was harvested with it. Its basic design continued to be used until the 1940s. MAAS collection: H10350. Image: Margaret Simpson, MASS.

From the 1860s many Australian agricultural implement and machinery manufacturers were established, including the Mellor Brothers and Shearers in South Australia, T. Robinson in Melbourne and H.V. McKay in Ballarat, Victoria, in 1888. McKay’s “Sunshine” stripper-harvester sold around the world and his factory, relocated to outside Melbourne, grew to 30 acres, employed over 2,500 workers and for many years was the largest in Australia.

A model of a harvester comprising a metal box, rear drum, timber elevator and hessian bag mounted on two metal-spoked wheels with a small wheel at the front left and seat for the operator.
Model of the 1885 horse-drawn stripper-harvester developed by H.V. McKay. The model was made by H.V. McKay-Massey Harris Pty Ltd, of Sunshine, Victoria, in the 1930s. MAAS collection: B736. Image: MAAS

Power on the farm
Throughout most of the 1800s the main power source to drive farm machinery was the horse via horseworks and treadmills which converted the power of the horse into mechanical power. Wealthier farmers and contractors could afford to use steam to run machines, increasing productivity and reducing labour costs. Steam portable engines, chiefly imported from Britain, were first used in Australia at least from 1847, and drove many machines including chaffcutters, feed grinders, balers, threshing machines, sheep-shearing stands, well-boring machinery, saw benches and pumps.

A horizontal riveted boiler with a firebox at one end mounted on four red-pained iron wheels. A flywheel is mounted on one side, a chimney at the front takes smoke away, and a cylinder, connecting rods, valves and governor are mounted on top of the boiler. The engine is finished in olive green with fine lining and a company transfer is on the side.
Steam portable engine made in England by Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies Ltd of Ipswich, Suffolk, in 1904. This beautifully restored engine is on display in the Museum’s Steam Revolution exhibition which tells the story of the Industrial Revolution in Australia. MAAS collection: B1573. Image: MAAS

From about 1900 steam portables and horseworks began to be replaced by economical and easy-to-operate internal combustion engines which could run continuously without any attention. Run on oil, kerosene or petrol, they were mainly imported from the US in their thousands. These small engines revolutionised power supply on farms operating everything from cream separators to milking machines, and drag saws to posthole diggers, and even powered small electric lighting plants for outback homesteads.

Horses and tractors
One of the last aspects of mechanisation on the farm was the replacement of the horse by the tractor. For well over a century horses were used in Australia to haul implements and harvesters with their numbers peaking in 1918. Despite mechanisation in most aspects of farming, it took the tractor from 1918 to 1950 to completely oust the horse.

Black and white photograph of a man sitting on a large tractor, with a cubic-shaped radiator at the front, sitting idling in a field.
Photograph of a Rumley Oil-Pull tractor made by M. Rumely, of La Porte, Indiana, USA, between 1910 and 1918. Early tractors like this one were massive in size and weight, expensive to purchase, unreliable, under-powered and problematic to operate. MAAS collection: H8535-12. Photographer unknown

However, Henry Ford’s Fordson tractor, which arrived in Australia in 1919, was the first serious challenge to the horse. It was compact, lightweight and affordable, being mass-produced along similar lines to his Model T car. Many early Australian tractor manufacturers closed as they could not compete with the cheaper Fordson and very few tractors have been produced in Australia since.

Black and white photograph showing a paddock being worked with a man driving a tractor pulling a cultivating implement being following by three horses pulling a seed-drill.
Photograph of a Fordson tractor pulling a cultivator followed by a horse team pulling a seed-drill. This illustrates that for many years both horses and tractors worked on the farm side-by-side. MAAS collection: 2006/93/1. Photographer unknown

Wheat Breeding
A number of Australian wheat breeders made significant contributions to wheat growing through developing strains which: increased yields and quality, provided resistance to diseases, opened up new cropping land for wheat and produced better bread. Most notable was William Farrer who is credited with changing the appearance of Australian wheat fields from pale golden yellow to the famous brown heads with his Federation strain wheat, distributed to farmers from 1903.

Transport and other Technologies
Towards the end of the 1800s improved transport (especially the construction of railways) and closer settlement legislation opened up wheat areas in both Victoria and NSW. By the early decades of the 1900s few Australian farms were over 32 km from a railway station to send their products to market. Railways also transported machinery to farmers and brought new ideas through magazines and city newspapers (often sent post free). From the 1840s local newspapers, printed on small presses, reported on, and syndicated, the latest agricultural developments so isolation was not a liability.

The fact that Australia was a late player in the Industrial Revolution meant we benefited from: transport, especially railways, fast clipper ships and steam ships; communications, including post, telegraph and telephone services and particularly newspapers, providing access to the latest local and overseas technological advances; and the application of science to agriculture. This helped the rapid expansion of wheat production through mechanisation, adoption of dry-farming techniques, use of fertilisers and improved wheat varieties. Nevertheless, much experimentation, adaptation, creativity, enthusiasm for new products, and support and development of local manufacture all coincided to establish a highly successful wheat growing industry.

Raby, Geoff, Making Rural Australia: an economic history of technical and institutional creativity 1788-1860, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp.74-93

Simpson, Margaret and Phillip, Old Farm Machinery in Australia: a sourcebook & fieldguide, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, NSW, 1991.

Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, March 2019

One response to “Industrial Revolution in Australia: impact on the wheat industry

  • Thanks for the history, I am currently writing a biography on one of the Ford Motor Company’s youngest General Managers and later in life an adviser serving on several government boards. Your story helps me with some background.
    Terry L Probert

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