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Patrick Bell - Inventor of the Reaping Machine

The Reverend Patrick Bell - 1799-1869
The Reverend Patrick Bell - 1799-1869

Patrick Bell was the inventor of the reaping machine, a piece of agricultural equipment that helped to transformed the lives of farm workers throughout the world.

Patrick Bell's Reaping Machine

(from The National Encyclopaedia, circa 1875)
Patrick Bell was brought up at Mid Leoch and attended Auchterhouse Parish School. He was only 27 when he had the idea that led to his invention, which was one of the first pieces of mechanical agricultural machinery to be used. He failed to profit financially from his invention, preferring instead to become parish minister. He studied Divinity at St Andrews University and was ordained as minister of Carmyllie Church in 1843.

Two stained glass windows at Carmyllie Church commemorate his life. He was minister in the parish from 1843 till his death in 1869.

The following excellent article is reprinted here with the kind permission of the Dundee Courier and Advertiser where it appeared in the edition of 8 October 2008. The article remains Copyright of Dundee Courier and Advertiser.

Reaping benefits of Angus man's work

THE 2008 HARVEST has been a trial, but spare a thought for those who had to struggle in the far off pre-combine days, when crops were cut and bound into sheaves. All highly labour intensive stuff but at least the binder could cut and bind the sheaves in one operation - before that it was sickle or scythe for cutting and hand binding.

It was an Angus man who started the world's farms on the way to harvest mechanisation. Patrick Bell, a farmer's son from Mid Leoch, near Auchterhouse, developed the first successful reaper in 1828.

He had a very analytical mind and was especially interested in engineering. He installed a gas lighting system at Mid Leoch and even took an interest in the cultivation of sugar beet, growing some and extracting sugar from it a century before the industry came to Scotland.

Many people, historians included, have mistakenly credited Cyrus McCormick of America as the inventor of the reaper in 1831. However, it should be Patrick Bell who is recognised as the designer of a machine that was deemed far more efficient and reliable than any previous attempts. Four of his reapers went to America where it is likely they influenced the designs of both McCormick and his contemporary Obed Hussey.

Patrick Bell designed and built his reaper when he was a divinity student at St Andrews University, getting the idea for his cutting system from a pair of garden shears that were stuffed into a hedge. He took the shears through a gap in the hedge and tried them on some standing grain. His first design was built in model form and with the help of a Tealing carpenter a full size version was assembled. Fear of derision led him to spread earth on the floor of his shed where he planted stalks of harvested grain to trial his machine.

The reaper cut the grain adequately but it fell unevenly for gathering for hand binding. Undaunted, he developed a canvas conveyor that the cut grain fell back against. It was then transported to the side of the machine falling into a neat windrow. A revolving reel to pull the crop on to the knife was also included in his design.

Eventually satisfied with his machine's performance he and his brother took the reaper out to a field of wheat at 11pm when prying eyes were asleep. The "guid horse Jock" was yoked, but the trial started disappointingly. In their excitement the brothers had forgotten to attach the reel. They hurriedly brought it out to the field and fitted it. The machine then worked very satisfactorily.
Confident of the reaper's ability a public trial was staged at Powrie Farm on the 10th of September 1828. It received a favourable report in the "Quarterly Journal of Agriculture" and received a premium of £50 from the Highland Agricultural Society, which barely covered costs.

Bell did not file for a patent believing that his invention should benefit all. This led to various copies being made that were inferior to the Bell-made machines and they did nothing to encourage wide-spread usage. However around 10 of Bell's machines were sold in east central Scotland and, as previously mentioned, four crossed the Atlantic, others went to Australia and Poland.

At this time in history labour was still cheap and many farmers did not see the benefit of such a machine, preferring to stay with traditional methods. This was another case of a good invention being too far ahead of its time. However, the Bell machine was to prove itself as far as reliability and longevity was concerned, as the original machine continued for many harvests at Mid Leoch before going to work for many more at his brother's Inchmichael Farm.

In 1852 it was put in a good state of repair and shown at the Highland Show at Perth where it was thought by many to be the latest machine on the market. However, the Americans eventually began to sell greater quantities of reaping machines no doubt due to their lightness, manoeuvrability and competitive mass-produced pricing.

Meanwhile, now ordained, the Reverend Bell became minister of Carmyllie parish where he continued an interest in engineering, working at his bench at the manse. He remained unaffected by all the clamour that his machine had caused.

The Inchmichael machine, fastidiously looked after by his brother, ended up in the Science Museum in London where it still resides today.

Two contemporary models of the machine were presented to the National Museum and one is on show at the National Museum of Rural Life at Kittochside, East Kilbride. A third was presented by his daughters to the agricultural department of Aberdeen University.

Today's combine harvester has thus developed from the work of two ingenious Scotsmen - it is a combination of Andrew Meikle's threshing mechanism and Patrick Bell's reaper.

Copyright Dundee Courier and Advertiser