Development of the Ferguson System

Development of the Ferguson System
Ferguson Club Exhibition, The Royal Show, 1989 – Journal Volume 3 No.2 Autumn 1989

The Ferguson Club exhibition at the 1989 Royal Show illustrated the development of the Ferguson System in words, photographs and machines. The following, written by George. A. Field, was the actual text used with one modification due to new informa­tion on suction side control that came to our attention during the exhibition itself.

Over 80% of the world’s tractors these last 30 years or so have employed prin­ciples invented and developed by one man – the late Harry Ferguson. This exhibit seeks to illustrate these prin­ciples. how Harry Ferguson came to develop them and the profound effect the Ferguson System has had on farm­ing the world over and on the tractor manufacturing industry itself.

Harry Ferguson was born of Scots-Irish farming stock on November 4th 1884. From an early age he displayed an in­dependence. tenacity and persistence typical of many of his fellow countryman. For over 100 years the Irish of Scots decent had pioneered their way through the New World breaking new ground and new ideas. Such men as John Coulter, the great explorer, Sam Houston and President Andrew Jackson are just but a few prime ex­amples of this spirit. Harry Ferguson too broke new ground with cars, avia­tion and, most importantly, farm mechanisation.

Harry Ferguson joined his brother Joe in the motor trade in 1902, quickly dis­playing a natural ability for things mechanical. A further characteristic, his inate instinct for publicity, was put to use by entering cars in various races and trials in order to promote the busi­ness.

First flight 31st December 1909

In 1908 the fledgling aviation industry caught his attention. In the summer of 1909 the construction of a aircraft to his own design started resulting in a suc­cessful powered flight on the last day of the year. This was an incredible achievement; the more noteworthy for Harry Ferguson having no flying ex­perience and only a rough idea of other aircraft at the time. It is probable that A. V. Roe was the first Briton to build and fly his own aircraft in his own homeland. This makes Harry Ferguson the second Britain to do so and most certainly the first to build and fly an aircraft in Ireland. He also flew carrying the first woman passenger in Ireland and was probably the inventor of the tricycle undercarriage.

In 1911 Harry Ferguson started his own business taking various agencies includ­ing Vauxhall. The outbreak of war in 1914 triggered a demand for farm machines. One of the agricultural agencies acquired by Harry Ferguson Ltd was for an American tractor, the ‘Waterloo Boy’, known here as the ‘Overtime’. Through his promotion of this machine Harry Ferguson gained a con­siderable reputation for demonstration and tractor handling abilities. This reputation led to his being appointed by the Irish Board of Agriculture to improve the efficiency of all the tractors and ploughs in Ireland. From March 1917 Harry Ferguson and his assistant Willie Sands travelled the length and breadth of the country visiting individual tractor operators as well as giving public demonstrations.

This experience led Harry Ferguson to the conclusion that while tractors left much to be desired, ploughs required the most urgent attention. He correctly analysed the various forces at work in trailing a plough and observed that they were at best wasted and at worst des­tabilising. He visualized that the weight of the plough itself, as well as the loads imposed on it in work, should be used to add weight to the tractor. This should result in a lighter and more efficient tractor for the same work. With these conclusions Harry Ferguson set out on a path that would eventually sweep all other hitching and implement control systems into oblivion.

The first Ferguson Plough experiment

An ‘Eros’ tractor, a converted model T Ford, was chosen for the first trials, the plough probably being made from a trailed unit with curved beams. The Eros was the only light tractor available at that time and allowed the plough to be hitched forward of the rear axle. This arrangement not only transferred weight to the rear wheels but applied a downward effort on the front axle as well. A pur pose built plough was designed incorporating shear bolt protection, a spring assisted lift from the drivers seat as well as depth control from the same lever. Ease of operation was to remain a fundamental Ferguson principle.

The arrival of the famous Fordson F in 1917 led to the demise of the Eros and thus a modified hitch was developed to allow the Ferguson plough to be used on this new tractor. The limitations of this design prompted the development of the new Ferguson plough with ‘DUPLEX’ hitch. This new design marked a major advance and quite clearly displays many aspects of what we now refer to as ‘three point linkage’.

This remarkable new plough was fully mounted and yet very simply attached and detached. It overcame completely the appalling habit of the Fordson F to rear over backwards and kill the driver. The controls were operated from the seat with a spring assisted lift to ensure ease of operation. The major shortcom­ing was the lack of an automatic depth control. Fitting a depth wheel obviously reduced the weight available for transfer onto the tractor. The imperative of find­ing a solution to this problem eventually led to ‘automatic draught control’. This plough was demonstrated to Henry Ford in 1922. Ford was impressed and tried to buy Harry Ferguson. Harry Ferguson was not to be bought so the two men parted company indicating they would keep in touch.

Having successfully established the Fer­guson plough on the American market in the mid 1920s Harry Ferguson and his team turned their attention to how the forces generated by an implement, coupled directly to a tractor, could not only transfer weight but control the working depth as well. The principle that emerged was ‘draught control’. In 1925 they were ready to apply for a patent both in the U.S. and the U.K . This remarkable document, known as ‘Apparatus for Coupling Agricultural Implements to Tractors and Automati­cally Regulating The Depth of Work’ , sets out all possible ways except one of achieving draught control.

Even the one exception, electronic, is alluded to by the proposal for an electri­cally operated system. The principle aspects of the patent described a con­trol system whereby the variations in draught or pull of a directly coupled implement be used to adjust the relative position of said implement so as to maintain a constant draught and conse­quently depth. Lower link or draught link sensing was proposed with movement being effected by:-

  1. electric motors
  2. mechanical clutches
  3. hydraulics.

One further sensing device was also patented – that of the TORQUE VARIA­TIONS in the tractors transmission. This Ferguson principle is applied today by Ford with ‘Load Monitor’.

Part of the Ferguson Master patent

Having clearly defined the fundamental principles upon which to proceed the team set about the long and difficult task of engineering and refinement. There were two principle aspects to this:-

  1. the linkage system
  2. the means of draught control

Hydraulics soon emerged as the best answer to the latter but the linkage was not quite so easy. The early attempts at hydraulics were built onto the ubiquitous Fordson F using two upper links and one draught link from which the sensing sig­nal was taken. Harry Ferguson realised that for an implement to ac­curately follow the tractor’s steering it should pull from the centre of the front axle.
This is. of course, not practical. but his understanding of the principle in­volved led Harry Ferguson to the solu­tion. This involves extending an imagi­nary line from the two implement draught connections through to the centre of the tractor’s front axle. It will be seen that these lines converge. By fixing flexible joints (ball joints) at the implement ends and also at points where the lines pass just forward of the rear axle one achieves the desired effect. Ferguson retained the third and vertical dimension that had proved so successful on the Sherman built Ferguson Duplex plough. Patented in 1928 this invention in effect concludes all the fundamental aspects of a modern tractor’s hitching and draught control systems.

Harry Ferguson testing early draught control linkage

Late stage in the development of 3 point linkage with lower link draught control. Approximately 1930

By the early 30s they had turned the linkage upside down thus a single top link was fitted with two converging lower draught links. Lower link sensing was retained along with the continuous flow pump. Using a continuous flow pump heated the oil. a problem that dogged them for some time. The real breakthrough came when Harry Fer­guson, it is said during a sleepless night, had a brainwave. Why not fit the control valve on the suction side of the pump? Thus oil would flow only when needed to effect movement of the linkage. This brilliant idea solved the vast majority of the technical difficulties and now, at long last, the Ferguson System was ready for manufacture.
(Note – the Ferguson linkage used on the Fordson F has tapered type internal anti-sway blocks as used on some modern tractors like John Deere. it was another Ferguson first)

While all this technical progress was being made Harry Ferguson sought to interest a manufacturer for his ‘System’ . Allis Chalmers took out an option and various other firms such as Rushton. Rover and Ransomes Rapier showed an interest. Morris actually came close to signing a deal but fell out at last minute, probably frightened by the deteriorating farm economy.

These setbacks led Harry Ferguson to the conclusion that he must build a prototype tractor himself. With his own purpose-built machine he hoped to find the backing he needed. Ferguson. Sands and Greer commenced work in 1932. John Chambers, a farmers son from Northern Ireland. joined them to do the technical drawing. The tractor was constructed at the Ferguson premises in Donegal Square, Belfast. The main castings were made to Ferguson’s order and then sent to David Brown Gears for machining and to have the gears fitted. The rear axle and steering box were done the same way. The U.S. firm Hercules supplied the 18 hp engine and the hydraulics were manufactured in Belfast. Lower link sensing was retained, with suction side control built into the oil immersed 4 piston pump. Early trials with the tractor revealed some problems with uneven depth con­trol and various ideas were tried to im­prove performance. Willie Sands sug­gested switching from lower link to top link sensing and in due course this was done effecting a definite improvement. Top link sensing was to be the usual method from then on until the 1960s/70s when lower link sensing came back into use.

After an unsuccessful attempt to secure an agreement with the Craven Wagon Works of Sheffield. David Brown of­fered to build the Ferguson tractor. Production started in 1936 with a machine very similar to the ‘Black’ trac­tor apart from the 20 hp Coventry Climax engine.

John Chambers, Archie Greer, Willy Sands and Harry Ferguson at launch of Ferguson A. Spring 1936 near Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The tractor’s perfor­mance and the System’s potential im­pressed all who saw it apart from the usual critics for whom no effort will en­lighten. However the tractor was launched when farming was very depressed and even those convinced of the Ferguson’s potential probably jibbed at spending the extra money it cost. Cash flow difficulties led David Brown to call for changes to which Harry Fer­guson was unlikely to agree and they parted company in 1939.

Meanwhile Harry Ferguson had demonstrated his tractor to Henry Ford in America. Ford was itching to get back into tractor production and appeared very unhappy with his in-house designs. At the demonstration. arranged by the Sherman brothers, Henry Ford quickly saw the significance of the Ferguson System and almost certainly realised that this was how tractors would be in the future. In essence both men needed each other at that particular time. It was here that they concluded their famous handshake deal. Ferguson would design. market, and service the equipment and Ford would manufacture it.

Harry Ferguson and Henry Ford. June 29th 1939. Launch of 9N tractor.

By April 1st 1939 a prototype with all the major Ferguson designs incorporated was ready for trials. Charlie Sorenson, Ford’s right hand man, did a brilliant jot in solving the problems of making the design suitable for rapid mass produc­tion. The only major design principle Ferguson had to forego was not using an overhead valve engine, Instead a side valve based on the Mercury V8 was fitted in order to maximise the use of standard parts and speed production. Incredible as it may seem the tractor was in production by June 1939.

Exactly 50 years ago on June 29th 1939 the new tractor was launched before 500 invited guests from across the States as well as 18 foreign countries. The tractor was a sensation both because of the brilliance of the Fer­guson System as well as the extraordi­nary arrangement between Henry Ford and ‘Henry Ford’s only partner’ as FOR­TUNE magazine later put it.

Harry Ferguson demonstrating 9N tractor somewhere in the U.K. during World War II.

The Ferguson System came of age with the 9N tractor and rapidly achieved 20% of the U.S. market against such in­dustry heavyweights as I-H, Allis Chal­mers and John Deere. In 1939 one month’s production was equivalent to the entire 3 years output of Ferguson­ Browns. By 1942 this output had doubled. Wartime shortages severely hit production for the next 2 years but by the time Ford ceased supplying Fer­guson in mid-1947 306,221 units had been built.

It was Harry Ferguson and Henry Ford’s intention that the Dagenham plant should produce the 9N tractor in England. When it became obvious that this was not going to happen another manufac­turer was sought. Standard Motors of Coventry agreed to build the Ferguson and production started in October 1946. Ferguson design improvements planned for the 9N were incorporated with a new 4 speed constant mesh gearbox and at long last, Harry’s beloved overhead valve engine. There were few other significant alterations. The T.E.20. as this model was called. rapidly repeated the same out­standing success as its U.S. built sister gaining up to 70% share of the U.K. market. Harry Ferguson Ltd. proudly proclaimed that by 1949, 450,000 Ferguson System tractors were serving farmers the world over. (300,000 9Ns 150,000 TEs). Annual production of T.E. tractors for 1951 exceeded 73,000 units.

The ending of the Ford/Ferguson relationship in mid 1947 led Harry Fer­guson into his only major manufacturing venture. A Detroit factory was pur­chased to make the T.E. model in America (called the T.0.). Although by 1952 Harry Ferguson Inc. was vying with Allis Chalmers for 4th place in the U.S. market, an incredible achieve­ment when one recalls the fact that the company had had to rebuild its entire distribution network since mid-1947, the strain had taken its toll on everyone. Tragically Ford had con­tinued to produce the Ferguson system tractor without regard to licence or patents. The famous law suit arising from their actions was resolved in 1952 with an award in favour of Ferguson of $9.25 million (approx. $50 million today). Roughly one million of Harry’s ‘Little Grey Tractor’ were built from 1939 to 1956 and that figure does not include those tractors made with or without licence.

All of Harry Ferguson’s tractor interests were merged with Massey-Harris of Toronto in 1953. By this time it was obvious to the whole industry that there was no other system worth a bean. It merely remained for each manufacturer to find their own particular way of adopting Ferguson principles or get out of the business.

The latter years of Harry Ferguson’s life were devoted to making the motor car a safer machine through the development of 4 wheel drive systems known as the Ferguson Formula. It took 30-40 years for world farming to fully utilise the benefits of the Ferguson System. It seems it is taking a similar period for the automobile world to reap the benefits of the Ferguson Formula and make motor­ing a safer activity.

Copyright – George A. Field Acknowledgements to Mrs Elizabeth Sheldon; Bill Martin; John Chambers; Richard Chambers; Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and Mr John Moore; Massey-Ferguson UK; Colin Booth; Ian Wood and the many Ferguson Club members who provided information and assistance.
Ferguson Club Journal Volume 3 No.2 Autumn 1989