Ferguson Ploughs Development and Types 1917-64 Part 1

Harry Ferguson & Ferguson Ploughs (part 1 of 4)
Their development and types 1917 – 1964
& History of the Company connected to that development.

Harry Ferguson said in the early years of plough development that ‘It is no more possible to design a plough which would be suitable for use with various sizes of tractors than it is to design a cart which can be drawn by a donkey or a Clydesdale, or a body that would be suitable for all makes of car.”

He spoke these words intending that this should be a guiding principle. His experiences with trailed ploughs whilst working for The Irish Board of Agri­culture in the First World War, together with Willie Sands, convinced him of the need for a much improved design of plough.

William Sands had joined Harry Ferguson’s staff of May Street Motors, Belfast, soon after the establishment of the company in 1911, where initially, cars were serviced and later sold from the premises, agencies for such makes as Vauxhall and Darracq were acquired. By 1912 the motor business was flourishing under Fergusons management; the name was changed to the company title of Harry Ferguson Ltd. In due course the company began to sell farm tractors and the agency for the American ‘Overtime” tractor was acquired. Ferguson and Sands took to promoting this tractor together with a three furrow ‘Cockshutt’ plough.

Ploughing with Overtime tractor and 2 furrow Cockshutt Plough (Flickr)

They quickly discovered that practical pub­lic demonstrations were the most effective way of selling the machinery, and they soon learnt how hard it was to please farmers whose critical eyes were on the lookout for poor ploughing quality of faulty machinery. However, with much tenacity they persevered and by 1917 had gained a reputation as skilled and proficient tractor ploughmen. They were duly noticed by officials of the Irish Board of Agriculture and were asked to look at the efficiency of the tractors in use during the spring ploughing up campaign of 1917. The Ger­man ‘U’ boat offfensive had reached a climax by 1916-17 and Britain was in urgent need of food production from its own sources. The Government requested that another half million acres should come under the plough in Ireland in 1917; in fact some 637,402 acres were ploughed up, whereas in England and Scotland combined only another 350,000 were ploughed. Thus in the final years of World War 1 England was receiving more food from Ireland than from any other country.

Such was the food crisis at that time, it was said that Britain only had about two weeks supply of food left, due to the devastation wreaked by the German ‘U’ boats. Ferguson and Sands could claim responsibility for some of the success of the ploughing campaign in Ireland in 1917; they started work on March 19th 1917 at 5.00 a.m. and travelled widely in their task of tuning tractors and setting ploughs and demonstrating techniques and machines. (It is interesting to note that these articles were first started by the author on March 19th 1987 by pure coincidence, i.e. 70 years later to the day.) At the same time they gained an insight to the shortcomings of ploughs of that era.

Ferguson later wrote to the ‘Implement and Machinery Review’ stating ‘I can assure you that the (Overtime) tractor presents only small difficulties, but the adjustment of the ploughs to get them to do really good work is my greatest difficulty and the ploughs are a more serious problem to the country at the present time when ploughing work is urgent, than are the tractors.

Among some of the problems facing Ferguson were those of setting compli­cated assemblies with lots of nuts and bolts, and that of breakage or distor­tion of the plough parts or structure if obstructions were encountered. If obstructions were large enough the result was the rearing up of the tractor and subsequent overturning with often fatal consequences to the driver. Not only were the tractors longitudinally unstable, but the ploughs whilst in operation were laterally unstable as Sands found out one day whilst riding a plough which suddenly turned over sideways and narrowly avoided landing on top of him. Also considerable physical strength was needed to make adjustments or to raise the ploughs out of work.

Suddenly, one day Ferguson turned to Sands and said ‘There must be a better way of doing the job, we’ll design a plough’. These words were the beginning of the Ferguson system as it later came to be known after some twenty years of unremitting toil, frustration, heart breaking setbacks and seemingly endless experiment and negotiations with other manufacturers, and then after a further ten year period which saw the start of a massive legal battle with a major manufacturer.

By the end of 1917 Sands had constructed a two furrow plough to Fergusons plans and ideas, which were to adhere to lightweight construction and for use behind the Ford ‘Eros’ tractor, the agricultural conversion of the Ford Model T car1. This plough weighed only 220lb. i.e. 1/3 of the weight of other two furrow ploughs in its day, and had less than half the number of parts than other ploughs. It also operated without the need for depth wheels, because of its unique hitching arrangement, under the chassis of the tractor and forward of the line of the rear axle. This design was fundamental to the Ferguson system because it caused the line of draft to pull all four wheels of the tractor down onto the ground and overcame the tendency of the front wheels to lift if an obstruction was met by the plough. The plough was mounted very close to the rear wheels of the tractor so that the weight of the plough was carried on, and the depth of work controlled by the rear wheels of the tractor thus making the depth wheel device redundant. There was a shear pin incorporated in the linkage connecting the plough to the tractor which was designed to break if the plough hit a serious obstruction. The lifting device was by means of a lever conveniently placed by the driver’s seat connected to a series of links and compensating springs. The working parts of the plough were designed for ease of adjustment as well as low soil resistance and low draft requirement. This plough was the so called’ Belfast’ plough.
Ford ‘Eros’ model T conversion tractor, with first Ferguson plough experiment (Journal Volume 3 No.2)

The plough was demonstrated behind the ‘Eros’ conversion tractor and was quite well received, though the first prototype was made of cast iron and collapsed one day in front of some highly amused farmers, when it hit an obstruction and the shear pin failed to give the protection it was meant to do. Later ploughs were constructed of alloy steels. The plough sold in small numbers, but the demise of the ‘Eros’ tractor put a stop to any further developments. Henry Ford was busy with introducing the Fordson Model ‘F’ tractor at this time, so Ferguson immediately redesigned the plough to suit the new tractor. This plough was hitched to the Model ‘F’ with two parallel struts one above the other and was patented and named the ‘Duplex’ hitch. This was again a fundamental development as the arrangement was the beginning of a unit principle, that of the plough being part of the tractor utilizing the geometric forces and lines of draft to the best advantage to aid traction and keep excess weight to a minimum, and to stop the tractor front end rearing up also. Again the plough was hitched very close to the back axle of the tractor and a similar device in principal was used to lift the plough and to control the depth as on the Belfast types.

I n the autumn of 1917, Ferguson learned that Henry Ford’s right hand man was in England to discuss the setting up of manufacturing facilities for the Fordson Model ‘F’. Ferguson quickly seized the opportunity to meet with Charles Sorenson and to discuss his plough ideas. He later travelled to the U.S.A., to meet Henry Ford at the ‘Rouge’ plant at Dearborn, Michigan. The plough they took with them to demonstrate to Ford was made with bronze beams and the first alteration was to make steel beams for it. The plough was duly demonstrated to Ford and Sorenson who were both impressed. However Ford tried to offer Ferguson a job in his company, to which Ferguson was not interested so Ford offered to buy the patent rights, again a refusal carne from Ferguson, who was only interested in getting Ford  ‘to manufacture the plough for him. The two parties had met their equals in stubbornness’ and parted company without establishing anything more than a healthy respect for each other.

Ferguson was still not satisfied with the design and returned to Belfast to improve on it. However in Belfast the other directors of Harry Ferguson Ltd. were upset that the trip to Ford and Sorenson had not produced more tangible results and no prospect of revenue, and they tried to persuade Ferguson to give up the experiments with the plough. Due to the uncertainty that now surrounded the plough project, Willie Sands decided to leave Ferguson’s employ and go out alone. Ferguson however decided to carryon with the design and experimental work on the plough and turned to Archie Greer, a pattern maker by trade, who had joined the Ferguson company earlier and had already been doing some work on the plough ideas.

New problems arose with the plough not giving even working depth and after much tinkering Ferguson and Greer were forced to fit a depth wheel on the ploughs in 1921 to overcome the problem of erratic ploughing depth. At this stage Ferguson decided to try to find another manufacturer and returned to America. After much searching they met with a large blacksmith business the owner of which was one John Shunk of Bucyrus, Ohio. In May 1922 an agreement was signed amid much local rejoicing and acclaim for John Shunk to make the plough for Ferguson. In June 1922 Ferguson returned to Belfast in triumphant mood to much attention by the press. However very soon afterwards the news came from Bucyrus that Shunk could not under­take to manufacture and supply the ploughs, for reasons that were never made clear, so the whole deal fell through. Immediately Ferguson set sail for America again to search for another manufacturer. This time he approached Roderick Lean Co., who made disc harrows in Mansfield, Ohio, and a deal was signed with them for manufacture of the plough with some of the components being made by the Vulcan Plough Co. of Evansville, Indiana. Ferguson returned to Britain only to find that in the U.S.A. some problems had been encountered with the depth wheel causing loss of traction to the tractor. Therefore more experimental work was required to try to overcome the irregular depth problem but without the use of a depth wheel.

Ferguson went to see Sands, who returned to Harry Ferguson Ltd. By this time i.e. during 1923 Roderick Lean was producing ploughs and they were being sold, and therefore any alteration to the ploughs would have to be incorporated into a modification to ploughs already in service. Sands went to work and came up with a brilliantly successful device that could also be sold as a kit to be fitted to existing ploughs as well as built into new ones. This device was patented in December 1923 and incorporated a skid or small wheel at the rear of the plough running in the bottom of the furrow, con­nected to linkage and pivots to the ‘Duplex’ hitch at the front end of the plough.
(Image published in Journal Volume 4 No.2)

As the tractor wheels rose and fell over uneven ground the movement was translated to the plough frame via the skid (wheel) so as to maintain even level of depth. For example, if the rear wheels fell into a depression thereby tending to pull the plough deeper into the ground, the geometry of the linkage at the ‘Duplex’ hitch changed, this was transferred to the linkage to the skid at the rear of the plough, the skid was forced downwards thereby raising the frame of the plough and holding the shares at an even depth. The same effect occurred in reverse if the wheels went up over a rise in the ground and also the front wheels of the tractor influenced the skid as well as they too rose and fell in response to the ground undulations.

The floating skid did not however take very much weight of the plough off the tractor so that the traction advantages derived from weight transfer from the plough to the tractor were retained and loss of wheel adhesion was no longer a problem. The floating skid was a complete success and the depth wheel was a thing of the past. A small ceremony was held in a field at Anderstown, about three miles out of Belfast where the team did their field testing, and a depth wheel was ceremoniously buried. Sands was later to remark that depth wheels removed from ploughs in America when skids were fitted instead found a use as spittoons!

Copyright: Ferguson Club & John Baber. Club Journal Volume 1, No.4, Summer 1987.

This article is continued in a supplement, based on feedback received to Part 1.
Followed by a further four articles.

Newspaper advertisement, 1917/18 for Harry Ferguson ploughing demonstrations using HF’s newly developed “Belfast” plough.

  1. The ‘Eros’ conversion was based on the Ford model T car, and was made by the E.G. Staude Manufacturing Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, and was one of several conversion kits made for the Model T.