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People of Angus

Rev. Patrick Bell 1801 - 1869

Patrick Bell

On the farm of the early 1800’s the scene at harvesting had changed little since the great days of Troy and Greece, 3000 years before. A line of men would walk across the field using sickles or scythes, rhythmically cutting down the ripe grain with great sweeps of the blades. Women followed in their tracks, bending all the time, picking up the cut stalks and tying them in bundles using some of the straw as twine. These sheaves would then be collected and grouped into stooks to let the grain dry properly. Once dried the workers had to load the sheaves onto horse drawn carts, which would take them back to the farm. These would be threshed that is the grain was separated from the straw. The grain was bagged and the straw was stacked.

The work was hard, giving people callouses on their hands and sore muscles from bending and stretching all day. Although the farmer would take on extra labour, the work had to be done quickly so that the harvest would be cut and gathered in before any bad weather at the end of the summer. Reaping machines, to do the cutting of the crops, had been invented since the 1st Century A.D. but it was not until 1827 that the first effective reaping machine made its appearance.

Patrick Bell of Auchterhouse, later to become minister at Carmyllie, had been brought up on his father’s farm. From an early age, he saw and joined in the very hard work at harvest time. Being interested in mechanics he tried, whilst still a student, to make harvesting slightly easier by using a horse powered machine. He managed to work out a rough plan and made a crude model of a reaping machine. This would not only stop some of the back breaking but would speed up the gathering of the crops, saving time, labour and money.

His machine consisted of a frame, cutters and a piece of sloping canvas which would make the cut stalks go neatly to the side ready to be bound. By working in secrecy in his workshop and at the local smithy, he had aroused a great deal of local curiosity. He even tested his machine behind closed doors by planting already cut stalks of oats in his workshop floor, making them into man-made harvest. Believing he had perfected his machine in 1828, he wanted to test it on a real crop. He and his brother waited until a harvest night so no one would see them before they pushed his machine out to a ripe crop. When it worked perfectly, it was immediately put to effective use on his father's farm. Soon it was being manufactured locally and exhibited throughout Angus.

Not until a few years after invention was Bell’s machine in demand by farmers all over the country. The change, which brought this about, was the emergence of new industries such as the railways and textile factories. Now the extra labour needed for harvesting was scarce and expensive so farmers welcomed the labour saving machine.

Many reapers appeared after the success of Bell’s but the superiority of his machine was finally proved by a challenge race where the rival machines were matched against each other. Bell’s reaper completely dominated the event, leaving the international judges with no hesitation in declaring Bell’s machine to be “the best and most effective reaping machine” they had even seen. Its rivals were shown to be only poor and defective imitations of the original.

Bell’s proved to be the first reaping machine, which was of real use to the farmer. Even in fairly recent times all reapers were based on his original machine, such was the perfection of his design.

Although delighted by his invention’s success all over the world, Bell benefited little money wise. He decided not to patent his invention, that is, he did not record his ideas as his own so that he alone could benefit financially from their success. Bell did not receive any real reward for his work until forty years later when the Scottish Highland and Agricultural Society presented his with the handsome sum of £1,000. A silver salver given to him bore the understated inscription, “presented by a large number of his countrymen in token of their appreciation of his services as the inventor of an efficient reaping machine.”

Bell did not pursue a mechanical career despite the great success of his reaping machine but chose to continue his training, eventually becoming a local minister. His invention had made the first real step towards easing the heavy load from the shoulders of agricultural workers around the world.

Bell began a revolution in the agricultural system. His invention opened the way for others of equal importance. If the grain could be cut down by machine, they thought, why couldn’t other parts of farm work be done in this way? The mechanisation of agriculture begun by him continued slowly until, as today, all farms use machinery such as tractors, diggers, combine harvesters, binders and seed sowers. It could be said that Patrick Bell, a modest minister from Carmyllie, is the father of modern day farming.

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