Jethro Tull (1674-1741) experimented with new farming techniques and invented mechanical agricultural equipment. He demonstrated on his farm near Hunger ford, England, that planting seeds in rows and tilling and hoeing increased production and profits. Hull wrote two editions of The Horse-Hoeing Husbandry, which spread his ideas to other farmers and contributed greatly to the Agricultural Revolution.
Tull was born to Jethro and Dorothy Tull, in Basildon, Berkshire, England, and baptized there on March 30, 1674. He grew up on a country estate. At the age of 17, he went to Oxford to study at St. John's College, but he left before graduating. While a student in London, Tull became a musician. He learned how to play the organ and understood how it operated mechanically—knowledge he would later apply to his seed-drill invention. In 1693 he became a law student at Gray's Inn and also studied for two years at Staple Inn. Tull qualified as a barrister in 1699, although he never practiced law. He had hoped to use his understanding of the legal system in government service, but ill health changed the course of his professional life.
The year 1699 was an eventful one for Tull. Besides becoming a barrister, he made an unusually brief tour of the Continent (Europe) and married Sussanah Smith of Burton-Dassett, Warwickshire. A tour of the Continent was a requisite part of a wealthy young man's education at the time, most lasting around two years. Tull's tour was probably only four months long, yet it gave him a glimpse of agricultural practices outside England. After their marriage, Tull and his wife settled on his paternal farm. They had one son and four daughters. Their son, John, pursued financial speculation as an adult and was incarcerated at Fleet Prison for debt. He died without heirs.
Why Tull took up farming is uncertain. It may have been because he had inherited the family farm, because he had financial problems, or because of his ill health (he had a tubercular condition). What is certain is that it was not by choice. Yet, he made the best of his lot and became one of the originators of modern methods of farming. "In short, the whole concept of thorough tillage, row cropping, and keeping the soil surface as bare as possible emerged from the brain of Jethro Tull," summed up Bob Rodale in "The Regenerative Concept."
Around the time of Tull's birth, hunger was a persistent problem throughout Great Britain, so farmers began growing more crops and experimenting with manure and fertilizers to increase production and profits. These experiments, however, had to have been hindered by the open field system of landownership, which forced cooperation and adherence to traditional methods. For a thousand years, arable lands in England had been laid out in fields around villages. Each landowner had narrow, long strips of land for planting that covered both the best and worst ground. Farmers agreed which strips were in production, which were fallow, and shared in the plowing. The Enclosure Movement plotted the common fields into privately held "enclosed" fields. Enclosure landowners received a piece of property in proportion to the amount they owned under the open field system. The larger fields enabled farmers to experiment with new, efficient methods and enticed the aristocracy to exploit estates with agricultural enterprises in the early years of the eighteenth century. Between 1700 and 1845, 6 million acres of English fields were enclosed as farm mechanization increased.
When Tull began farming in 1700, he, too, was interested in improving production. But scientific knowledge of plant physiology was limited. Tull and his contemporaries believed that matter was composed of four elements— earth, air, fire, and water—and Tull extrapolated that plants assimilated nutrients by combining the elements. According to the "Washington's Five Farms" web site, "Jethro Tull … believed that plants had tiny mouths on their roots which ate the foods in the soil." He thought plants absorbed and digested fine particles of earth, then discharged waste into the atmosphere. He called roots the stomach and intestines of plants; their leaves were lungs, and sap was blood. He did not think water formed any part of the food for plants.
Tull had seen firsthand the importance of cultivation when he had visited the vineyards of France and Italy. The loosened soil permitted air and moisture to reach the roots of growing plants. Apparently, "Tull thought that perhaps loose soil fit better in the plants' 'mouths,"' speculated a writer for the "Washington's Five Farms" web site. Manures, Tull thought, helped feed plants because they assisted with the breakdown of earth particles. But he also thought manures affected the taste and composition of food and promoted weed growth. He advocated instead pulverizing the soil, planting with drills, and thorough tilling during the growing period to promote production.
Of necessity, Tull invented a seed-drill, four-coulter plow (one with four discs or knifelike projections), and horse-hoe to carry out his theories. The standard practice of the time was to broadcast (simply throw or spread) crop seeds and watch them sprout and grow along with weeds. Tull had the idea less seed would be needed and production would increase if crops were sown in rows that could be weeded. He hired workers to make furrows into which to sow and cover seeds, but they balked at trying a new sowing method. So Tull decided to build a machine to sow seeds as he wanted.
Farmers from Babylon to China had used seeding devices for thousands of years. A setting-board with regularly spaced holes was devised in 1601. Planters used a dibble to make uniform holes in the soil to accept the seeds. In the late sixteenth century, Italian Taddeo Cavalini invented a mechanical seed-drill that he claimed could sow twice the area, using half the seed, and yield one-third more. Several Scots patented seed-drills in the early 1600s, but none were successful. John Worlidge, an Englishman, designed a seed-drill and illustrated it in his 1699 book Systema Agriculture. Tull would admit at a later date that he was familiar with this work.
The seed-drill Tull invented in 1701 has been called the first or earliest agricultural machine because it had internal moving parts. Its rotary mechanism was the foundation of all subsequent sowing implements. Tull's knowledge of the workings of the organ helped him with the machine's design, which he documented for prospective makers with a written description and five sketches. It is doubtful, however, he had the skills to actually build it. G. E. Fussell remarked in Jethro Tull: His Influence on Mechanized Agriculture that it is thought Tull's "drills were made by an ingenious cabinet-maker of Soho Square, and it is certain that men of that trade did make drills for inventors who followed Tull's path." Tull's seed-drill planted three rows simultaneously and incorporated three previously separate actions into one: drilling, sowing, and covering the seeds. A hopper dispensed seed into a box that dropped it in a regulated amount. A harrow cut the drill (groove in the soil) for receiving the seed, and a plow turned over the soil to cover the sown seed. Tull experimented with the machine at Howberry Farm, Crowmarch, near Wallingford.
As explained in "The Agricultural Revolution" web essay, "Experiments showed Tull that crops grew better if he periodically removed the weeds and broke up the soil between the rows of plants. Tull invented a horse-drawn cultivator to do this work." His horse-hoe or hoe-plow pulverized the soil, pulled up grass and roots, and left them to dry on the surface. He also invented a 4-coultered plow that made vertical cuts in the soil before the plowshare. By using his implements, Tull was able to produce good crops for several years in succession and reduced the need for fallowing. In an experiment at Prosperous Farm, he released moisture from springy soil on a hill by plowing across it—a process that is now called contour plowing.
Tull's implements, necessary for his new system of farming, divided farmers into two groups: those set in their ways and those willing to experiment. "From the very beginning there was antagonism to their use on the one hand, and great enthusiasm in their favour on the other. Tull's own labourers had forced him to design these things," pointed out Fussell. Other farmworkers were as reluctant as the inventor's own laborers to use implements. One nobleman landowner shamed his plowman into using a four-coultered plow after personally demonstrating how the thing was used.
Despite resistance, use of the drill and hoeing increased steadily as machines improved. No agricultural censuses were taken in England before the 1860s and none of agricultural machinery before World War II, so it is impossible to say with certainty to what extent Tull's machines were made and used and his farming system adopted. What is certain is that by 1866 the seed-drill was one of the most common implements on English farms.
Tull's new farming system and implements were well known and supported by eminent men of his era. In 1729 a party of noblemen met with Tull and persuaded him to write a book about his agricultural experiments and the scientific reasons for his actions. Tull had nearly 40 years of fieldwork behind him when he wrote The New Horse-Hoeing Husbandry; or, an Essay on the Principles of Tillage and Vegetation. First published in 1731, it was greatly expanded for the next edition, published under a slightly altered title in 1733. Later it would be translated into French, Dutch, German, and other European languages. The book contains Tull's ideas on plant physiology and advice on plant culture. It also describes the three implements he invented.
Although The Horse-Hoeing Husbandry books generated imitators, disciples, and other books based on Tull's practices, they also "aroused the most ferocious and unbridled criticism and were condemned in unmeasured terms as being rubbish," declared Fussell. Those embracing the Tullian system included members of the Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture in Scotland. However, few landowners anywhere practiced the pure Tullian system. The Equivocal Society, which defended current agricultural practices, was one of the most adamant opponents of Tull's system. Tull responded to the society's criticism by demeaning their system, calling it Virgilian husbandry; he thereby brought himself more denunciation. "At a time when classical learning was the foundation of all education, [Tull] provoked criticism of a formidable cast," observed Fussell. Georgica, written by Virgil, was considered the "apotheosis of agricultural wisdom" and above question.
The debate over Tull's theories would go on for more than a century, and as late as the mid-nineteenth century treatises were being published on his principles. The influence of his ideas on farming—and production of a greater food supply when they were applied—was unmistakable. "Within 50 years [of the introduction of Tull's new farming system] the ability of farmers to assume a position of dominance over nature had increased dramatically," claimed Rodale. By the twentieth century, Tull's basic principles— tilled earth, inter-row cultivation, and mechanical drilling of seeds—had been generally adopted. His system, noted Rodale, also "helped set the stage for the very serious problems [such as erosion and high energy use] that farming faces today," but "the brilliance of his thinking, and the creative way he engineered farm equipment encouraged at least 10 generations of successive agricultural researchers to merely improve and fine-tune his method, rather than to envision a whole new and more sustainable form of agriculture." Fussell defended the eighteenth-century agriculturalist by stating: "It was in the realm of practice, not in that of science, that Tull made his greatest contribution: his science was not learned until he had long used his practice and was limited to the state of knowledge in his day that led him into the errors which have been made a stick to beat him with by critics possessed of modern theories."
Tull's poor health deteriorated as the controversy over his writings and farm system wore on. He died on February 21, 1741 at Prosperous Farm. He is buried at Basildon, where a memorial to him was erected at the local church in 1961.
Fussell, G. E., Jethro Tull: His Influence on Mechanized Agriculture, Osprey, 1973.
"The Agricultural Revolution," AP European History, http://www.eurohist.com/the-agricultural-revolution.htm (December 8, 2000).
"Mechanical Farming," Millennium Stamps, http://www.royalmail.co.uk/athome/millenium-stamps/mc1/theme/theme35.htm (December 8, 2000).
Rodale, Bob, "The Regenerative Concept," Rodale Institute, http://www.rodaleinstitute.org (December 8, 2000).
"Washington's Five Farms: Fertilizers," http://www.mountvernon.org (December 8, 2000).