Jethro Tull (1674–1741)

The eighteenth century was a time of rapid change in agriculture in Britain, prompted by the enclosure of common land, the creation of larger farms and enlightenment thinking about agricultural methods. Early in the century, Jethro Tull was pioneered agricultural improvement and invented machines for preparing the soil and planting. By the nineteenth century, demand for machinery in agriculture had multiplied and supported industrial foundries and engineering works across Europe.

Tull was born in Berkshire, north of London, in 1674. He studied briefly at Oxford University and then qualified as a lawyer. However, he did not practice law but made a tour of Europe for several years during which he observed agricultural practices in many regions. When he married in 1699 he began experiments at his father’s farm to improve the yields of crops. He continued his experiments on another family farm, where he developed his first efficient seed drill in 1701. From 1711 to around 1714 he travelled in southern France and Italy again, prompted by ill-health. He noted that in the vineyards of Languedoc workers constantly hoed weeds and broke the soil between the vines. On his return home he experimented with the poor soils of another farm and used his new invention of a horse-drawn hoe while growing turnips, potatoes and wheat. He developed the theory that penetration by air, water and nutrients improved soil fertility.

His most important single innovation was to promote the method of sowing seeds at suitable depth and in equally spaced rows instead of throwing them by hand over the soil. His seed-drill machine had several parallel plough blades with boxes and spouts to deposit seeds evenly in the ground, together with a harrow that turned the soil over to cover them. This reduced wasted seed and gave each plant room to grow optimally. He published Horse-hoeing Husbandry in 1731 to promote his ideas. He expanded and updated it in 1733, after improving his machine. A French edition was published to much interest in 1753 and his work was kept up to date by other authors in the nineteenth century.

His innovations were ridiculed by many people in his lifetime but his experimental approach to improving practices became influential. His seed-drill was successful in Scotland before it was taken up in his homeland. Future machines for hoeing and seed-drilling developed from his ideas, drawn by horse, traction engine and tractor.