Every December, I watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. There’s a lot to learn from that little animated special, even from the most minor of characters, such as the always memorable, perpetually dust-streaked Pigpen.
Don’t think of it as dust, Charlie Brown tells Pigpen’s fellow actors in the holiday pageant, who complain about the clouds of dirt forever swirling around him. Think of it as maybe the soil of some great past civilization.
The tools we use to maintain our lawns and gardens aren’t as old the soil itself, but they do have a history nearly as rich. Even the garden tiller and the cultivator have ties to the tools that farmers wielded thousands of years ago.
So how did we get to the point at which we use gas-powered engines and electric motors to drive long metal tines into the ground?
It didn’t happen right away; no great innovations ever do. First, human societies had to start cultivating plants and animals – choosing which ones to grow and setting aside land to raise them.
Historians agree that agriculture developed in the Middle East region of the world about 12,000 years ago. Even then, several thousand years passed before people began using tools to dig into the ground.
Once they did, though, agricultural tools became widespread and essential. As far back as the ancient Sumerians between 5000 and 4000 BCE, and the ancient Egyptians around 4500 BCE, farmers employed lightweight wooden plows to break ground and allow seeds and seedlings to take root.
A depiction of a plow in use in ancient Egyptian society
Don’t think that the history of the plow or the use of tools to grow crops was limited to ancient Middle Eastern civilizations, however:
Yet when we think of great innovations, which historical civilizations are two that often come to mind?
That might be a fairly specific and slightly nerdy question, but if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably guessed that the Greeks and the Romans would be mentioned at some point.
In addition to their many contributions to philosophy, math, and architecture, the ancient Greeks and Romans created precursors to industrial tillage tools farming tools that would spread through the western world.
The Greeks called their early version of a plow an arotron or aratrum. It was shaped almost like a scythe, with the shorter segment used to carve the ground and the longer pole or section used to pull it.
The Romans called their version an ard. It was similar to the arotron in that it had one cutting blade called a share, which made it ideal for turning the dry, lightweight soil found in the Mediterranean region.
Examples of plows from the Roman empire
But why stop with an ard? According to the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, an upgrade to the ard that we now know as the heavy plow was in use by the first century CE.
What made this early heavy plow such a notable upgrade? One word: wheels. Anyone who’s ever used a wheeled tiller after using a hoe, spade, or other handheld tool knows how much of a difference the ability to easily push a garden tool makes.
Thanks to human migration and exploration, the heavy plow made its way to eastern Europe by the fifth century CE and then to western Europe by the sixth century CE. Once there, according to historian William Graessle, it received three new parts that made it better suited to working the northern region’s heavier clay soils:
The heavy plow is often credited for the growth and development of European societies through the Middle Ages. In fact, it wasn’t until (nearly) modern times that advances in science and engineering brought us from basic soil-tilling equipment to the powerful tools we have now.
The 1700s might not seem like part of the modern era. However, the portion of agriculture’s long history between the eighth and eighteenth centuries saw few innovations in farm tools. In contrast, the start of the Agricultural Revolution in the 1700s marked a time when industry and society quickly underwent massive changes.
One of the inventors leading those changes was an English inventor named Jethro Tull. Yes, just like the band.
After finishing law school in 1699, Tull traveled Europe and eventually settled at his family’s farm. There, he devised several ideas for improving crop growth and yields.
Even though he mistakenly believed that plants absorb bits of dirt for nutrition, Tull’s belief did lead him to correctly conclude that burying seeds in soil (instead of scattering them on top) would help them germinate, and that tilling the soil between crop rows would help plants grow.
It also led him to create several important inventions:
Jethro Tull's mechanical seed drill
Innovation didn’t stop with Tull’s death in 1741. The Industrial Revolution produced machines like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, an invention from the 1790s that automated the process of separating cotton fibers from cotton seeds, and Jethro Wood’s iron plow with replaceable parts, which he patented in 1819.
The next century saw Britain’s Great Exhibition of 1851, where industrial design as it was applied to agriculture was a hit. One of the most popular inventions was Cyrus McCormick’s grain reaper, a mechanical device that harvested wheat and other grains from large areas much more quickly than people could with handheld scythes.
Cyrus McCormick's grain reaper in use
Together, all these inventions that followed the humble plow paved the way for the introduction of the motorized tiller in the early twentieth century. So, who’s responsible for tillers as we know them?
The answer to that question lies in New South Wales, Australia.
There, in 1912, a man named Arthur Clifford Howard attached a disc-bladed cultivator to his father’s tractor and used the tractor’s steam engine to power it. The new machine turned the soil more effectively but didn’t pack the ground after passing over it, the way that traditional plows did.
Howard first called his invention the rotary hoe. Later, his company trademarked the name rotavator, and the device spread worldwide.
A later version of the Howard rotary hoe cultivator. From the collections of the State Library of New South Wales.
It wasn’t until 1930 that the tiller arrived in the United States, however. That was the year that a man named C.W. Kelsey started the Rototiller Company in New York to import a Swiss-designed, German-made version of the engine-powered tiller.
Kelsey trademarked the named rototiller, joined with other industrial partners to design and manufacture an improved machine, and moved his company to Troy, New York, in 1937. About thirty years later, the company’s name changed to one that might be familiar to anyone who’s ever shopped for a garden tiller: Troy-Bilt.
Since that time, other companies have made improvements and changes to the tools we use to turn our soil. Tillers went from being powered by steam and a tractor's belt drive to being powered by gas engines and electric motors. They even got their own transmissions!
By the 1980s, motorized "mini-tillers" were in use thanks to companies like Mantis. Now, consider all the possible options available with today’s tillers:
And just as Charlie Brown suggested to Pigpen, all of it started with the soil of ancient civilizations. Whoever said that great innovations couldn’t have humble origins?