Meikle Demonstrates His Drum Thresher

Meikle innovated agricultural engineering implements and techniques. He improved mechanical threshing methods by creating a machine that enabled farmers to harvest grain crops efficiently. His invention occurred at a time when demand for agricultural goods increased dramatically to feed and clothe growing urban populations employed in industrial positions.

Summary of Event

As British urban populations expanded in the eighteenth century due to industrialization, the demand for food Food;production urgently increased. British agriculture required intensive labor to cultivate fields and harvest crops during most of that century. Farmers attempted to grow greater yields to feed nonagricultural populations and supply raw fibers to textile mills. Textile mills They had fewer laborers to help them, because many people abandoned rural work for urban employment. Enclosure laws forced many agricultural workers from land. Farmers sought to produce large quantities of foodstuffs with minimal labor. Labor;agricultural In order to do so, they needed technological assistance. [kw]Meikle Demonstrates His Drum Thresher (Feb. 14, 1788)
[kw]Thresher, Meikle Demonstrates His Drum (Feb. 14, 1788)
[kw]Drum Thresher, Meikle Demonstrates His (Feb. 14, 1788)
Drum thresher
Agricultural Revolution;Scotland
[g]Scotland;Feb. 14, 1788: Meikle Demonstrates His Drum Thresher[2780]
[c]Inventions;Feb. 14, 1788: Meikle Demonstrates His Drum Thresher[2780]
[c]Agriculture;Feb. 14, 1788: Meikle Demonstrates His Drum Thresher[2780]
[c]Science and technology;Feb. 14, 1788: Meikle Demonstrates His Drum Thresher[2780]
Meikle, Andrew
Meikle, George
Kinloch, Sir Francis
Rennie, John

Most people considered agricultural work tedious and time-consuming. For centuries, engineers and inventors had experimented with implements and tools, attempting to create machinery to ease agriculturists’ workloads. Jethro Tull’s 1701 seed drill inspired innovation. Farmers read agricultural guidebooks recommending ways to achieve success. Some agriculturists tested new methods and tried different equipment, adapting and designing tools suitable for their specific fields and needs.

Scottish inventor Andrew Meikle envisioned a machine Mechanization of labor to ease the labor- and time-intensive threshing process usually performed by hand. Trained as a millwright by his father, James Meikle, Andrew Meikle understood mechanical processes. James Meikle had traveled to Holland in 1710 to examine Dutch agricultural technology and brought a winnowing machine to remove chaff from grain to the Meikles’ East Lothian home. Andrew Meikle probably saw that equipment and gained experiences with his family’s mill, grinding barley and corn, prior to building and repairing textile mills in Scotland from the 1740’s through the 1760’s with his brother, Robert Meikle. They also traveled throughout England, examining mills.

The Meikle brothers worked as consultants for the Scottish mills’ board of trustees for manufactures. They advocated that the board provide money to educate apprentices. Andrew Meikle arranged for his neighbor, John Rennie, later a prominent civil engineer, to serve as his apprentice in the mid-1770’s, while Meikle worked on threshing machine designs at his Houston Mill, close to East Linton on Haddingtonshire Tyne. He also taught future engineer William Playfair. Playfair, William The Meikles’ experiences inspired them to improve technology used in both grain and textile mills. Aware of other people’s inventions, they adjusted designs and created new versions of commonly used devices. By 1768, the pair received patent number 896 for a grain winnowing machine to remove husks.

Meikle’s related inventions, prior to concentrating on threshing, strengthened his imagination. Intrigued by wind movement, Meikle focused his inventive talents on redesigning windmills. Windmills In 1750, Meikle created fantails to keep windmill sails at right angles to wind. By 1772, he secured a patent for windmill sails incorporating springs to permit hinged shutters to vent gusty winds, preventing damage to the sails and ensuring power generation crucial for milling needs was not disrupted.

Aware of farmers’ concerns about labor shortages, Meikle considered designing better devices to help agriculturists profitably supply crops to markets. Farmers stated that threshing, the process of stripping grain from plant stalks, required the most time. Before they had access to dependable mechanized threshing, most eighteenth century agricultural laborers beat stalks with flails to remove grain. Meikle knew how equipment worked and wanted to make tools easier to use and more efficient to help farmers.

Meikle probably had seen mechanized devices used to beat flax with internal flails and knew of several models other inventors had designed to thresh grain. In 1636, Sir John Christopher Christopher, Sir John had patented a simple threshing machine. A century later, Meikle might have been inspired by Michael Menzies’s Menzies, Michael 1734 machine, built in East Lothian. Meikle might have learned about the machine Scottish farmer Michael Stirling Stirling, Michael created in the 1750’s, which had wood beaters, often called scrutchers, that revolved like those sometimes used in lint mills to process flax. Sir Francis Kinloch Kinloch, Sir Francis redesigned a machine built by a Mr. Elderton and gave a model to the London Board of Agriculture and another to Meikle.

Meikle contemplated these prior attempts to mechanize threshers, studying varying designs and investigating why machines worked or failed to achieve their tasks satisfactorily and reliably. He noted that rubbing processes removed grain from stalks, but the pressure caused bruising to kernels. Eager to apply his ideas for improvements, Meikle designed, built, and tested prototypes for a threshing machine in the 1770’s and 1780’s. He adjusted and rejected several designs until he realized what mechanisms would be most effective.

After approximately ten years of trials, sometime around 1787, Meikle envisioned using a revolving drum to remove grain from stalks. He placed rigid iron scrutchers around a drum cylinder. Meikle fed stalks through long, grooved rollers like those utilized in lint mills. Meikle’s experience with flax machinery, which beat fiber out of flax, possibly inspired this idea. The drum spun quickly—more than two hundred revolutions per minute—to remove grain, as stalks were pounded against the concave metal container walls securing the drum. This machine met Meikle’s expectations, because the drum design beat grain and did not rub it. He added devices to collect grain and remove chaff and debris. Andrew’s son George Meikle constructed a threshing machine for a farmer and received orders to build more. When he told Kinloch his father would apply for a patent, Kinloch argued that Meikle’s design was unoriginal.

On February 14, 1788, Andrew Meikle exhibited his water-powered machine at Knowes Mill, near Haddingtonshire. Observers told the area’s board of trustees for manufactures what they had seen, praising Meikle’s machine. Meikle received English patent number 1645 for that machine but was unable to secure a Scottish patent because he had demonstrated the machine and threshed grain in public. Aspiring to help farmers and earn income from machinery sales to consumers, Meikle built a factory in 1789.

Although many farmers were receptive to his machine and purchased it, Meikle did not profit from his invention. In the eighteenth century, patents rewarded inventors and were considered an honor not necessarily a guarantee of property rights. People, including Kinloch, claimed they had invented Meikle’s design and ignored his patent. Neither Meikle nor legal authorities enforced it. Copying Meikle’s design, craftsmen built and sold hundreds of unlicensed machines. That competition hindered Meikle’s sales. Despite his machine’s importance and widespread use, Meikle earned minimal income. By 1809, Sir John Sinclair directed Meikle’s friends to collect £1,500 to support him.


Meikle’s pioneering drum thresher represented a significant technological component of the late eighteenth century Agricultural Revolution in Great Britain. His practical, effective design revealed how engineering and scientific inventiveness and applications aided the industrialization and commercialization of agriculture. Meikle’s thresher enabled farmers to process crops in less time, especially as farm sizes increased and labor sources decreased. That machine became the basis for future threshing technology, as some innovators improved his design. Since the 1780’s, engineers have incorporated Meikle’s design in combined harvesters used to cut, thresh, and winnow crops with one machine. Modern machines retain principles of Meikle’s invention. Inspired by Meikle’s threshing machine, inventors devised such related related tools as reapers to process agricultural produce mechanically.

Most farmers in northern England and Scotland accepted Meikle’s thresher because those regions lacked workers due to industrialization employment demands. The Lowland Clearances had forced many rural Scots to relocate to urban areas or emigrate. Although technology usually advanced agriculture, many agricultural workers were impacted negatively. In southern England, where more corn grew, thus increasing threshing demands, farm laborers resented Meikle’s machine because they could not compete with mechanization’s efficiency. Denied threshing jobs they had relied on to earn income, human threshers suffered unemployment and poverty because factories could not hire all available labor or those jobs did not appeal to rural residents. Workers’ frustration and anger grew over the following decades as more farmers used threshing machines. Large farms expanded, and investors, often absentee, embraced technology to gain profits. Those owners were usually uninterested in the welfare of rural communities and laborers. Displaced workers rioted in 1830, damaging threshing machines and burning agricultural buildings and supplies while praising fictional renegade Captain Swing.

Further Reading

  • Blaxter, Sir Kenneth, and Noel Robertson. From Dearth to Plenty: The Modern Revolution in Food Production. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Explores how eighteenth century innovations in technology and science revolutionized agriculture, establishing precedents for later inventions, practices, and ongoing transformations, which industrialized agriculture. Glossary, bibliographical resources.
  • Fussell, George E. The Farmer’s Tools, 1500-1900: The History of British Farm Implements, Tools, and Machinery Before the Tractor Came. London: Andrew Melrose, 1952. Comprehensive discussion of agricultural technology, including a chapter about early threshing developments, especially in Scotland, before Meikle’s work and his role in improving designs. Illustrations, chronology.
  • Handley, James E. Scottish Farming in the Eighteenth Century. London: Faber and Faber, 1953. Discusses Andrew Meikle, his father, and his son and their contributions to agriculture technology. Based on primary sources and inventors’ accounts. Bibliography.
  • Hobsbawm, Eric, and George Rudé. Captain Swing. London: Phoenix Press, 2001. Analyzes the 1830 rebellion of agriculturists reacting to industrialization, examining how agricultural mechanization affected rural employment and conditions and caused poverty and despair.
  • Mokyr, Joel, ed. The British Industrial Revolution: An Economic Perspective. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1999. Includes a chapter discussing agriculture advances that coincided with Industrial Revolution technological innovations. States threshing machinery reduced labor but did not increase yields.

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Invention of the Water Frame

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First Steam Rolling Mill

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