Tull Invents the Seed Drill Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Jethro Tull’s invention of the seed drill revolutionized farming. The drill replaced the wasteful and labor-intensive broadcast method of seeding and paved the way for subsequent advances in mechanized agricultural machinery.

Summary of Event

Seeding methods in early eighteenth century England were essentially those that had been practiced for thousands of years. Broadcasting was widespread. Workers walked over a field, casting seed in sweeping motions as they went. As a result, even with skilled broadcasters, a great deal of grain was wasted, and some parts of the field were sparsely covered while others were overseeded. While broadcasting could be used somewhat effectively with grains, the method was not appropriate for vegetables, which had to be planted in rows. Primitive seed-dropping devices were used with vegetables. Hand-dibbing was also used: One worker walked ahead, using a tube with punches in it to make holes in the ground; another walked behind, depositing the seed in the holes and covering the seed with earth. A later improvement involved a tube attached to a primitive plow, but the flow of seeds still could not be regulated. In the sixteenth century, a setting board was used that allowed seeds to be dispersed three inches deep in the soil and at intervals of three inches. [kw]Tull Invents the Seed Drill (1701) [kw]Drill, Tull Invents the Seed (1701) [kw]Seed Drill, Tull Invents the (1701) [kw]Invents the Seed Drill, Tull (1701) Seed drill Machines;farming Agriculture;mechanization [g]England;1701: Tull Invents the Seed Drill[0040] [c]Inventions;1701: Tull Invents the Seed Drill[0040] [c]Agriculture;1701: Tull Invents the Seed Drill[0040] [c]Science and technology;1701: Tull Invents the Seed Drill[0040] Tull, Jethro Worlidge, John Plattes, Gabriel Cavalini, Taddeo Monceau, Henri-Louis Duhamel du Mills, John

Although Jethro Tull is acknowledged as the inventor of the seed drill, his was not the first seed drill to be designed. Taddeo Cavalini designed a seed drill in the late sixteenth century that he claimed would use only half the grain and still yield one-third more crop than if broadcasting were used, but there is no evidence that such a machine was ever made. Other inventors, most not farmers themselves, also designed seed drills. Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Ramsay, and Gabriel Plattes obtained patents for their seed drills, but only Plattes left a record of what the machine would have looked like. Later, John Worlidge designed a seed drill, but it was not actually made and used until much later. In fact, though Tull initially claimed that his invention was not dependent on any earlier accounts of seed drills, he later acknowledged that he had seen drafts of John Worlidge’s drill. Tull, however, was the first person to construct a seed drill that worked.

A country gentleman of means, Tull was Oxford educated and later was admitted to the bar in 1699, but instead of practicing law, he left London for his father’s farm at Howberry, Crowmarsh, where he conducted his agricultural experiments. He was one of several agronomists who worked on what was then called the Norfolk System. Tull did not like the wasteful broadcasting method of sowing seeds, but his workers were tied to the traditional broadcasting technique. Tull wanted his workers to make channels, sow smaller quantities of seed, and then cover the seeds with soil. In his absence, his workers turned to broadcasting, so around 1701, Tull designed and made his seed drill. Mechanization of labor

The drill, which was later described and illustrated in his The New Horse Houghing Husbandry: Or, An Essay on the Principles of Tillage and Vegetation New Horse Houghing Husbandry, The (Tull) (1731), was horse drawn and consisted of three narrow hoes, which allowed for the seeding of three rows at a time. The hoes had passages behind them that guided the seed from the funnels above to the channels in the ground. The hoes, the framework supporting them, and the shafts resting on the ground were carried by the four wheels of the machine. The large front wheels carried the seed box and the dropper unit that fed the center hoe, and the two smaller rear wheels carried the droppers and seed boxes feeding the other two hoes. The dropper unit consisted of the case at the bottom of the seed box and the notched axle that passed through it. The axle with notches and cavities turned the wheels, took on the grain from the boxes above, and dropped it into the funnels that went behind the hoes. The passage of grain past the notched dropper had a brass cover and an adjustable spring similar to the tongue in an organ. (Tull had earlier taken apart an organ and noticed its rotating cylinder.)

Tull’s machine initially had limited success. Tull did succeed in growing wheat on the same field for thirteen successive years without having to let the field lie fallow (that is, allow the field to “rest” between crops to build up depleted soil nutrients). He never had the chance to use the seed drill for the planting of sainfoin, a kind of legume that was Tull’s favorite crop. Tull’s seed drill was not widely adopted after he demonstrated its viability. The drill had its detractors, and there was considerable controversy about its usefulness.

In 1709, as a result of some pulmonary problems (he was often sick), Tull toured Europe, hoping to recover his health. He observed seeding practices, particularly in France and Germany, and incorporated European approaches into his own thinking. In 1731, his The New Horse Houghing Husbandry helped spread his ideas.

Also in 1709, Tull moved from Crowmarsh to Prosperous Farm, at Hungerford, Berkshire, where he continued to work on agricultural machines. In addition to the seed drill, he invented a horse hoe and a four-hoed plough. His was a holistic approach to farming, but few farmers actually adopted all of his ideas, particularly his belief that hoeing the soil made the use of manure unnecessary.

After his death in 1741, the controversy over Tull’s ideas abated, but following Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau’s Traité de la culture des terres suivant les principes de M. Tull anglais (1753-1761; A Practical Treatise of Husbandry, 1759, 1762), a six-volume “extract” of Tull’s ideas, and John Mills’s translation of the French book into English, the debate renewed. Despite some critics, this time Tull’s ideas, perhaps because of Monceau’s book, carried the day. There were, however, still some farmers and many field hands who clung tenaciously to the past and who were suspicious of “new” ideas. Tull had argued that his drill and his agricultural methods were financially advantageous, but he did not have the financial accounts to support his claims. Ultimately, the battle was won on the agricultural fields.


Scholars specializing in agricultural machinery claim that all subsequent seeding machines were derivative copies or were heavily influenced by Jethro Tull’s designs. His theories were widely promulgated, especially in France, where his works were translated by Monceau. Despite the fact that his seed drill worked, it was not until the nineteenth century that it was manufactured on a large scale. His methods were even more effective after 1830, when the subsoil plow broke up deeper levels of the soil, aerating it, and by 1866 a modification of his seed drill was a common implement on every farm in England. According to G. E. Fussell, a leading historian of farm machinery, Jethro Tull’s first seed drill with its internal moving parts was the precursor of complex twentieth century agricultural machines. Though some of his theories are still debated, his invention of the seed drill remains one of the most important agricultural advances of all time.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bourde, André. The Influence of England on the French Agronomes. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1953. Duhamel du Monceau modified Tull’s theories about farming and translated them into French. Bourde demonstrates how thoroughly Tull influenced French agriculture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fussell, G. E. The Farmer’s Tools: A History of British Farm Implements, Tools, and Machinery Before the Tractor Came, from A.D. 1500-1900. London: Andrew Melrose, 1952. Discusses the predecessors of Tull’s seed drill and provides helpful illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Jethro Tull: His Influence on Mechanized Agriculture. Reading, Berkshire, England: Osprey, 1973. Thorough coverage of Tull’s life, his inventions and those of his predecessors, and his standing among agricultural giants.

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