Harry Ferguson – inventor of the modern tractor

Harry Ferguson - Inventor of the modern tractor. Photo copyright High Contrast cc2

The modern tractor was invented by Irishman Harry Ferguson, an engineer from Growell, County Down.

Ferguson was born in 1884 and when he was a youngster he was quite a thrill seeker. Although he was the son of a farmer, his main passions were aviation and motor racing. At the age of 25 he became the first Irishman to build and fly his own plane.

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Interest in aviation

Ferguson monoplane
Ferguson monoplane

Seven years earlier he had got a job with his brother, Joe, and learnt his trade as a mechanic. It was then that he became interested in aviation.

Over time he and Joe began to argue about the safety of aviation. The arguments got so bad that they fell out over it and went their separate ways.

Having lost his employment, Ferguson set up his own business, Harry Ferguson Ltd. He sold cars and tractors.

He was not impressed with the fact that the tractor and its plough were separate units. They were too heavy and quite dangerous to operate. He thought there had to be a better way.

Ferguson created a new system

Harry Ferguson inventor of the modern tractor
Harry Ferguson

In 1917 he built a plough that could be attached to a car. It was not a massive success but he saw it had potential. He teamed up with George and Eber Sherman and spent several years developing his idea adding a Duplex hitch system and new hydraulic system.

A prototype of the ‘Ferguson Black’ was built in 1936 at the David Brown Factory in Huddersfield in the UK.

Two years later Ferguson and Brown’s companies merged to form Ferguson-Brown Ltd.

Meeting with Henry Ford

Harry Ferguson met with Henry Ford
Meeting with Henry Ford

The company’s big break came in 1938 when Ferguson met the legendary Henry Ford Senior. Ferguson showed Ford patents for improvements to the tractor.

They struck a deal and in 1939 the Ford-Ferguson 9N was launched and over 300,000 were made over the next 12 years.

The relationship with Ford turned sour after that though, when Ford’s grandson, Henry Ford II, took over negotiations with Ferguson.

They were unable to agree acceptable terms but Ford continued to produce the tractor despite the fact that Ferguson owned the patent.

Ferguson launched a lawsuit

Ferguson took a law suit against Henry Ford
Cartoon of Law suit

Ferguson launched a lawsuit against Ford for illegal use of his designs and damage caused to his business. He received $9million in an out of court settlement but the episode took its toll on Ferguson’s health as he was under a lot of stress.

In 1952, Ferguson’s patents ran out which prompted the majority of tractor manufacturers to start using his designs.

He then merged his company with Massey Harris to form Massey Ferguson.

Throughout his life he never lost his passion for motor racing and he was instrumental in introducing an Ulster Grand Prix and developing the first four wheel drive car to be used in Formula 1.

He died in 1960 following a barbiturate overdose.

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