‘The other Fergie’ — why tractor king Harry Ferguson is among Ireland’s best loved engineers
24 July 2018
A farmer, mechanic, car designer and aviator, he struck up a business partnership with Henry Ford and is most well known for creating the Massey Ferguson - a common byword for agricultural machinery and the humble tractor
The Ferguson tractor
In the small village of Dromara, Co Down, stands a sculpture that digs into the collective memory of those of us that grew up in the Irish countryside. The scene it sets is that of a farmer looking out into a field over a gate lost in his own thoughts. It evokes the memory of the ordinary farmer laying his protective eyes over his crops or animals.
No ‘ordinary’ farmer
However, this sculpture is not a tribute to an ‘ordinary’ farmer but, rather, to an extraordinary one. He was a farmer, aviator, car designer and, most of all, one of Ireland’s most fondly remembered engineers. His invention changed Ireland and indeed the world and his surname has become synonymous with farming and agricultural machinery. The machinery is called Massey Ferguson and the man was Harry Ferguson.
Henry George ‘Harry’ Ferguson was born in 1884 near Dromara, the son of a farmer and he grew up on the family farm, learning the trade and becoming mechanically minded as he helped to fix the farm machinery.
Aged 18, he began working as a mechanic with his brother, Joe, in his car repair workshop in Belfast. He soon developed an interest in all things mechanical, not just cars, but also motorcycles and aeroplanes. This was the early days of aviation discovery, and these machines that could soar through the air fascinated him.
Creation of Ireland’s first aeroplane — the Ferguson monoplane
He began to travel to air shows to see them in action, taking notes in the process and a plan was soon formulated to build one himself. Convincing his brother of the venture, the two of them started on the project in earnest, working from the car workshop. Thus, Ireland’s first aeroplane, the Ferguson monoplane, was created.
It must have drawn quite a crowd as they towed the newly built plane through the streets of Belfast to its launch site at Hillsborough Park. Alas, delays ensued as they were, in turn, thwarted by propeller trouble, and then the inevitable Irish weather. Finally, on December 31, 1909, they took off and Harry Ferguson became the first Irish person to fly and build an aeroplane.
The ‘Belfast Telegraph’ reported the scene: “The roar of the eight cylinders was like the sound of a Gatling gun in action. The machine was set against the wind, and all force being developed, the splendid pull of the new propeller swept the big aeroplane along as Mr Ferguson advanced the lever. Presently, at the movement of the pedal, the aeroplane rose into the air at a height from nine to twelve feet, amidst the heavy cheers of the onlookers.
“The poise of the machine was perfect and Mr Ferguson made a splendid flight of 130 yards. Although fierce gusts of wind made the machine wobble a little, twice the navigator steadied her by bringing her head to wind, successful initial flight that has ever been attempted upon an aeroplane.”
It wouldn’t be the first time that Harry Ferguson would get his name in the paper.
Business disputes with partners a common feature of his life
Business disputes with partners would be a common feature of his life and his first one would be with his brother. In 1911, they would disagree professionally and Ferguson decided to start his own company selling cars and tractors.
He was successful at this and soon became an expert on farm machinery – so much so, that he was hired by the Irish Board of Agriculture in 1919 to take a look at how farm production methods might be improved by introducing more efficient machinery.
One of the biggest problems at the time was that the ploughs in use were crude and wieldy and Ferguson saw the limitations of having a tractor and a plough as two separate articulated machines.
There were no better alternatives on the market, so Ferguson endeavoured to engineer a way to rigidly attach them creating one machine from two. He came up with a vehicle that he called the ‘Eros’, it was a plough that could be attached to a Model T car and, in effect, it could be considered one of the first modern tractors.
Car giant Ford soon launched its own tractor
Unfortunately for Ferguson, car giant Ford soon launched its own ‘Fordson F’ tractor and this was set to dominate the market over Ferguson’s design. Undeterred, Harry sold off his stock of Eros Ploughs and began to devote his energy into designing a plough that could be fitted to this new Ford tractor. What he came up with he called the ‘Duplex Hitch’ which was relatively light and had a safety feature that prevented the tractor toppling if the plough struck a hard object.
It was during this time also that he conceived his famous three-point linkage and began to develop some prototypes. The first type was a mechanical linkage but it was unsuccessful. Ferguson kept on working on it and, in 1925, he patented a hydraulic version which could be attached to a Fordson tractor.
The result was that the plough attachment could now be raised or lowered at the back of the tractor without affecting balance and preventing damage to the plough. It was revolutionary and it enabled tractors to carry multiple types of attachments for various agricultural functions.
He also developed some prototype ‘lightweight’ tractor and plough combinations and the success of his linkage system gave Ferguson the confidence to start making them. He partnered with tractor manufacturer David Brown and, in 1936, the Ferguson-Brown Model ‘A’ tractor was unveiled, with the hydraulic linkage in place as well as multiple other innovative features.
It was too expensive, however, being twice the price of the Ford tractors and sales never took off. This led to a dispute between the partners, and Ferguson once again started looking for a new business partner.
The very best of Ford and Ferguson engineering
His innovative tractors had not gone unnoticed by the market dominating Ford Company and Henry Ford himself. In 1938, Henry Ford met Harry Ferguson where the latter demonstrated his machines. A friendship was made, they shook hands on a deal and, the following year, the Ford-Ferguson 9N tractor was launched in the US incorporating the very best of Ford and Ferguson engineering.
This ‘gentlemen’s contract’ proved very successful to both parties for more than a decade but on the death of Henry Ford, the relationship with the Ford Company began to deteriorate. Eventually, it led to a split and acrimonious lawsuit that wasn’t settled until 1951, with Ferguson receiving a settlement of about $9 million – though he had claimed for $240 million.
After the Second World War, Ferguson partnered with the Standard Motor Car Company in England and together they developed a diesel tractor called the TE-20 which became known as the ‘Grey Fergie’. In the post-war years, up to half a million of these tractors were built and it is a testament to their engineering design that many can still be seen at vintage shows and, even now and again, being used on some farms.
After the success of this venture, Ferguson sought yet another new business partner and, in 1953, he would find one in the Massey-Harris company. The new partnership would eventually go on to be called ‘Massey Ferguson’.
One of the biggest agricultural machinery manufacturers in the world
Today, it is one of the biggest agricultural machinery manufacturers in the world and it has become a byword for tractors.
Over the years, Ferguson and his R&D team have always conducted engineering research, helping develop and engineer innovative vehicle technology. One of these projects was the development of a road car. The ‘R5’ was way ahead of its time with four-wheel drive, anti-lock disc brakes and even electric windows.
Like other car manufacturers, Ferguson decided to showcase his car by developing and racing a Formula 1 race car called the P99. With racing legend Sterling Moss at the wheel, it dominated the first two races it entered; so much so, that the racing authorities banned its innovative four-wheel drive technology.
Highlighted how four-wheel drive could be used to maximum effect
Banned from Formula 1, the car subsequently won the British Hill Climb Championship and this highlighted how four-wheel drive could be used to maximum effect – something which led to the direct success of manufacturers like Land Rover.
Alas, Harry Ferguson wasn’t around to witness the success of his race car. He passed away on October 25, 1960, aged 75. Since his death, Ferguson has been commemorated and honoured in many ways in Ireland and throughout the world. Stamps, sculptures, bank notes and plaques have all been created in his memory.
Ferguson tractors and their three-point linkage tractors revolutionised modern agriculture – farmers were able to plough fields in a tenth of the time with less manpower.
It improved country people’s lives by increasing yields and turned many a subsistence livelihood into a thriving business. It is a testament to his genius that today approximately 85 per cent of tractors still have this feature. For these reasons, Harry Ferguson is regarded as one of Ireland’s most popular – and famous – engineers.
Author: Kenneth Mitchell, BEng, HDip, MSc CEng, MIEI, is a chartered engineer in the fields of chemical and environmental engineeringhttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/2018/07/24/fergie-tractor-king-harry-ferguson-among-irelands-best-loved-engineers/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/a-ahar8.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/a-ahar8-300x300.jpgMechagriculture,machinery,transport