Begin forwarded message:

From: ALAN SKEOCH <alan.skeoch@rogers.com>
Date: November 22, 2020 at 12:41:49 PM EST
To: Alan Skeoch <alan.skeoch@rogers.com>


alan skeoch
Nov. 2020

man guiding two horses pushing machine

Patrick Bell was 29 years old when he constructed this grain reaping machine in Scotland  in 1827-8…known to history as the Bell Reaper.
Few  people remember  him today.  But they should.  Because of  him bread became cheap and people lived longer.
(Note:  Bell is  no longer considered the principal inventor)

The  wheat is ready for harvest.  Today the  job of  harvesting is done by huge combine harvesters…great self propelled  machines
that cut the grain with reciprocating triangular blades.  All the elements of these modern machines occurred to young Patrick Bell
when  he  built his reaper.


I have  had more than my share  of ‘unexpected good luck’ in my life.   Sometimes I did
not see  the good luck when it happened. A major piece of good luck for me began when
Uncle Norman had a rock smash the master cyulliNder  of his 1953 Massey Harris combine
harvester.   This event was a major disaster for Uncle Norman…enough of a disaster for
him to blaspheme and give  the rock  a baptismal  name…i.e. “Goddamn Rock”

Then, much later another piece  of unexpected good luck came when my interest in

machine design and  function led me back to the University of Toronto as a mature
graduate student.  Luck and the kindness of the Toronto Board of Education (Sabbatical leave) gave me
the chance to delve deeply into the way agricultural machines changed human society
in he 19th century.    

The end result was a 300 page thesis, ‘Technology and Change – 1850 to 1891” (short form title)
My love for old machines led us far and wide.  I say ‘us’ because Marjorie and our sons Kevin and
Andrew were very much a part of this grand adventure.  (Coopeerstown, N.Y.,  Dearborn, Michigan, London (England)
Californin, NewZealand, Australia, Ireland, Scotland)


Another component came in the form of a strange phone call.

“Ring, Ring, Ring!”
“Marjorie, can you answer the phone?”
“Yes…yes…he is  here.”
“Alan, the call is for you.”
“Who is it?”
“Some bank executive from the Mellon bank in New York.”
“You must be kidding.,” 
“No, that’s what  he said…”
“Are you Alan Skeoch?”
“I am,  how can  I help you?”
“Did you write a learned paper on machine technology in the 19th century?”
“I did…but your the first person to say I wrote a ‘Learned  paper’.  What’s up?”
“We are searching  for someone in Canada to repair…reconstruct…the reaper
built by  Cyrus McCormick in 1831.   We have located what remains of the machine…bought
it from a retired farmer living near Chatham, Ontario.  Would you be interested  in
assuming responsibility for rebuilding the machine…some parts  are missing…and
then sending it air freight to a museum in Northern Ireland where McCoirmick was born.  We will pay whatever
seems reasonable.”
Is this a joke?”
“No, we are serious.  You were suggested by Mr. Cousins, Director of the Dearborn Museum near Detroit.”

My thoughts began to race.   This  guy is  serious.  He must think I am some kind  of
mechanical engineer who owns a machine  shop.   What a great chance!

“Yes, I will take the job.  Where is the Reaper?”
“Still sitting in a barn near Chatham.  Can you pick it up
and do the restoration?
“Sure,”  I said, bluffing somewhat.
“That’s wonderful.  Have you any idea of the costs?”
No idea at all…I will give you and estimate after I see the Reaper
and get back here in Mississauga.”

There are three great names in the 19th century history of  mechanical reaping machines.  One of
them is Cyrus  McCormick, who became  a classic entrepreneur creating a huge industrial corporation.  His beginning
was, however, humble.    Another was a very strange man named Obed  Hussey.   And the third
is Patrick  Bell/.  Three men who  changed the world  in which they lived.  Three men whose  inventions
made a better world for you and  me.  Three men who have been forgotten.

By a quirk of fate I was on their trail.  Well, the trail of two of them.  The  third,  Obed  Hussy, could have been
a great man if he had been given the chance.   He never really got the ‘unexpected good luck’ that I had.
That phone  call from the Mellon bank wanted me to reanimate the life  of Cyrus McCormick.  I could do that
I suppose.  He did not live in a vacuum however. His life was intertwined with the life of Rev. Patrick Bell, a Scottish Protestant minister.   

There is a  long line of  causes and effect that led from Bell and  McCormickBoth McCormick to the Skeoch farm outside Fergus where Uncle  Norman’s 
 Massey  Harris combine rested with a rock in its master cylinder.
Skeoch  connectons may seem  laboured to readers but they were very much alive to me..   Patrick Bell  comes  first.


PATRICK BELL (1799 – 1869, born Auchterhouse, Angus, Scotland

Patrick Bell was a farmers’  son born in Scotland.  He had a way with mechanical
things and  must have thought: “There has to be a better way of harvesting grain…barley, wheat and oats.”

The harvesting of grains was a monumental task prior to the  reapers  invented  by  Bell, Hussey and  McCormick.
Thousands of  men and women were hired to cut and bundle sheaves of  grain using hand tools most important of
which was the cradle scythe…really a long knife with a basket attached.  Men  did the cradling.  Women and children
bound the cut grain into sheaves.  The sheaves were pitched onto wagons and  hauled to threshing floors and pommelled
with hand held  flails to knock the grain loose after which the grain was winnowed  by being pitched in the air to let wind
blow the chaff free.  It was laborious.  And  much grain was lost in the process.

This threshing machine nocked the heads of the wheat stalks … an improvement over the flail
but still labour intensive…

After the  harvesting…hit and miss harvesting. The grain fields were open to the gleaners…farm workers, villagers, poor
peasants.  The gleaners rescued as much fallen  grain as they could.  With the gleaners came flocks of seed eating birds
also gleaning.  In the evenings small creatures slipped through the fields, also gleaning.  Harvesting  was a wasteful
and laborious task prior to the invention of  Patrick Bell’s reaper.

man guiding two horses pushing machine

This  engraving of the Bell Reaping machine invented and constructed  by Patrick Bell in 1827 and first used on his father’s farm in September 1828.
It worked so well that young Patrick  Bell was awarded  a 50 pound grant from the Scottish  Highland Society..   The  real machine was much heavier than this depiction.  How do I know?  
Patrick  Bell’s prototype reaper continued to be used on his brother’s farm until l870 when  it was purchased by the Science  Museum in London, England.   Marjorie and i flew to  London to marvel
at the machine.  Today,  in November 2020,  the large lumbering machine has been moved into storage but someday it
will be put back on display we hope.  

The astrobiologist, Chris Impey,  in his book The Living Cosmos expressed our feelings best when he wrote  “No other species has created machines to extend
the senses and do its bidding.  No other species invented art or mathematics.”  The Bell reaper blends  art and mathematics into a machine that has extended
the lifespan of millions of people improved copies, called combine harvesters,  are working today..  Art and Mechanics…art and mathematics… apt description of the Bell Reaper!

Some readers  might be interested  in the elements of the Bell Reaper.

1)  The Bell reaper was  pushed by a team of horses.
2)  At the front of the machine there is a reel that gently pushed
the standing grain towards the cutter bar which is  at ground level
3) The cutter bar holds a  series of reciprocating blades that cut
the grain stalks.   Really a  linked line  of grass  clippers…that was
Bell’s idea.   “Why can’t I build a machine with mechanically driven 
grass  clippers?”, he must have thought.
4) There are two large drive wheels …  bull wheels …that are linked
to a bull gear that makes  the clipper do their snipping as long as
the horses  provide the power.
5) There is a movable looped ‘apron’ upon which the sheared grain falls
and  is moved to the side of the  reaper where it can  be bound
into sheaves.   The horses do not tread  on the cut grain.

(Note John Common had  a similar idea much earlier in 1812.  No invention
comes  from nothing…there are stepping stones)

This  is the prototype of the Bell Reaper.  What is  most obvious?   To me it isThe large bull wheels which drive
the bevelled Bull Gear that makes cutter bar move at right angle to the direction of movement … cutter bar acted 
 like a  bunch  of hand shears joined together..  
    Readers do not need  to be engineers
to get drawn into this story.  Remember I am an historian…not a mechanical  engineer.  Worse still, I am left
handed and therefore find machines  made by those of you in the 90% majority goddamn awkward.  Try 
cutting open an envelope with your left hand  using right handed  scissors and  you will get an inkling
as to the mechanical handicaps faced  by left handers.   This story is not reserved for mechanics.  It is
best understood by dreamers…people with imagination.


Much of this story has chunks of SERENDIPITY.   Meaning what?  Meaning that there a number
of wonderful elements that have com together without me looking for them…’unexpected good luck’
  1. (Serendipity is a noun, coined in the middle of the 18th century by author Horace Walpole (he took it from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip). The adjective form is serendipitous, and the adverb is serendipitously. A serendipitist is “one who finds valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”)  Persia is  now Iran. 

    This story has a lot of unexpected elements  that came together and  changed our lives.   First was  the
    ‘goddamn’ rock in the master  cylinder of Uncle Norman’s Massey Harris combine harvester.  That happened
    on the Skeoch farm located on the south west corner of the town of Fergus, Ontario ( called  Upper Canada when
    the little  Skeoch boys, James and  John, arrived  in 1846).

         In 1851, Patrick Bell left Scotland to teach school in Fergus.   The Bell papers have
    yet to be published.  He kept a  record of his life in Upper Canada… records that have
    yet to be turned into a book although someone in the 1990’s
    is supposed to be doing so…or was doing so thirty year ago.

    Did Patrick Bell likely notice the Skeoch boys on the streets of Fergus.  Did he teach  them?  Unlikely
    because education was reserved for the toffs of the town.  Then again, Scots  have always highly valued  education.
    Maybe Patrick  Bell and  the Skeoch boys  did  come together but that is  pure speculation.  By 1851 the Skeoch
    boys were teen agers.  Busy farmers sons.  No time for book learning.

    But just to think they came that close to each other… serendipity.    

    The Bell Reaper and the modern Combine Harvester

    Patrick Bell did not become a farmer.  Nor did he become a mechanical engineer.  Nor did he become an inventor
    beyond his Bell Reaper.  Patrick  Bell became a Christian minister in the Church of  Scotland.   No longer
     tinkering with bull gears and  bull wheels  and reciprocating garden shears.   And  isn’t it serendipitous
    that Patrick Bell came to Fergus to teach school in 1851?   That is really weird.

    The Bell Reaper on dislay at the Science Museum in London, England.  (Now removed to storage)


    Patrick Bell was very different from the  American inventor Cyrus McCormick.  How?  Bell refused to
    patent his inventor.  He refused to make money from the invention of a machine that would make
    life easier for human beings around the world.  He encouraged  others to improve his machine which
    they did and  are continuing to do right now.  Just look at those giants of the harvest fields today.
    Direct descendants of a machine imagined  and built by a 27 year old farm boy, future Christian minister, future
    school teacher, in the barn on the Bell farm in Scotland.


    Remember, When  I answered the phone call and accepted the project to rebuild a 
    a  McCormick Reaper I had never heard of  Patrick  Bell.  To fully understand
    the projects I  undertook to research the history of reaping.  Seemed a good
    idea to do so.  And that led me to Patrick Bell.  Serendipity at work.  

    The ‘goddamn rock’ in Uncle Norman’s combine set off ripples like a rock thrown in an Ontario pond.
    On March 1, 1976, my M.A. thesis was completed.  Three hundred pages under the title “Technology and Change
    in 19th century Ontario Agriculture, 1850 to 1891.  A massive tome of 300 plus pages.  I think it was too much
    for my history professor Dr. J. M. S.  Careless to read.   In  the school year, 1975-6, I was  granted a year long
    sabbatical leave by the Toronto Board of Education to put my love  affair with machines together.  Copies of
    the thesis are  held by the New York Sate Historical  Society in Cooperstown, and  Black Creek Pioneer Village
    in North York courtesy of a request from Jim Hunter, collections department.

    WHAT A  JOY 

    My work overlapped  into three University of Toronto departments.  First was the history department, then
    the Fine  Arts Department chaired by Dr. Webster and  finally the Engineering Department …then Bruce Sinclair, the School of
    Practical Science…S.P.S.   I still have a good  feeling about that  engineering department and the book
    ‘Let use Honest and Modest’ by Bruce Sinclair and  others.  That was  46 years  ago..  The SPS members were so 
    incredibly helpful and actually interested in what I was trying to accomplish.  At some point
    a U.  of T. history professor  asked  how long I expected to take.  “Seven months”, I answered.  His response was
    a furrowed brow.  Scepticism.  I soon understood why the furrowed brow. There was a big bump in the road.


    There was one tricky side to this sabbatical.  In 1976 an M.A.  graduate student was expected to have reading level
    familiarity with French.  We were tested.  I say ‘we’ because there were many  fellow graduate students.  I was two decades older than all of them.  
     But accepted. Nice feeling.  The French  requirement, however,  was a  hurdle that most had trouble leaping 
     over myself included.  My  first score  was ‘zero’ which must sound  terrible.  In fact it was the mid  point
    between a score  of  -7 and  +7.  Most, perhaps all, of my fellow grad  students scored the same or less.  At least
    I had high  school French which  most of them did not.  My friends  at Parkdale took great joy in 
    my ‘Zero”.   After a lot of work I managed to get +3 on the second effort.  That was a  pass. How in hell
    most of the kids  I was with could be expected to translate a Syrian  script in French I failed
    to understand.   Soon afterward that French hurdle for graduate students was dropped.  

    Why  tell you this?  Because the hurdle was way too high and failure  to clear it
    led  to a  very amusing incident in my life.  Perhaps offensive to purists.  On my second
    attempt at the reading  level in French we lined up at the  exam building on Queens Park Circle.
    One of our student leaders came over and said, “Al, you are number 4.”which  meant nothing to me.
    “We’ll all meet for s beer after the exam.”  Now that was fine by me.  Nice to be accepted by
    kids twenty years younger than i was.  The exam was hard but I soldiered my way through it.
    Then we went for a beer….about ten of us.
    “OK, Number 1, give me your sentence.”
    “And now Number 2…”
    “Number 3…”
    “And  you, Al, what was the fourth sentence.”
    I failed to understand…did not know I was supposed to memorize the fourth sentence. The 
    plan was to memorize the whole exam then Parrot it back  to our leader
    who would  get the exam translated  by someone that actually knew French.
    Then they would be ready for Test attempt Number Three.   The plan was
    both funny and tragic.  I did  not believe the test would be the same paragraphs
    for Test Number 3.   So the whole effort was tragic.  These kids, most of them,
    had never even taken Gr. Nine French.   Eventually the U. of  T. big shots must
    have realized that fact and dropped the need  for reading level in a second  language.
    Although  I failed my young friends I was flattered to be considered part of the
    conspiracy.  We had a few laughs with our  beer that afternoon.  I credit my success
    with the French requirement to Madam  Schroeder at Humberside C.I. who kept me
    in the front seat because I made up words that did  not exist.  She was  a great teacher.
    I will always be in her debt.

Notes and Postscript

-Note that Patrick  Bell is no longer credited  exclusively with the invention of the reaping machine

Papers of Reverend Patrick Bell (c 1799 – 1869)

Scope and Content

Journals of the Reverend Patrick Bell (c 1799 – 1869) kept during his visit to Canada, 1833 – 1837. 

GB 231 MS 2317/1 – 2 Journal of travels between Great Britain and the province of Upper Canada, 1833-4.

GB 231 MS 2317/1 contains an itinerary of the journey from Great Britain to the Province of Upper Canada, describing his route through Dundee, Cupar (Fife), Glasgow, Isle of Man, Manchester and Liverpool; his passage to New York on board the Eagle, continuing up the River Hudson to Albany, and by Erie Canal to Queenstown, Canada, passing through Saratoga, Little Falls, Utica, Syracuse, Auburn, Lockport and Louisville, Jun 1833 – 1834. The volume is fully indexed and accompanied by a tabular record of daily temperature and weather conditions, Nov 1833 – Feb 1835; an account of a journey from Niagra Falls to the city of Fergus, township of Nichol, Apr 1834; and outline plans for his second volume, to include an account of agricultural practices in Upper Canada, notes on the natural history of the region and hints to emigrants, Jul 1835. 

GB 231 MS 2317/2 is a fair (and slightly expanded) version of the first part of GB 231 MS 2137/1, and of another volume (or volumes) which has not survived. It begins in 1833 and ends 6 Mar 1834. The last page is inscribed Drummondvill Niagra Falls U.C. – Patrick Bell.

GB 231 MS 2318 Journal or rather observations made in Upper Canada during the years 1834, 35, 36 and 37.This is a continuation of Bell’s journal for the period 1834 – 1837; also containing weather observations, Jan 1835 – Apr 1837; thermometer readings at Quebec, 1832 – 1833; and temperature statistics for Montreal taken from a Montreal newspaper, 1826 – 1835.

Each volume described above is illustrated with sketches and diagrams of farm steadings, houses, agricultural implements, and detailed pencil drawings of plants and animals observed. His observations of people and places encountered are detailed, often amusing, and full of social and political comment (see in particular his account of the Campaign against the Swine in New York  which terminated shamefully for those in power , GB 231 MS2317/1 p 50 – 52)

Administrative / Biographical History

Patrick Bell was born at Mid-Leoch farm, Auchterhouse, Dundee, c 1799, son of George Bell, tenant farmer there. He studied divinity at St Andrews University, and was ordained and appointed minister to the parish of Carmylie, Arbroath in 1843, where he remained until his death in 1869. He was for many years credited as inventor of the reaping machine, though the title now rests with John Common of Denwick, who invented a machine based upon the essential principals of the modern reaper in 1812, some 15 years ahead of Bell. The machine which Bell developed in 1827, whilst still a student at St Andrews, remained in regular use until c 1868, when it was purchased for the museum of the Patent Office. In recognition of his services to agriculture, he received a presentation from the Highland Society, subscribed for by the farmers of Scotland and others, and was awarded the degree of LL.D. by the University of St Andrews. 

From 1833 – 1837 he travelled in Canada, where he seems to have found work as a private tutor. During this time he kept a detailed journal of his travels, making particular note of the geography, natural history, and agriculture observed.

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