Nov 042018

Today is the birthday (1884) of Henry George “Harry” Ferguson, an Irish-born, British mechanic and inventor who is noted for his role in the development of the modern agricultural tractor and whose name lives on in the name of the Massey Ferguson company. Ferguson was born in Growell, near Dromore, in County Down, present-day Northern Ireland, the son of a farmer, of Scottish descent. In 1902, Ferguson went to work with his brother, Joe, in his bicycle and car repair business. While working there as a mechanic, he developed an interest in aviation, visiting air shows abroad. In 1904, he began to race motorcycles.

The first person to accomplish powered flight in the UK was Alliot Verdon Roe in June 1908, who flew a plane of his own design, but this feat had not yet been achieved in Ireland. Ferguson began to develop a keen interest in the mechanics of flying and travelled to several air shows, including exhibitions in 1909 at Blackpool and Rheims where he took notes on the design of early aircraft. Harry convinced his brother that they should attempt to build an aircraft at their Belfast workshop and working from Harry’s notes, they worked on the design of a plane, the Ferguson monoplane.

After making many changes and improvements, they transported their new aircraft by towing it behind a car through the streets of Belfast up to Hillsborough Park to make their first attempt at flight. They were initially thwarted by propeller trouble but continued to make technical alterations to the plane. After a delay of nearly a week caused by bad weather, the Ferguson monoplane finally took off from Hillsborough on 31st December 1909. Harry Ferguson became the first Irishman to fly and the first Irishman to build and fly his own plane.

After falling out with his brother over the safety and future of aviation Ferguson decided to go it alone, and in 1911 founded a company selling Maxwell, Star, and Vauxhall cars, and Overtime Tractors. Ferguson saw at first hand the weakness of having tractor and plough as separate articulated units, and in 1917 he devised a plough that could be rigidly attached to a Model T Ford car—the Eros, which became a limited success, competing with the Model F Fordson. In 1917 Ferguson met Charles E. Sorensen while Sorensen was in England scouting production sites for the Fordson tractor. They discussed methods of hitching a plough to the tractor to make them a unit (as opposed to towing the plough like a trailer). In 1920 and 1921 Ferguson demonstrated early versions of his three-point linkage on Fordsons at Cork and at Dearborn. Ferguson and Henry Ford discussed putting the Ferguson system of hitch and implements on to Fordson tractors at the factory, but no deal was struck. At the time the hitch was mechanical. Ferguson and his team of longtime colleagues, including Willie Sands and Archie Greer, soon developed an hydraulic version, which was patented in 1926. After one or two false starts, Ferguson eventually founded  Ferguson-Sherman Inc., with Eber and George Sherman.

The new enterprise manufactured the Ferguson plough incorporating the patented “Duplex” hitch system mainly intended for the Fordson “F” tractor. Following several more years of development, Ferguson’s new hydraulic version of the three-point linkage was first seen on his prototype Ferguson “Black”, now in the Science Museum, Kensington, London. A production version of the “Black” was introduced in May 1936, made at one of the David Brown factories in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, and designated Ferguson Model A tractor. In 1938, Ferguson’s interests were merged with those of David Brown to create the Ferguson-Brown Company.

In October 1938, Ferguson demonstrated his latest tractor to Henry Ford at Dearborn, and they made the famous “handshake agreement”. Ferguson took with him his latest patents covering future improvements to the Ferguson tractor and it is these that led to the Ford-Ferguson 9N introduced to the world on 29th June 1939. The 1938 agreement intended that the Ferguson tractor should also be made in the UK at the Ford Ltd factory at Dagenham, Essex but Ford did not have full control at Dagenham and, while Ford Ltd did import US-made 9N/2Ns, Dagenham did not make any.

Henry Ford II, Ford’s grandson, ended the handshake deal on 30th June 1947, following unsuccessful negotiations with Ferguson, but continued to produce a tractor, the 8N, incorporating Ferguson’s inventions, the patents on almost all of which had not yet expired, and Ferguson was left without a tractor to sell in North America. Ferguson’s reaction was a lawsuit demanding compensation for damage to his business and for Ford’s illegal use of his designs. The case was settled out of court in April 1952 for just over $9 million. The court case cost him about half of that and a great deal of stress and ill health.

By 1952, most of the important Ferguson patents had expired, and this allowed Henry Ford II to claim that the case had not restricted Ford’s activities too much. Naturally, all the world’s other tractor manufacturers could also use Ferguson’s inventions, which they duly did. A year later Ferguson merged with Massey Harris to become Massey-Harris-Ferguson Co, later Massey Ferguson.

As a consequence of Dagenham’s failure to make the tractors, Harry Ferguson made a deal with Sir John Black of the Standard Motor Company to refit their armaments factory at Banner Lane, Coventry. Production of the latest Ferguson tractor, the TE20, started in the autumn of 1946, with over 20,800 TEs being built by the end of 1947. To fill the gap in Ferguson’s sales in the US, thousands of TEs were shipped over from England. Production of a US version, the TO20, started at a new plant, owned by Harry Ferguson Inc, in October 1948, leaving the UK plant to supply the rest of the world. Ferguson’s research division went on to develop various cars and tractors, including the first Formula One four-wheel-drive car. Ferguson’s four-wheel drive system, using an open center differential gear, was used in Formula One race cars and in the Range Rover and later in constant four-wheel-drive Land Rovers.

Ferguson died at his home at Stow-on-the-Wold in 1960, the result of a barbiturate overdose; the inquest was unable to conclude whether this had been accidental or not.

A northern Irish dish is in order, even though Ferguson spent most of his business life in England. I have given a recipe for farls made with flour already so here are potato farls. Potatoes are, of course, the great staple of Irish farming and cooking.

Irish Potato Farls


4 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
¼ cup all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1 tbsp melted butter


Boil the potatoes for about 20 minutes, or until soft. Turn off the heat. Drain the potatoes and return them to the pot to let them dry out. Mash the potatoes with a fork or potato masher until smooth.

Place the warm mashed potato in medium bowl. Stir in the flour, melted butter, and salt to taste. Mix lightly until you have a dough and no pockets of dry flour.

Knead the dough lightly on a floured surface. Use a floured rolling pin to flatten the dough into a 9 inch circle about ¼ inch thick. Cut into quarters.

Sprinkle a little flour into the base of the skillet on medium-high heat and cook the farls for 3 minutes on each side or until evenly browned. Serve immediately.

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