Sowing machine


That under the terms sowing-machine, semoir, drill-plough, macchine per seminare, are understood implements by which the seeds of those plants cultivated on a large scale, and particularly the different species of corn, can be regularly deposited in the earth, and at any distance from each other, at pleasure, is at present generally known. The principal part of the machine consists of a box, having within it a cylinder furnished with cogs, which forms the axes of two wheels, and which, as it revolves, assists the seed put into the box to escape through holes formed at a proper distance from each other in the bottom.

At first, these machines were exceedingly simple, and had only in the fore-part a ploughshare; but afterwards a harrow was applied behind, so that with such an apparatus one could plough, sow, and harrow at the same time. It was attended, however, with the common fault of all very complex machines; it was too artificial, too expensive, and too easily deranged. The greater part, therefore, of those lately made have only a harrow behind them.

Since the beginning of the last century so many machines of this kind have been invented, that to give a complete catalogue of them would be difficult. The invention, however, does not belong either to our period or to the English, who have hitherto paid the greatest attention to the improvement and employment of it. I have somewhere read that a proposal for a machine of this kind occurs in Theophrastus; but I have not yet been able to discover the passage. I am much rather inclined, from the information I have hitherto obtained, to place this invention in the sixteenth century, and to ascribe the merit of it to the Italians. By our oldest writers on agriculture, Heresbach, Colerus, Florinus, Hohberg and others, it is not mentioned.

Joseph Locatelli, of whom, however, very little is known, is commonly considered as the inventor. That he was a nobleman of Carinthia, but not a count, as he is called in Iöcher's Dictionary of Learned Men, is proved by a small work consisting of two sheets in quarto, now in my possession 552. It is there stated, that experiments were made with a machine of this kind by the emperor's order, at the imperial palace and market of Laxenburg, in the presence of a commissioner, named Pietro Bonaventura von Crollolanza, appointed for that purpose. These experiments succeeded so well, that a crop of sixty for one was obtained from land not manured, and subject to frequent inundation. On this account the emperor rewarded the inventor, and sent him with letters of recommendation to the king of Spain.

In this small work no date is mentioned but on the title-page; and if that be correct, the invention must be placed in the last year of the sixteenth or the first of the seventeenth century, consequently in the reign of the emperor Rudolphus II., who had a great fondness for mechanical inventions. This treatise is certainly the same which, as Reinman says, was printed in 1690 without any place being mentioned, and according to Haller, at Jena, 1690; but the author of it cannot have been the inventor, as asserted by Iöcher, who adds, that the tract in question was printed at Vienna in the year above-mentioned.

The date 1603, however, can hardly be correct; it ought rather to be 1693, and in that case the tract might have been three times printed between that period and 1690. The date in the title-page of my copy appears properly to have in it a 9, which resembles a zero, only because the compositor used a type on which the lower part of the figure was broke. That this conjecture is true, I have, I think, sufficiently proved; though Munchhausen, Haller, and others read the date 1603.

In the year 1669, John Evelyn gave to the Royal Society of London a complete description of Locatelli's invention 553. He there says that the inventor went with his machine to Spain, where he proved the advantage of it by public experiments, and described them in a Spanish work, dedicated to Geronimo de Camargo, member of the Consejo real de Castilla, who was commissioned by the king to make known and promote the use of this machine, the sale of which was secured to the inventor at a price fixed in his patent. This Spanish work, from which Evelyn made an extract, was printed with the Austrian approbation of Crollolanza, and the date Aug. 1st, 1663. Locatelli must immediately after have gone to Spain, for it is there stated that his machines were made and sold in great abundance at Madrid, in 1664. The invention belongs, therefore, to the year 1663.

This machine was exceedingly simple. The seed-box, the cylinder of which was furnished with two small wheels, required only to be hooked or fastened, by means of ropes, to the stilt of the plough. A figure of it may be found in the before-mentioned German tract; also in the Philosophical Transactions, and thence copied into Duhamel's Traité de la Culture des Terres 554.

The Italians, however, dispute with Locatelli the honour of the invention. They assert that one of their countrymen, named M. Giovanni Cavallina, of Bologna, proposed such a sowing-machine a century and a half before; and they refer for a proof to the account preserved by Gio Battista Segni in his work upon Scarcity. This book I have never seen. Haller gives the title from Seguier, and says that it was first printed at Bologna, in 1602; but Zanon states 1605, and says that this Segni, who is not noticed by Iöcher, was a canonicus regularis 555 . Of Cavallina I have not been able to find any further account; not even in the large and full work of Fantuzzi. I can therefore give only the description of Segni as transcribed by Zanon 556. From this it appears that the machine alluded to had also a seed-box with two wheels, and might be compared to a bolting-mill, but below each hole of the bottom board there seems to have been an iron funnel, which before was shaped like a plough-share. The machine, therefore, seems to have formed as many small furrows as it dropped grains of corn; and, as far as can be judged, there was in the bottom only one row of holes. It appears also that each grain of corn, as soon as it dropped, was covered with earth by the machine. Whether Locatelli took advantage of this invention, and gave it out, with some alteration, as his own, cannot be easily determined.

Soon after Locatelli's invention another sowing-machine was proposed at Brescia, by the Jesuit Lana, who seems to have had no knowledge of the preceding ones; at least he makes no mention of them. The case with Lana was perhaps the same as with many ingenious men, who possess great powers of invention. As they never read, but only think, they are unacquainted with what others have done before them, and therefore consider every idea which comes into their mind as new. He proposed a harrow, the spikes of which should make holes in the earth, in the same manner as gardeners do with their bean-planter, and the grains of corn were to fall into these holes from a box pierced like a sieve, and placed over the harrow 557.

I do not know whether this, at present, could be called a sowing-machine; but it is not improbable that an apparatus of this kind would facilitate the planting, or, as it is termed, setting of wheat, which in modern times has been revived in England, and particularly in Suffolk. For this purpose holes are made three inches apart, in rows four inches distant from each other, with a bean-planter, by men and women. Each labourer is followed by three children, who throw two or three grains of seed into each hole. One labourer in a second can make four holes, and in two or three days plant an acre. For this he obtained nine shillings, one-half of which was given to the children 558. By these means there is a saving of one-half the seed; and this defrays the expenses. The wheat also, when it grows up, is cleaner as well as more beautiful; and this method, besides, affords employment to a great number of persons.

However minute and ridiculous this method of planting may appear to our practical farmers, it is nevertheless true that it has been found beneficial in Upper Lusatia 559.

The objection that corn when planted in this manner may throw out too many stems, which will not all ripen at the same time, can be true only when the grains are placed at too great a distance from each other. The German mode of farming however is still too remote from horticulture to admit of our attaching great value to the advantages with which this method is attended.

I shall here remark, that Sir Francis Bacon says that in his time, that is, in the beginning of the seventeenth century, attempts had been made to plant wheat, but being too laborious it was again abandoned, though he declares it to be undoubtedly advantageous 560. In the most populous districts of China almost all the corn is set, or it is first sown in forcing-beds, and then transplanted. The English call the labour with the sowing-machine drilling, and the planting of wheat they name dibbling.

[Several sowing-machines have been invented, and patents taken out for them in late years. As it is very difficult to give a description of them, and still more so for the reader to comprehend them without figures, we refer to the Penny Cyclopædia, art. “Sowing-machine,” for an account of the more important.]


552  The title is, Beschreibung eines neuen Instruments mit welchem das Getraide zugleich geackert und gesäet werden kan; erfunden von Locatelli, Landmann im Erz-Herzogthum Cärndten. Anno 1603. Without the name of any place, printer, or publisher.

553  Phil. Trans. vol. v. No. 60, p. 1056.

554  Paris, 1753, 12mo, i. p. 368, tab. 6. Duhamel has committed a double error. He speaks of the invention as if the first experiments were made in Spain, and as if those in Austria had been later. He says also, that the latter were made dans le Luxembourg in Istria. The English account also says erroneously Luxembourg, instead of Lachsenburg or Laxemburg, which is in Austria, and not in Istria.

555  Of Segni an account may be found in Notizie degli Scrittori Bolognesi raccolte da Giovanni Fantuzzi. In Bologna 1784–1794, 9 vols. 4to, vii. p. 377. Segni, who died in 1610, wrote a great many ascetic books, the names of which are there given.

556  Dell' agricultura, dell' arti e del commercio. Lettere di Antonio Zanon. In Venezia 1764, 8vo, vol. iii. p. 325.

557  Prodromo, overo saggio di alcune inventioni nuove, premesso all' arte maestra. In Brescia 1670, fol. p. 96, fig. 26.

558  See the excellent account of the agriculture in Suffolk in my Journal, the Beytragen zur Oekonomie, &c., i. p. 1. It was written by M. F. Wild, of Durlach, who in the year 1767 was one of my pupils, and afterwards became teacher in the Institute of Education at Colmar. But alas! I do not know whither he has now been swept by the vortex of the revolution.

559  Leske Reise durch Sachsen. Leipzig, 1785, 4to, p. 319.

560  Sylva Sylvarum, cent. 5, § 442.