He developed a tractor and reshaped agriculture.
The history of agricultural equipment is filled with names that continue to define the industry. And then there are those names that may not be as well-known, yet their contributions shaped our industry, and left a lasting footprint on how we view, and use agricultural equipment.
Bert Benjamin was just such a person. Born in rural Iowa, and educated at Ames College (now Iowa State University), Benjamin headed the group that would develop the groundbreaking Farmall tractor. His idea might seem simple today: an all-purpose tractor for the farm that provided the power and size necessary for the masses. But in the early 1900s, animal power was the norm. Early tractors were big, bulky, and expensive. Yet that was the early model for manufacturers.
Benjamin’s design was for a tractor that was easy to operate in row-crop work; could be used with a full line of attachments for planting, cultivating, and other operations; and could be a power source for drawbar work. He did this with another innovation he perfected: the power take-off.
An advocate for the Farmall tractor, Benjamin fought to ensure the Farmall tractor design moved from the drawing board to the production line. Benjamin understood that a tractor must be versatile to handle every job on the farm where horsepower was required. He had to defend the idea of a small, everyday tractor to company executives, other engineers, and even to the general public.
The country was just coming out of World War I, and the Great Depression was just around the corner. Investing tremendous resources and money into a yet-unproven theory was not a given. Benjamin forged ahead, arguing that the idea of an all-purpose tractor was not only possible but a necessity if agriculture were to move forward.
A few hundred Farmall tractors were produced in 1924. By 1929, more than 15,000 tractors were produced. By 1940, approximately 90 percent of all tractors sold in the United States were either Farmall tractors or models using the Farmall design. Farmall tractors dominated the marketplace well into the 1960s.
The Farmall tractor and the power take-off ushered in a new phase in the agricultural machinery market: equipment that could be mounted directly to the tractor while being easily detachable and removed by one person. Implements were soon designed to be an integral part of the tractor itself. Lighter tractors that were more cost-effective to build and that could run at higher speeds began appearing on the farm, and animal power was displaced.
Throughout Benjamin’s career, he had more than 140 patents that covered farm implements, tractors, and tractor attachments. These included developments on the corn binder, a knotter for the grain binder, a corn shredder, and the cotton picker. At the time of his retirement from International Harvester in 1940, it was said that no other person had so many patent numbers in use on machines in production than Benjamin.
So when you think of the titans of agricultural machinery, put Bert Benjamin on that list. His name may not be on a nameplate, but his impact had a profound impact on the industry.