Andrew Meikle, millwright, mechanical engineer and inventor of the threshing machine, died on the 27th of November, 1811.
When it comes to separating the wheat from the chaff, there are a couple of Scotsmen who spring to mind. One is the Reverend Patrick Bell, who invented the reaping machine, and the other is Andrew Meikle, who invented the first usable threshing machine. Bell and Meikle between them were largely responsible for paving the way for the agricultural revolution that followed. They weren’t quite contemporaries as Meikle died before Bell’s invention hit the parks, but Bell surely knew of Meikle as he was well known. Indeed, John Rennie, another Scot and a civil engineer who worked for James Watt and designed many bridges, canals and docks, famously spent much of his youth gaining much practical experience from Meikle. The teenage Rennie effectively worked as Meikle’s apprentice and later credited Meikle with inspiring him to become a civil engineer. By the time he was eighteen, when he left to look up Watt, Rennie had erected machinery designed by Meikle in two or three local corn mills. Meikle wasn’t only a millwright and inventor, he also designed mills, including the Old Town Mill in Dumfries, which he built in 1781 and which now houses the Robert Burns Centre. Preston Mill in East Lothian is another of Andrew Meikle’s mills, which has been preserved in its original form by the National Trust for Scotland.
Andrew Meikle was born in East Linton, in East Lothian, in 1719 and, according to his tombstone; he was “descended from a line of ingenious mechanics”. One of those was his father, who was the inventor responsible, in 1710, for an automated fanner for winnowing grain. At the time, mechanical contraptions were regarded with great suspicion, mainly because they were seen as a threat to people’s livelihoods, and so his father’s invention hadn’t been particularly well received. Meikle worked as a millwright and specialist carpenter at Houston Mill on the Phantassie Estate, near Dunbar in East Lothian. The Estate was owned by the Rennie family and it was there that Meikle spent most of his working life.
Undeterred by his father’s lack of success, Andrew followed in his footsteps and, in 1750 (perhaps it was 1772 or thereabouts), he established a bit of a reputation when he developed a design for a windmill. Meikle’s design involved the invention of spring sails or shutters to replace the canvas designs in common use. The canvas sails were very prone to storm damage and Meikle deveoped a series of interconnected parallel shutters that could be opened and closed by levers. Those allowed each shutter to be quickly and safely opened during bad weather and, when open, the sails naturally offered little wind resistance, which meant that in strong winds or storms, the wind would blow through the sails rather than make them spin dangerously at high speed. The sails had to be stopped to operate the levers, but Meikle’s ingenuity was the use of a spring, which allowed the shutters to open a little more to prevent damage if the wind suddenly strengthened.
Later, in 1789, Stephen Hooper invented the roller reefing sail, which allowed automatic adjustment of the sail whilst in motion. Later still, in 1807, William Cubitt invented patent sails, using a chain and rod that passed through the centre of the wind shaft. Cubitt’s sails had the shutters of Meikle and the automatic adjustment of Hooper, and did away with the need for constant supervision.
Meikle’s most remarkable invention was the drum threshing machine, which ultimately proved rather more successful than his father’s agricultural contraption. In 1778, at the ripe old age of sixty, Meikle constructed the world’s first practical threshing machine. It is probably true that he based its design on an earlier device, patented in 1732, by Michael Menzies of Edinburgh. That previous attempt proved to have been a failure as was a second, which had been developed from a Northumberland model. Meikle analysed those early unsuccessful efforts and cleverly constructed his machine, using a rotating drum mechanism that rubbed, rather than flailed, the grain. Throughout history, the outer husks of grain had been separated by a primitive and highly laborious, manual process involving hand flails. Meikle’s mechanism consisted of two revolving rollers with a very small clearance, between which the grain was fed. Meikle’s threshing machine allowed for the large scale, mechanical separation of grain and undoubtedly ploughed a furrow for the agricultural revolution that followed.
Meikle patented his threshing machine in 1788 and ostensibly, set up a factory, where he began manufacture the following year. However, widespread use of his threshing machine didn’t really occur until around twenty years after his death. Unfortunately, his invention didn’t bring him any real financial success and, by 1808, he was almost destitute. Thankfully, his contribution to the development of agriculture was recognised and appreciated as he was given financial support, to the tune of £1500, by Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, the President of the Board of Agriculture.
Andrew Meikle died at Houston Mill on the 27th of November, 1811, and was buried in the graveyard of Prestonkirk Parish Church in East Linton.