The Reverend Patrick Bell, inventor of the reaping machine, died on the 22nd of April, 1869.
Don’t fear the inventor of the reaper. Well, maybe his parishioners did. There was no such thing as a timid Presbyterian minister in the 19th Century. The Reverend Patrick Bell was just as likely as any of his contemporaries to glower from the pulpit and name his congregation sinners. Despite his benign and scholarly appearance, the Reverend Bell was capable of a fearful sermon. Patrick Bell was also the inventor of the fearsome looking reaping machine, a piece of agricultural equipment that helped to transform the lives of farm workers throughout the world. Reaping machines, to do the cutting of the crops, had been invented since the 1st Century A.D., but it was not until 1827, in Scotland, that the first effective reaping machine made its appearance. Note that was in 1827, three years before Robert Hall McCormick invented his mechanical reaper and seven years before his son, Cyrus, patented it. Patrick Bell, the revered Reverend of Scotland, created the world’s first mechanical reaper.
Bell was only twenty-seven when he had the idea that led to his invention, which was one of the first pieces of mechanical agricultural machinery – as opposed to non-mechanical tools – to be used. He was studying to be a minister and working on his father's farm, when he came to believe that he could help more people by easing the back-breaking labour of farm work than by ministry alone. Being interested in mechanics and engineering, he tried to make harvesting slightly easier by using a horse powered machine. He managed to work out a rough plan and made a crude model of a reaping machine, in 1827, with the help of a Tealing carpenter.
Bell’s machine was a direct precursor of the modern combine harvester. It ran on two wheels and consisted of a revolving twelve-vane, wooden reel that pulled the crop over the cutting knife, which was made from triangular reciprocating blades mounted over fixed triangular blades. A sloping canvas conveyor then caused the cut grain stalks to slide neatly to the side in a windrow, ready to be bound. By working in secrecy in his workshop and at the local smithy, he aroused a great deal of local curiosity. Because of this, he went so far as to test his machine behind closed doors. He planted already cut stalks of oats in his workshop floor and used his machine to cut them back down. By the next year’s harvest, he was ready to test it on a real crop. He and his brother pushed his machine out to a ripe crop one night and, pushed by two horses, it worked perfectly.
A public trial of Bell’s reaping machine took place on the 10th of September, 1828, at Powrie Farm. It proved to be successful, receiving a favourable report in the ‘Quarterly Journal of Agriculture’ and Bell was awarded a £50 prize by the Highland Agricultural Society. Forty years later, the Scottish Highland and Agricultural Society presented his with the handsome sum of £1,000 and a silver salver, the inscription, ‘Presented by a large number of his countrymen in token of their appreciation of his services as the inventor of an efficient reaping machine’. Bell’s fortune never grew to be much greater than his prize money – his altruistic belief that all men should be able to benefit from his invention barred him from ever seeking a patent. Patrick Bell’s reaping machine was immediately put to effective use on his father’s farm and was soon being manufactured locally and exhibited throughout Angus. A few years later, his machine was in demand by farmers all over the country.
Around ten of Bell’s machines were sold in east central Scotland and others went to Australia and Poland. Four of Bell’s reapers went to America, where it is possible they influenced the designs of both McCormick and his contemporaries William Manning and Obed Hussey. Indeed, many reapers appeared after the success of Bell’s, but the superiority of his machine was finally proved by a challenge race where the rival machines were matched against each other. Bell’s reaper completely dominated the event, leaving the international judges with no hesitation in declaring Bell’s machine to be “the best and most effective reaping machine” they had even seen. Its rivals were shown to be only poor and defective imitations of the original.
Bell’s reaper proved to be the first machine that was of real, practical use to the farmer. Even in fairly recent times all reapers were based on his original machine, such was the perfection of his design. He began a revolution in the agricultural system, with his invention opening the door for other machines to be employed on the farm. In 1869, Bell’s original machine was purchased by the Science Museum in London, with a smaller model going to the Royal Scottish Museum, in 1870. The latter is now displayed in the Scottish Agricultural Museum. Bell’s workbench and tools can be seen in the Angus Folk Museum at Glamis. Two contemporary models of the machine were presented to the National Museum and one is on show at the National Museum of Rural Life at Kittochside, East Kilbride. A third was presented by his daughters to the agricultural department of Aberdeen University.
Bell is also known for having installed a gas lighting system at Mid Leoch and even took an interest in the cultivation of sugar beet, growing some and extracting sugar from it a century before the industry came to Scotland. Patrick Bell was born into a farming community in Auchterhouse, near Dundee, on the 12th of May, 1799, and he was brought up at Mid Leoch. He attended Auchterhouse Parish School and studied divinity at St. Andrews University, with the intention of becoming a minister. His spiritual quest came to fruition, in 1843, when he was ordained as Minister in Carmyllie parish. The Reverend Patrick Bell was Minister in that parish until his death, on the 22nd of April, 1869. He was buried at Carmyllie Church, where his life is commemorated in two stained glass windows.