Thursday, April 14, 2016

Seeds of Scientific Progress

Fig.1. This Chinese seed drill (left) and Jethro Tull’s Seed Drill (right) were both drawn by animals
(Credit: Chinese Seed Drill, Tien Kung Kai Wu/1637Tull Seed Drill, Jethro Tull/1731)

Editor’s Note: Our Food Security Symposium has been postponed until September 2016. Please email us at with any questions or join our mailing-list for routine updates on the new symposium. 

Around 1800, the world's population reached one billion people. In less than 50 years from today, that number is projected to reach 9.7 billion people. Although this rapid increase in population size can largely  be attributed to health, sanitation, and farming innovations in the 20th century, it has roots in the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution fundamentally changed the social and economic structure in England and the rest of the world. However, before manufacturing processes in urban centers saw a complete overhaul, other changes started in the countryside. A new method of crop rotation that improved soil nutrient content and selective breeding of animals both resulted in better yields for crop and animal products.

One invention, however, set the stage for the mechanization of agriculture. Jethro Tull’s seed drill, invented in 1701, revolutionized planting methods and dramatically increased yield. Before the seed drill, a method known as manual broadcasting was used, which involved tossing seeds into furrows in the ground.

The seed drill had a rotating cylinder with grooves, which allowed seeds to pass into a funnel below and into a channel dug by a plow at the front of the machine. An implement on the back of the machine covered the seed over with soil. This method spaced seeds evenly, which made crops easier to weed, and ensured that seeds were carefully protected by soil. Tull’s invention sharply increased harvest yields by wasting fewer seeds and reducing competition from weeds and other nearby plants

Fig.2. Modern seed drilling in Great Britain
Credit: David Wright/2010, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Industrial Revolution and Agriculture’s Future

Although the history of the seed drill could go back to a single-tube Babylonian invention from 1500 BC, the regular rows and efficiency of Tull’s seed drill completely changed planting methods. This invention - among others like the steam engine and the cotton gin - set the stage for the Industrial Revolution. These objects form collections of historical context, and along with records and specimens of plant and animal breeding, provide a record of the scientific progress of the era.

In the wider scientific world of the 18th and 19th centuries, major upheavals in thought formed the basis of modern chemistry, biology, physics, and astronomy. Understanding the history of the scientific instruments, technological advancements, and broadening communication sheds light on the rapid advancement of agriculture during the time of Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, and Eli Whitney.

At our Food Security Symposium, we will address related questions regarding the Industrial Revolution and how agricultural challenges today have roots in history:
  • What are other early examples of large-scale food production technology that resulted in higher yields? 
  • How did technology and ideas spread? What are some examples of technological adaptations to a new food type or habitat?
  • Where in scientific collections do we see this development in technology? 
  • How did this time period set the foundation for an ever-growing population, and how will we continue to feed people in the future?

Previously: An often overlooked crop provides key insight into the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in a story that started over 10,000 years ago during the Agricultural Revolution
Next up: The Green Revolution completely changed our agricultural system in the 20th century. An accelerating demand for food supply and improved breeding techniques in developing countries spurred a new type of agricultural science. Climate change and other stressors, such as drought and pests, also came to the forefront of challenges faced by farmers, scientists, and policymakers alike.

Jethro Tull (1674-1741). (2014). BBC News. Retrieved from

Overton, M. (1996). Agricultural revolution in England: The transformation of the agrarian economy, 1500-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Industrial Revolution
The transition to new manufacturing processes during the late 18th and 19th centuries, accompanied by a large scale shift from predominantly agrarian and rural communities in Europe and North America to industrial and urban.  This process overlapped with the tail-end of the British Agricultural Revolution during the 18th century, in which improved farmed practices sharply increased agricultural production.


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