By Jared Seymour
Invented at the end of the eighteenth century, the threshing machine is an important object of the Anthropocene because of the role it played in the restructuring of agricultural practices and a huge shift in land and labor relations during the nineteenth century. Threshing machines are designed to separate grain from stalks and husks. Along with the seed drill, first invented by Jethro Tull in 1701, and the reaping machine, the development and improvement of the threshing machine led the way in the mechanization and eventual industrialization of agriculture.
As a key component of the British Agricultural Revolution, the threshing machine aided in the acceleration of land consolidation and labor displacement brought forth through the enclosure movement, the legal process used in England to consolidate smaller landholdings held in common into large, privately-owned farms, by drastically reducing the amount of labor and laborers needed to harvest and process yield, which also led to short term but widespread social disruption, which is exemplified in the Swing Riots (1830). The threshing machine makes a number of appearances in British novels and poems written during the nineteenth century, usually with negative assessments from laborers and those nostalgic for England’s rural customs. As an object of the Anthropocene, the threshing machine is a major agent in the narrative of the shifting relations between land, labor, and capital that define this new geologic epoch: large-scale reshaping of planetary ecologies through industrial agriculture, urbanization through the displacement of rural workers, and the mechanization of relations between humans and environment.
The creation of the threshing machine is largely attributed to Andrew Meikle in 1786. For thousands of years prior to the invention of the thresher, grain was threshed through the use of a flail, a wooden staff with a shorter swinging stick attached, which involved intense, slow labor, requiring about a significant portion of agricultural labor and time. Additionally, unless the laborers were particularly skilled, some of the grain and chaff would be damaged. The threshing machine mechanized the process, greatly reducing the time and labor required in threshing. While the first threshers were powered by horse and water, later iterations were steam-powered.
Many Farmers and landowners quickly recognized the advantages of threshing machines to traditional hand-threshing. In a short report on the merits of the newly invented thresher published in 1797, William Spicer Dix, a brewer and landowner, urged farmers to adopt the threshing machine. Beginning his address, Dix wrote, “By this Machine one man, or a woman, can clear as much grain in one day, as can be done with the flail in ten days, without bruising, injuring, or leaving any ears…” Dix emphasized the savings in labor and tenfold increase in productivity that farmers could expect by investing in this new technology. The older method of threshing with the flail, Dix claimed, left much of the product vulnerable to destruction by small animals, unskilled laborers, and natural decay. Accordingly, the threshing machine, Dix promised, would allow farmers to bring much more of their harvest to market: “I trust it will be allowed that clearing corn from the ears by friction, … clearing ten times more in a day than any man can thresh with the flail, of preserving the reed unhurt, is not only the most effectual method, but it is also the most advantageous to the farmers, since by this using this machine … they will be able to carry to market nearly every grain grown on their farms.”
While Dix promised farmers that their farms would become more profitable by adopting the thresher, he also claimed that the threshing machine would help feed many more people. Near the same time that Thomas Malthus, in An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), argued that population growth was about to outpace the country’s ability to meet the resource needs of the people, Dix offered bold predictions about how the mechanization of farming would increase the food supply. According to Dix, wide adoption of the thresher could double the amount of grain sold annually, eliminate the need for foreign grain, and provide an additional several hundred thousand people with their daily bread, which prompted him to state, “If, by introducing this Machine to the world, and recommended the methods here laid down to be practiced by the farmers, to enable them annually such an immense quantity of corn, I should be fortunate as to see it universally adopted, I shall think myself happy in having been of home service to my country.”
Although, as Dix predicted, there was strong resistance to adopting the thresher on the part of small farmers and the laboring class, the thresher quickly spread throughout England, as well as abroad. This machinery became widely adopted during the Napoleonic Wars because of labor shortages. While there is some debate about the progression of its adoption in Great Britain, the general consensus is that by 1830 there were roughly over a thousand threshing machines in use in central southern England. In the ensuing period there was “unprecedented demands for implements and machinery of all kinds,” and by 1880 “not only had the flail almost entirely disappeared from lowland Britain but also steam had become the predominant power-force.” However, these machines were costly, meaning that only the more wealthy of farmers and landowners could afford to own one. Many farmers chose to hire smaller engines operated by firms, who would send a specialist technician with the machine to operate it. The high capital investment required to own or hire a threshing machine was partially responsible for the consolidation of farms during the nineteenth century. The logic represented here, the consolidation of land into the hands of fewer individuals and the industrialization of agriculture, partially defines human-environment relations in the Anthropocene.
While the landowning class tended to view threshers favorably, this was not the case for field-laborers. The introduction of threshing machines brought much social dislocation. Along with the intensification of enclosure, which privatized the commons and transformed the peasant inhabitants into transient laborers, threshing machines displaced laborers further. Additionally, the period following the Napoleonic Wars saw economic depression and the introduction of harsh Poor Laws. These forces converged to spark the Swing Riots of 1830. Swing was a protest movement that took its most visible form in the destruction of hundreds of threshing machines. Scholars debate whether threshing machines were the major cause or merely focal point of the Swing Riots. Following the riots, “992 criminal cases were tried in 11 different courts held in six different towns in the English counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Dorset, Hampshire, and Wiltshire. The sentence of death was passed on 227 individuals, of whom only 5 were hanged; 359 were transported to New South Wales or Van Diemen’s Land; 254 were jailed, and 2 were fined.” While the riots ended in 1831, Carl J. Griffin argues that the Swing movement continued less visibly for at least a decade.
Negative sentiments toward the thresher on the part of laborers continues throughout the nineteenth century. Indeed, “folk memory,” as Roger Ebbatson has argued, is “tellingly” recorded in nineteenth-century literary accounts of the mechanization of agriculture. In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), for example, the eponymous heroine represents the new class of transient agricultural laborers. Toward the end of the novel, the steam-powered threshing machine makes an iconic appearance:
Close under the eaves of the stack, and as yet barely visible was the red tyrant that the women had come to serve – a timber- framed construction, with straps and wheels appertaining – the threshing-machine, which, whilst it was going, kept up a despotic demand upon the endurance of their muscles and nerves.
The machine is operated by an itinerate technician, while field-laborers, men and women, feed grain into the machine, which is perceived as “the red tyrant” and “despotic.” Despite the workers’ disdain toward the “hated machinery,” the work continued throughout the day at constant pace, “the inexorable wheels continuing to spin, and the penetrating hum of the thresher to thrill to the very marrow all who were near the revolving wire cage.” As Hardy observes, it is the “ceaselessness of the work” which tries Tess so “severely, and began to make her wish that she had never come to Flintcomb-Ash.” The threshing machine had caused a break in the old temporality of traditional hand-threshing; industrializing both threshing and the laborers who must keep pace with the machine. As demonstrated in this short passage, the story of the Anthropocene as told by the threshing machine is one where the relations between labor and land are mediated by capital, in this case the agricultural machinery.
Ultimately, the threshing machine as an object of the Anthropocene tells the narrative of the fundamental shift in the way humans envision their relationship with the land. Industrial, mechanized agriculture freed (or displaced) laborers who once called the rural lands their home, driving them to urban centers to feed the demand for industrial workers. The industrialization of agricultural provided the conditions for viewing large swaths of landscape as what Martin Heidegger refers to as “standing reserve,” where the land is set upon and treated as always ready for human demands. Humans, too, are made subservient to the demands of industrialization. While inventions like the threshing machine have helped improve food access and nutrition for people around the world, they have also aided in the wide-scale reshaping of the earth’s ecologies.
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