Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

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Threshing in a stackyard in the Scottish Borders, 1920s

Andrew MeikleAndrew Meikle (1719-1811) engineer and inventor of the threshing machine, the predecessor of the combine harvester

Engineering achievements

Andrew Meikle was a country millwright, like his father, an engineer in the field of power generation and transmission when power was generated by wind, water and animals. His materials were stone, wood, leather, and (in limited quantities) cast and wrought iron. Meikle designed and made the first successful threshing machine in 1786. This used fluted rollers to feed sheaves of corn to a rotating drum which beat the corn against a curved casing (the concave). The ears of corn and the chaff then fell through a grating while the straw continued horizontally out of the drum casing.

Meikle's father James had invented a mechanical fan which could be used to separate the ears from the chaff. Sieves separated corn from weed seeds. The threshing machine in its early state appears primitive but was sophisticated at the time, involving the use of gearing to feed the sheaves into the drum at the right rate. Meikle began making threshing machines for sale in 1789. Other inventors improved the effectiveness of the device during the next few years, and by 1800 it was in general use.

Before Meikle's invention ears of corn had to be separated from the stalks on which they had grown by men wielding jointed wooden sticks – flails – a slow and laborious process. The rate of threshing, as this was called, limited the output of wheat, oats and barley as food for people and horses, and as the raw material for brewing and whisky distilling. The fixed threshing mill, powered by water-wheel, windmill, or animal power rapidly became a standard feature of all arable farms.

His Life

Age Event Year
Born 5th May in Saltoun, Haddingtonshire (now East Lothian) to a millwright father 1719
16 Followed father's trade as millwright in Houston Mill, East Linton 1735
32 Family engaged as millwrights to the Board of Trustees for Manufactures 1751
44 Admitted as a burgess of Haddington 1763
49 Patented, with Robert Mackell, a machine to dress grain 1768
53 Invented windmill "spring-sails" allowing sails to be better controlled 1772
54 Took John Rennie, later a distinguished civil engineer, as an apprentice 1773
67 Designed and built the first successful threshing machine 1786
69 Patented the drum threshing machine 1788
70 Produced threshing machines for sale 1789
92 Died 27th November in Houston Mill, East Linton, East Lothian, buried at Prestonkirk 1811

His Legacy

Fixed and mobile threshing mills as such are things of the past, but Meikle's invention is now more important than ever, for every combine harvester (the universal harvesting machine throughout the world) incorporates a threshing machine recognisably descended from Meikle's prototype of 1786. There are few, if any, mechanical devices of Scottish origin which have had such an immediately transformative effect on a major industry and the supply of food, and had such a lasting impact on economy and society.

More Information

Patent No. 896: Machine for dressing Wheat, Malt and other Grain, and cleaning them from Sand, Dust and Smut, 14 Mar 1768 (with Robert Mackell)
Patent No. 1645: Machine, which may be worked by Cattle, Wind, Water or other Power, for the purpose of Separating Corn from the Straw 9 April 1788.
The National Museum of Rural Life in East Kilbride has examples of early threshing machines
Preston Mill in East Lothian was maintained by Meikle
There is a portrait of Andrew Meikle held in the National Portrait Gallery. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)

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