Ask someone what they know about farming, and you may get outdated answers. Many people will talk of the infamous red barn, maybe some cows roaming the fields, or a straw hat. But, in reality, farming is far from outdated. In fact, farming is often one of the first industries to adopt new designs, technologies, and practices. And there’s no clearer way to see it than when you consider the design and evolution of farm and field equipment.

The earliest known farm implements date back as far as 5500 BC. In fact, the first plow is considered to be the “forked” sticks dragged through dirt in the region of southern Mesopotamia (now south-central Iraq). These sticks created the trenches in which seeds would be planted. As history shows, with increased technology and resources comes change and farming equipment changed greatly from these first “plows.”

18th Century

This century was really the time in which farming machinery became more mechanized. Wood was still a major material for farming equipment, but cast-iron metal was making gains as well. Although the first patent for the cast iron plow wasn’t issued until 1797 to Charles Newbold, it was during the 18th century when the use of cast iron as a material really took off. This century also saw the invention of replacement parts, saving farmers time and money by allowing them to repair and replace their machinery more easily, rather than having to buy new.

19th Century

Farm equipment and farm equipment technology really made great leaps starting in the 19th century. It was during this century that agricultural equipment turned away from horses and oxen as power sources and toward steam power. Then, at the end of the 19th century, steam power was replaced with combustion engines (using kerosene or gasoline) which weighed less, required less human interaction, and were also more efficient in general. That was just the beginning.

20th Century

During these years (1901-2000), we saw additional changes in farming equipment that really set the tone for what was to happen next. Diesel powered tractors were invented, giving way for more fuel efficiency and longer engine life. Hydraulics were introduced, giving farmers more versality in the ways in which the equipment could operate, move, and control implements. And Power Take Off (PTO) was also introduced which gave farm vehicles the ability to directly power their implements from the engine. Toward the end of the 20th century even more changes came when mechanical components were being replaced with electrical systems and devices. This laid the foundation for what would come next.

21st Century

This century has seen huge gains in the technology used in tractors. GPS was introduced, sensors were added everywhere, vision systems became available, and smart farming was born along with autonomous tractors. GPS is the backbone of autonomous tractors because it uses real-time location data to guide the tractor within defined parameters. Sensors detect changes on the ground, like soil conditions, and in the environment, like weather or plant health. They also provide critical information regarding the overall operational health of the tractor, allowing farmers to address maintenance issues before they’re too big to handle in the field. Lastly, although autonomous tractors guide themselves, we still need the farmer to monitor the operations, and 360-degree vision cameras are just the tool to do so.

22nd Century

Where and what farming equipment will be in the future is hard to predict but can be done with a little creativity and consideration for history. Farming equipment has really followed the trends from Industry 1.0 to 4.0 and with the prediction for Industry 5.0 to focus on societal values and wellbeing over economic values and welfare, we’ll likely see some changes in this realm. Meaning we’ll likely continue to see machinery and humans collaborating for the wellbeing of all while also squaring in on eco-friendly practices and reducing environmental impacts.

Of course, these are summaries of changes in the agricultural industry as a whole. That includes all types of operable equipment as well as the implements and other tech used in farming. But one piece of equipment stands out no matter what type of farming is being done. That’s the tractor. It’s synonymous with farming and agriculture. So, for some fun, below is a timeline of some of the biggest moments in the birth and life of what we call the tractor.

1892: A 43-year Iowa man named John Froelich is accredited with inventing the first successful gasoline-powered engine. The engine could be “driven” backwards and forwards so although it wasn’t called a tractor at the time, it essentially was the first tractor ever invented. John and others attempted to manufacture and sell this tractor (out of Waterloo, Iowa) without much traction so production turned to stationary engines only and John moved on.

1901: Two mechanical engineering students at the University of Wisconsin (Charles Hart and Charles Parr), founded the Hart-Parr Gasoline Engine Company in Madison, Wisconsin. They produced traction engines which coined the term “tractor”, and the first commercially successful tractor rolled off their assembly lines in 1901, kicking off the 20th century and so much more in tractor technology.

1902: This was a big year for farm tractors and agricultural machines as a whole. It was this year that five agricultural equipment manufacturers merged to form International Harvester. And, in 1905, International Harvester manufacturers its first tractor.

1904: Benjamin Holt develops the first crawler tractor, out of California. The change with this tractor is that rather than wheels, it was equipped with tracks. They named this tractor the “Caterpillar” which would also be the name by which his company was named!

1920: Massey Harris purchases Wallis Tractors to create the first four-wheel drive tractor. Fun fact – Wallis Tractors was founded by Henry Wallis who was actually the son-in-law of Jerome Case, the founder of the Case Corporation, a major player in ag equipment manufacturing.

1923: John Deere produces their legendary Model “D” Tractor, one they produced for nearly 30 years. During this same year, the International Harvester Farmall tractor was produced, another legendary tractor because its rear wheels were set further apart while the front wheels were narrow.

1928: SAME, an Italian tractor manufacturer secures credit for producing the first diesel powered tractor. Two short years later in 1930, it can be said that 15% of farmers are using tractors on their farm operations.

1931: Caterpillar manufactures their first diesel-powered track-type tractor.

1932: Allis-Chalmers (a company first formed in 1901), collaborates with Firestone to introduce pneumatic rubber tires to tractors, changing the tractor game as it relates to traction and fuel economy. Within five short years, these tires replaced the majority of steel wheels used up until this time.

1935: International Harvester combines diesel engines and wheeled tractors into one.

1941: Minneapolis-Moline introduces the world’s first factory-produced LPG (liquified petroleum gas) tractor, claiming 10% more power but fewer operating costs.

1954: Tractors officially outnumber horses and mules on farms.

1958: Minnesota farmers John Steiger and sons designed and built a tractor in their own barn and painted it lime green. Soon after they were officially in business by 1963 and had developed the very first tractor with a rear PTO option on articulated four-wheel drive tractors. They even pioneered electronic control systems for tractors, as well. After 32 years in business, Tenneco (parent company of Case International Harvester) purchased the Steiger brand.

1959: Allis-Chalmers creates technology for electric fuel cells. Although it didn’t take off in tractors, it can be considered technology that gave NASA the ability to “put a man on the moon”.

1960: Case creates the first tractor cab. Later, in 1963, Steiger introduces the first 4WD tractor with an enclosed cab. Enclosed cabs became a very popular addition to tractors in the next few years.

1961: Allis-Chalmers introduces their D-19 tractor, the first mass-produced tractor with a turbocharged diesel engine.

1966: Versatile is the first to mass-produce 4WD tractors and are able to price them out at a rate similar to the cost of smaller 2WD tractors that are currently being sold.

1969: Kubota Corp. introduces it’s very first tractor in the United States with instant success. Kubota Tractor Corp. is formed in 1972 to expand its presence in the market.

1973: Allis-Chalmers designs and manufacturers load-sensitive hydraulics for two of its tractor designs.

1985: Case and International Harvester merge to form Case IH.

1986: Massey Ferguson introduces the very first electronic lift control 3-point hitch, and it comes standard on all of their tractors. This technology gives farmers much more control over height, rate of drop, and depth (as well as speed) for implements and attachments.

1987: Caterpillar manufacturers tractors with rubber tracks, greatly reducing soil compaction.

1988: The first tractor engineered by newly combined Case IH is released with 100,000 produced in the first 15 years. What tractor was it? The Magnum tractor.

1990: AGCO is formed after a buyout of Deutz-Allis from KHD, starting the first of many acquisitions, leading AGCO to become the third largest producer of ag equipment worldwide.

1991: This was the year that the world’s first tractor with a full suspension system, and the ability to operate at 35 mph road speeds, came to be with JCB’s Fastrac tractor in Great Britain.

1992: RTK (real-time kinematic) technology debuts this year, one of the most important pieces of technology aiding in agricultural equipment guidance and movement.

1994: GPS and satellite technology is introduced. Case International rebrands to Case IH.

2004: Fendt introduces the Tractor Management System, software that monitors and controls engine speed relative to ground speed.

2010: Case IH manufactures and ships the Magnum series tractor which is the first unit from all manufacturers to meet EPA Tier 4A emissions standard for ag equipment.

2013: CNH Global N.V. and Fiat Industrial S.p.A. merge, making CNH Industrial N.V.

2020: Monarch Tractor showcases the world’s first fully electric smart tractor which is operated on a single electronic platform and with or without a driver. At the same time, Soletrac comes onto the market with a battery-powered tractor specific for orchards and vineyards.

2022: John Deere lets the world know that they have a fully autonomous tractor ready for production.

2023: New Holland is the first of the major ag OEMs to introduce an all-electric-powered tractor.

As we look back over the centuries, it’s clear that the fields of agriculture have always been a fertile ground for innovation. From the rudimentary stick plows of ancient Mesopotamia to the high-tech autonomous tractors of today, farming equipment has undergone a remarkable transformation. Each advancement reflects not only technological progress but also a deeper understanding of efficiency, sustainability, and the needs of both the land and those who work it.

As we venture into the future, with a vision sharpened by Industry 5.0 and its focus on societal values, the next chapters of agricultural innovation will likely be even more transformative. The ongoing evolution from mechanical beasts of burden to intelligent companions in the field highlights a pivotal shift in our relationship with technology and nature. These tools, once simple extensions of human effort, are now partners in a dance of productivity and stewardship.

In embracing these changes, we not only continue the legacy of innovation that defines human progress but also ensure that the future of farming—and by extension, our world—is as fruitful as the fields our forebears once tended. Let’s continue to watch, learn, and grow as the next generation of tractors and beyond redefine what it means to work the land.