How Did the Steel Plow Change the World?

The steel plow, first created by inventor John Deere in 1837, was strong enough to plow virgin prairie soil but lightweight enough to be managed by a single farmer and team of oxen. The steel plow transformed the American Midwest into farmland and quickly spread to similar agricultural environments.

The American Midwest, starting in Illinois and continuing to the Rocky Mountains, contained rich, fertile soil that was too dense and heavy to plow efficiently and economically. Light plows did not cut into the land, while heavier plows required large teams of oxen to pull them and had to be halted frequently in order to clean dense soil from the wooden moldboard. Cast-iron plows were tried, but these heavy plows broke easily.

John Deere, a blacksmith in Grand Detour, Illinois, used a broken steel mill saw to fashion a prototype plow that was light enough to pull easily, strong enough to withstand the dense prairie soil and heavy prairie grasses and smooth enough to cut cleanly without adhering to the soil.

Deere’s plow was a success. In 1839, he made three more plows, and in 1843 he filled orders for 400 plows. The steel plow reduced the time required to plow an acre from the wooden plow’s 24 hours to between five and eight hours. The abundance of agricultural products his plow helped produce on the American prairie was a main driver in the development of the transcontinental railway decades later.