Guest Author - Tony King
Harry Ferguson was born near the small town of Hillsborough, Co Down, on 4th of November l884. Little is really known of his childhood and youth, but his name today is synonymous with inventions, especially the farm tractor.
In l902, he joined his brother Joe in a car and bicycle repair business in Belfast, and in 1904 began to race motor-cycles, a growing sport in those days which in turn would become one of the world‘s greatest motor-cycle spectacles.
It is not so well known that in 1909, at Hillsborough, he made the first powered flight in Ireland, travelling almost 400 feet in a monoplane he had built from blueprints he saw in a magazine.
He later drove racing cars, and helped to establish the famous Ulster Tourist Trophy races in 1928.
Ferguson formed his own motor business in 1911, and during World War 1 began to sell tractors to Irish farmers who were still traditionally attached to horse-drawn ploughs.
He came up with the revolutionary concept that tractor and plough should be designed as a unit, and immediately began to register his own patents.
At the same time in America, Henry Ford was quickly rising to the top of the “mogul” ladder, and hearing of Harry Ferguson in lowly Ireland, was so impressed with his genius, offered him a job with his growing Ford Motor Company.
Harry however preferred his independence and set up an American plant to make Ferguson ploughs. In 1926, the principal patent of the hydraulic system for the “Ferguson” tractor was granted. In time, the system would change the face of agriculture, but commercial success for the Irish inventor proved elusive.
In 1938, Ferguson and Ford reached a 'gentlemen's agreement' by which the American could manufacture tractors for Ferguson to sell, and the deal was sealed only by a handshake.
The tractor contributed enormously to wartime food production, but Ferguson's real hope was to raise living standards throughout the world. “Agriculture“, he said in 1943, “should have been the first industry to be modernised, not the last.”
Sadly, Ferguson's later years were clouded by a dispute with the Ford Motor Company, after Henry Ford's death. He won $9.25m compensation in 1952, but a 1953 merger with the Canadian Massey-Harris conglomerate left him somewhat disgruntled, and he retired to Stow-on-the-Wold, in Gloucestershire.
His last ambition was to improve car safety through a four-wheel drive system and anti-lock braking, but he failed to make a commercial breakthrough.
He constantly suffered from insomnia and depression and, when he died from a drug overdose on 25 October 1960, a coroner's jury returned an open verdict.
A truly sad ending to one of Ireland’s great geniuses and truly philanthropic gentlemen.