John Deere did not invent the green & yellow riding lawn mower. Should your children ask you what he did invent, be careful in answering. If you tell them (correctly), "The steel plow.", then they will surely ask you, "What’s a steel plow?" This is a trick question.
Although we are living in the Golden Age of Carbohydrate Consumption, precious few farmers now plow the land and harvest the crops. When Deere invented his plow in 1838, quite the opposite was true. Most Americans were farmers--by necessity, not by choice. Our modern era, nevertheless, does have one thing in common with the agrarian past--import tariffs. No invention--not even the plow--has been able to uproot this vile weed.
Before I begin, let me point out that iron is a metal element. Steel, on the other hand, is a manufactured alloy containing mostly iron and about 1% carbon. Iron and steel are not the same. Iron is weaker and softer than steel. In simplest terms, steel makes your lawn-mowing experience possible.
Prior to the Civil War, America was not a steelmaker. Steelmaking was the domain of England. Although we were the 3rd leading producer of iron, our technology lagged 50 years behind the steelmakers at Sheffield, England. We were only capable of producing cast iron and wrought iron, neither of which made for a durable, long-wearing plow.
John Deere, a Vermont blacksmith, moved to Illinois in 1837 and soon learned from local farmers that the standard iron plow would not turn over the sticky, Midwest soil. Further, it is said that it took an 8-oxen team a week to plow just one acre. Deere solved the tillage dilemma by fabricating a plow from a piece of Sheffield steel. The prairie earth didn’t cling to steel like it did to the softer iron and agriculture changed forever.
Imagine if you will, that all of a sudden it no longer took 8 oxen a week to plow one acre but instead, two oxen could plow that acre in a day or so. This moment in history is far more significant than you have been taught. And it almost didn’t happen.
Politicians in that era were keen on protecting our primitive iron industry and keeping it primitive. At times, the tariff doubled the price of imported iron. With such a cushion, the ironworks proceeded with business as usual. American iron mills continued to fill orders for low-end products rather than innovate. Wheeling, WV earned its nickname, "Nail City", during this period.
When the iron tariff was substantially reduced in the 1840s, English goods flooded the market and American iron mills took a hit. By focusing on efficiency and developing a reputation for unmatched quality, the English were able to import pig iron from Sweden, finish it at Sheffield, and transport their manufactured goods to America cheaper than our protected iron industry could produce locally.
As we look back in history for answers to today’s questions, there are two lessons to be learned here. First, it was innovation that created vast new markets for steel. The steel plow led to the development of other steel farm implements as well as Henry Ford’s farm tractor. And just try and count the railcars and cargo ships that have transported Illinois corn and Kansas wheat to the far reaches of the globe. All of this because of one man’s idea.
Second, and perhaps more salient, is that America was a third-world nation in the early 1800‘s. Third-world nations expect to be coddled and sheltered by tariffs. Today, we are the world’s superpower. If we want to keep that title, we need to stop building fences and start plowing new ground.