Tractor inventor Harry Ferguson quietly rolled out feminist and egalitarian views

An Irishman’s Diary: He laments ‘the terrible conditions now existing in Ireland’

A bit like Orson Welles, author of the original quip, the inventor Harry Ferguson could be said to have started at the top and worked his way down. During an early dalliance with aviation, in 1909, he became the first Irish person to fly.

Then he made his name-creating machinery that operated somewhat nearer the ground, and in it.

His is today synonymous with tractors, typically the red ones built from the 1950s onwards with the Canadian firm Massey (although his earlier partnership had been with Ford). Arguably his greatest innovation, however, was the linkage system – first mechanical, later hydraulic – that allowed tractors and ploughs to work as a unit.

An early result was the “Belfast Plough”, also known was the “1916 Plough”, designed to combine with a tractor conversion of the Ford Model T car. It was a timely invention in more ways than one.

That was an era when another plough, the "starry" one, was emerging as a symbol of revolutionary Ireland, about to break its linkage system with Britain. Indeed, the Starry Plough flag had been designed by Ferguson's fellow Ulster man, writer George "AE" Russell, who was born just a few miles away in Lurgan.

Russell was a nationalist, Ferguson pro-union. What they shared was an interest in improving the life of Irish farmers. Russell was an early champion of the co-operative movement and, while his pacifism kept him out of the fighting, his flag flew over Dublin during Easter week. Ferguson's non-starry plough was meanwhile revolutionising agriculture and, in the process, introducing the Co Down native to a lucrative partnership with Henry Ford.

It was to agree a deal with Ford that Ferguson took the boat to New York in 1921. And it is to that voyage we owe a fascinating insight into the mind of a man who had left school at 14 but who was clearly a deep thinker as well as an engineer.

Early feminist

En route, with time on his hands for once, he wrote a long diary-cum-letter to his wife and others, expounding not only on the trip, but on his attitudes to life in general. Among many other things, it reveals him to have rejected the Bible-school religion in which he grew up. It also shows him to have been an early and fierce feminist.

Here, for example, he reflects on the then-recent extension of the electoral franchise: “I worked hard in favour of votes for women and I am proud of what I did. But woman is far from free yet. The vote does not make her free. It is only a means by which she may become free [. . .]

“You can count on my best help because I hate and detest anything unfair and I swear that while I live, I will do all I can to level up the inequalities between man and woman and give woman a chance for happiness – a chance for freedom from which all true happiness springs.”


And here, he sums up his general philosophy: “Work, accomplishment, is the foundation on which we must build if we are to attain things that are worth having in this world. Love is the one glow on life’s dark cloud, and we can only attain to that which we love by the intelligent application of hand and brain.

“The man who toils for mere wealth in gold is as bad as the idler because he toils for his own happiness alone. To work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the ideal, and when the world realises the happiness that lies there, we will care less about the next world and be happier in this.”

Elsewhere, he also laments “the terrible conditions now existing in Ireland”.  Of those, however, he was not entirely innocent. In 1914, Ferguson had taken part in the Larne gun-running, the event that brought guns back into Irish politics, after 30 years of a democratic campaign for Home Rule.

But since his subsequent trajectory was from swords to ploughshares, we can probably forgive him. Reader Owen Morton from the Humanist Association of Ireland already has. It was Owen who sent me extracts from the letter, having read the original, in possession of a friend, enthralled.

He believes it justifies claiming Ferguson as a humanist too. In which context, he mentions a talk in Dún Laoghaire next Tuesday (November 5th), which will attempt to explain "What a Humanist social or economic policy agenda might look like".  The speaker will be Eamon Murphy of Maynooth University, the venue is the Royal Marine Hotel, and it starts at 7.15pm.