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Patrick Bell lived from 12 May 1799 to 22 April 1869. He was a Church of Scotland minister best remembered as the inventor of the reaping machine, the partial forerunner to today's combine harvester. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Patrick Bell was born into a farming family near Auchterhouse in Angus. As a child he would doubtless have come to know first hand the drudgery involved during the harvest, when crops were cut with a scythe before being gathered into sheaths and bound by hand. Bell left day-to-day farming behind when he went to study divinity at St Andrews University, but obviously continued to take a close interest.
Bell graduated from St Andrews in 1827. While a student he had started to think about the problem of cutting and gathering grain and in the year he graduated he produced a prototype of a mechanical reaping machine. Pushed ahead of two horses on wheels, this cut the grain before the horses trampled it down, and also gathered it together, making assembly into sheaths much easier. The machine was first used publicly in September 1828, so successfully that Bell was given a £50 grant by the Highland Agricultural Society. Bell went on to produce a number of machines which were sold in Scotland, and some went on to find their way to the United States, where the idea was rapidly copied and developed. Bell had chosen not to patent his invention, and as a result made little money from it. He also undertook pioneering work to establish ways of extracting sugar from sugar beet.
In 1843 Bell was ordained as the minister in the parish of Carmyllie in Angus, a position he held until his death in 1869. By then, the reaping machine he invented had helped revolutionise agriculture across the world. The modern combine harvester brings together Patrick Bell's reaper with Andrew Meikle's threshing machine. Patrick Bell's prototype reaping machine remained in use on his brother's farm and in 1869 it was sold to the Science Museum in London, where it remains on view today.