Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fowler, John (1826-1864)

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FOWLER, JOHN (1826–1864), inventor of the steam plough, was born at Melksham, Wiltshire, 11 July 1826. He was at first engaged in the corn trade, but in 1847 entered the works of Gilke, Wilson, & Co. at Middlesborough. While in Ireland in 1849 he became impressed by the necessity of draining waste lands, and conceived the idea of a mechanical system. In 1850 he conducted experiments with Albert Fry at Bristol, which resulted in the completion of the drain plough, which was first worked by horses. He then undertook a contract for the drainage of Hainault Forest, Essex, and there introduced his patent drainage plough. Finding, however, that the application of steam to the cultivation of the soil was yet a desideratum, he henceforth applied all his energies to supply that want. Some of his experimental appliances were made by Ransome & Sims at Ipswich in 1856, others by George and Robert Stephenson at Newcastle. He was afterwards introduced by his father-in-law to Jeremiah Head, and working with that gentleman, they succeeded in producing at Stephenson's works a plough which fulfilled all the conditions laid down by the Royal Agricultural Society, and received at the Chester show in 1858 the prize of 500l. offered ‘for a steam cultivator that shall, in the most efficient manner, turn over the soil and be an economic substitute for the plough or the spade.’ In this invention, discarding the idea of using a locomotive digger, a stationary engine was employed, which moved the plough up and down the field by means of ropes attached to a drum. By its use a great saving was effected in the cost of labour, and the soil was left in a better state for all purposes of husbandry. In 1860 Fowler made further improvements by bringing out his double engine tackle, the invention of which has given a great impetus to steam cultivation not only in Great Britain but also on the continent, and in the cotton districts of Egypt. The cost of one of these machines being upwards of 2,000l., their use could not become general, but by a system of lending the ploughs and charging so much a week for the loan, they at last came into greater demand. In 1860, in conjunction with Mr. Kitson and Mr. Hewitson, he established extensive manufacturing works at Hunslet, Leeds, where in 1864 nine hundred hands were employed. Between 1850 and 1864 he took out himself, and in partnership with other persons, thirty-two patents for ploughs and ploughing apparatus, reaping machines, seed drills, horseshoes, traction engines, slide valves, laying electric telegraph cables, and making bricks and tiles. The mental strain to which Fowler had been subject had wrought his brain into a state of undue activity, and he now retired to Ackworth, Yorkshire, for repose. Being recommended active exercise, he began to hunt, and in November 1864 fractured his arm by falling from his horse; tetanus ensued, from the effect of which he died at Ackworth 4 Dec. 1864. He married, 30 July 1857, Elizabeth Lucy, ninth child of Joseph Pease, M.P. for South Durham, by whom he left five children.

[Leeds Mercury, 6, 9, and 16 July, and 7 Dec. 1864; Taylor's Biographia Leodiensis, 1865, pp. 525–8, 672; Practical Mag. 1875, v. 257–62, with portrait; Gent. Mag. January 1865, p. 123; Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 1865, p. 14; Journal of Royal Agricultural Soc. 1854–63, vols. xv–xxiv.; Transactions of the Soc. of Engineers for 1868, pp. 299–318.]

G. C. B.