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Andrew Meikle was born in 1719 in Houston Mill in eastern Scotland in the UK. After inheriting his father’s mill, Meikle invented a threshing machine that greatly increased the production efficiency of grain.
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Threshers are machines that remove the outer husks from grains such as wheat. Before the threshing machine, separating the grain from the chaff was a labor intensive process. The thresher was a very important development in the huge changes in British agriculture in the late 18th century. Meikle’s first two threshers were not successful. But eventually he designed a machine based on a drum in which flax fibers were beaten to separate the husks.
According to the 1881 Household Cyclopedia, the thresher made farming grain much less wasteful: “When it is added, that the quantity of grain gained from the superior powers of the machine is fully equal to a twentieth part of the crop, and … the immense saving arising from the invention will at once be seen."
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The success of Meikle’s third threshing machine ended up playing a role in farm riots in 1830. Farm workers were fed up with years of high taxes, low wages, and wars. They faced massive unemployment because the thresher made the workers redundant. British enclosure laws, which had begun centuries earlier, accelerated greatly at the end of the 18th century. Farmers lost their grazing rights and many were left without even enough land to eke out a subsistence living. The General Inclosure Act of 1801was for many farmers the final nail in the coffin of their profession. Most received small, if any, compensation for the tiny plots of land they were forced to give up.
These laws were responsible for a number of British leaving for the new country across the Atlantic, the United States. The laws also resulted in a ready-made workforce for the rapidly accelerating industrial revolution in Britain. The advent of the thresher drove many farmers to the brink of starvation even as yields improved. The Swing Riots of 1830 brought angry former farm workers out to smash and destroy threshers and threaten the farmers who used them. Those participating in the riots were punished severely. Several were hanged and nearly 500 were transported to Australia.
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But Andrew Meikle wasn’t only known for his role in the invention of automatic threshers, he was also a significant contributor to improvements in windmill design. Before the 1770s, windmills had sail cloths that would shred in high winds and storms. Meikle invented the spring sail, a type of sail that used hinged shutters instead of sail cloths. Because they were operated similarly to Venetian blinds, the angle of the sails to high winds was semi-automatically regulated by means of a spring attached to each spring sail.
Though Meikle did not enjoy wealth from his inventions, he lived a long life, dying in 1811 in Houston Mill, the same place he was born.