Henry George “Harry” Ferguson, a British mechanic and inventor who is noted for his role in the development of the modern agricultural tractor and its three-point linkage system, for being the first person in Ireland to build and fly his own aeroplane, and for developing the first four-wheel drive Formula One car, the Ferguson P99, dies in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, England, on October 25, 1960. Today his name lives on in the name of the Massey Ferguson company.
Ferguson is born on November 4, 1884, at Growell, near Dromore, County Down, in what is now Northern Ireland, the son of a farmer. In 1902, he goes to work with his brother, Joe, in his bicycle and car repair business. While working there as a mechanic, he develops an interest in aviation, visiting airshows abroad. In 1904, he begins to race motorcycles.
In the 1900s Ferguson becomes fascinated with the newly emerging technology of powered human flight and particularly with the exploits of the Wright brothers, the American aviation pioneers who made the first plane flight in 1903 at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.
The first person to accomplish powered flight in the UK is Alliot Verdon Roe in June 1908, who also flies an aeroplane of his own design, but this has not yet been achieved in Ireland. Ferguson begins to develop a keen interest in the mechanics of flying and travels to several air shows, including exhibitions in 1909 at Blackpool and Rheims where he takes notes of the design of early aircraft. He convinces his brother that they should attempt to build an aircraft at their Belfast workshop and, working from his notes, they work on the design of a plane, the Ferguson monoplane.
After making many changes and improvements, they transport their new aircraft by towing it behind a car through the streets of Belfast up to Hillsborough Park to make their first attempt at flight. They are at first thwarted by propeller trouble but continue to make technical alterations to the plane. After a delay of nearly a week caused by bad weather, the Ferguson monoplane finally takes off from Hillsborough on December 31, 1909. Ferguson becomes the first Irishman to fly and the first Irishman to build and fly his own aeroplane.
After falling out with his brother over the safety and future of aviation, Ferguson decides to go it alone, and in 1911 founds a company selling Maxwell, Star and Vauxhall cars and Overtime Tractors. He sees at first hand the weakness of having tractor and plough as separate articulated units, and in 1917 he devises a plough that can be rigidly attached to a Ford Model T car — the Eros, which becomes a limited success, competing with the Fordson Model F.
In 1917 Ferguson meets Charles E. Sorensen while Sorensen is in England scouting production sites for the Fordson tractor. They discuss methods of hitching the implement to the tractor to make them a unit. In 1920 and 1921 he demonstrates early versions of his three-point linkage on Fordson tractors at Cork and at Dearborn, Michigan. He and Henry Ford discuss putting the Ferguson system of hitch and implements onto Fordson tractors at the factory, but no deal is struck. At the time the hitch is mechanical. Ferguson and his team of longtime colleagues, including Willie Sands and Archie Greer, soon develop a hydraulic version, which is patented in 1926. After one or two false starts, he eventually founds the Ferguson-Sherman Inc., with Eber and George Sherman.
The new enterprise manufactures the Ferguson plough, incorporating the patented “Duplex” hitch system mainly intended for the Fordson “F” tractor. Following several more years of development, Ferguson’s new hydraulic version of the three-point linkage is first seen on his prototype “Ferguson Black” or ‘Irish tractor’ as he calls it, now in the Science Museum, South Kensington, London. A production version of the “Black” is introduced in May 1936, made at one of the David Brown Engineering Ltd. factories in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, and designated Ferguson Model A tractor.
In October 1938, Ferguson demonstrates his latest tractor to Henry Ford at Dearborn, and they make the famous “handshake agreement.” He takes with him his latest patents covering future improvements to the Ferguson tractor and it is these that lead to the Ford-Ferguson 9N introduction to the world on June 29, 1939.
Henry Ford II, Ford’s grandson, ends the handshake agreement on June 30, 1947, following unsuccessful negotiations with Ferguson, but continues to produce a tractor, the 8N, incorporating Ferguson’s inventions, the patents on almost all of which have not yet expired, and Ferguson is left without a tractor to sell in North America. His reaction is a lawsuit demanding compensation for damage to his business and for Ford’s illegal use of his designs. The case is settled out of court in April 1952 for just over $9 million. The court case costs him about half of that and a great deal of stress and ill health.
By 1952, most of the important Ferguson patents have expired, and this allows Henry Ford II to claim that the case had not restricted Ford’s activities too much. It follows that all the world’s other tractor manufacturers can also use Ferguson’s inventions, which they do. A year later Ferguson merges with Massey-Harris Limited to become Massey-Harris-Ferguson Co., later Massey Ferguson.
Ferguson dies at his home at Stow-on-the-Wold on October 25, 1960, as the result of a barbiturate overdose. The inquest is unable to conclude whether his death had been accidental or not.
A blue plaque commemorating Ferguson is mounted on the Ulster Bank building in Donegall Square, Belfast, the former site of his showroom. A granite memorial has been erected to Ferguson’s pioneering flight on the North Promenade, Newcastle, County Down, and a full-scale replica of the Ferguson monoplane and an early Ferguson tractor and plough can be seen at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra.