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Patrick Bell (1799-1869) inventor of the mechanical reaper

At the moment I cannot prove a link between the family of Patrick Bell, inventor of the mechanical reaper, and my own Bells. Nevertheless, I include the following.

(transcribed from Lawrence Melville, 'Erroll, its Lands, Legends and People') 1

Some notice must be made of the reaping machine, as the history of the same is closely allied to a well-known family of the name of Bell in our parish.

We are largely indebted for the information which we have obtained from The Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, Vol. 40, 1928, by Prof. James Khendrick. B.Sc., F.I.C., of the University of Aberdeen. In this interesting article on Patrick Bell and the centenary of the reaping machine, we learn much regarding both the family and the reaping machine.

At the end of the eighteen th century, premiums were offered by agricultural bodies and others for the inventing of the reaping machine. At the same time many arguments were made against them on the ground that they would displace work people, especially the old and infirm. Notwithstanding these objections, various attempts were made to invent a suitable machine, and a particular mention may be made of one produced by Mr. James Smith, Manager of Deanstoun Cotton Works, Doune.

One writer refers to a very hopeful machine, "invented by Mr. Patrick Bell, a young man in the County of Forfar of high attainments in many sciences."

Patrick Bell was the son of a small Forfarshire farmer who had a large family. He was born at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and in 1828, when he made his first machine, which is now in the Science Museum at South Kensington, he was about twenty seven years of age. He first worked on the farm, and then managed to work his way as a student to St. Andrews University, where he took his M.A. degree.

After completing his Divinity Course at St. Andrews, Bell went to Canada in 1833, and afterwards visited America. Leaving Canada in 1837, he was sometime afterwards appointed Minister of Carmyllie in Forfarshire. He spent the rest of his life there, where he died in 1869.

Up to 1850 farmers were not ready for reaping machines in Britain, and Bell himself in his article in the Journal of Agriculture, 1854, wrote of his own machine that "like a child prematurely born, it came into the world before the agriculture community were ready to welcome it."

After this last mentioned date, however, the reaping machine became the order of the day. Bell's machine became an absolute success and his reasons for not patenting his invention were of the highest and most honourable kind. His sole wish was to present his invention freely to the agricultural public.

In the Journal of Agriculture, 1854, referred to, Bell gives an interesting narrative regarding his invention. He goes on to say that he worked at his idea for a long time, and in 1827 made a model. With the aid of the local blacksmith his first rude machine was got together in an outhouse which formed his workshop. He met many difficulties which he ultimately overcame. He relates that the first trial was made by his brother and himself in secret late at night when everybody was gone to bed and with "the good horse, Jock, yoked to it," they slipped away at eleven o'clock at night to a field of wheat, his brother and himself speaking in whispers, in case anyone would know of their experiment.

Success crowned their efforts, and the machine was returned in triumph to await public trial. The machine continued to be used on his father's farm, Mid Lioch, Auchterhouse, until the farm was given up. It was then taken to his brother's farm at South Inchmichael, where it continued to be used. It was afterwards shown at the Highland Show in August 1852.

At the General Meeting of the Highland and Agricultural Society on 15th January 1868, a presentation of a piece of plate and 1000 was made to Mr., then Dr. Bell in appreciation of his services as the inventor of the first efficient reaping machine.

The Rev. Dr. Bell, as we have seen, tried out the reaper at South Inchmichael on his brother's farm. His brother was George Bell, who came as a young man to South Inchmichael in 1835, and the farm was continuously in the hands of the Bell family until shortly after 1925. A son of the last named, also named George, was the eldest in a family of eight, and succeeded to the tenancy in 1866 on the death of his father. West Mains of Inchture was also farmed by Mr. Bell for a number of years until 1874, and after that date he devoted his whole attention to South Inchmichael, which he farmed with notable enterprise and ability.

He also displayed enlightened interest in agricultural affairs outside his immediate neighbourhood. He was a life member of the Highland and Agricultural Society, and was at one time a Director of the Scottish Chamber of Agriculture, whilst he wrote extensively on farming subjects. As a valuator and arbiter, his services were in great demand.

His father kept a record of agricultural operations at Inchmichael year by year, and collected an enormous amount of valuable information as to weather and crop conditions in the Carse. With the exception of Mr. Bell's articles in the Dundee Advertiser and the Courier & Advertiser these records have unfortunately not been preserved.

Mr. Bell devoted much of his time to both Church and public work. He died on 5th June 1925, and one cannot forget his tremendous support to the Parish Church. Some years before his death he gifted 600 to the Session, the annual interest is disbursed by the Minister amongst the poor.


1. Melville, L, Errol its Lands, Legends and People (Perth, Thos. Hunter & Sons Ltd., 1935), pp. 94-6


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