No-Till Farming

No-till farming is an agricultural process where crops are planted over the prior crop without tilling.


Since ancient times, farmers believed in the necessity of turning over the soil before planting. Shovels or plows turned over the prior crop, exposing the soil the next crop. Their belief was based on the idea that agricultural decay of prior crops will smother newer crops.

As farm technology evolved, farms grew much larger. The moldboard plow and automated harvester enabled farms many times larger than anything before them.

In the American west, where topsoil is not as deep, these farming techniques caused massive soil erosion. By the 1930s enormous dust-storms rolled through the western plains, destroying crops and causing further erosion.

Dust Bowl

Due to the Great Depression, farmers were already in perilous financial shape. Dust storms destroying their crops and topsoil, while banks demanding payment, pushed many into homelessness. In 1939, John Steinbeck documented their plight in his fiction-based-on-fact book The Grapes of Wrath.

The Plowman’s Folly

In 1943, scientist Edward Faulkner released a book, the Plowman’s Folly. He posed one seemingly simple observation, “The fact is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing.”

Faulkner reasoned turning over the earth removed moisture, caused erosion, required time, wasted fuel, removed mulch, harmed animal habitats, and did not help the future crop at all. Despite that tilling dated back thousands of years, there was no reason real reason to turn over the earth except the tilled soil looked nice.

Plowman’s Folly achieved two goals. First, it created an effective dominant farming technique that prevents erosion. Second, Faulkner demonstrated that assumed facts might be demonstrably incorrect. Ever since Copernicus made his way to the heretic list in the 1500s for proposing the earth rotates around the sun, there are few innovations that challenge ancient beliefs.

Today, no-till farming is common throughout the world. The only problem is some farmers rely on chemicals for weed control, rather than turning over the earth. However, there are organic no-till farming methods.

Hybrid Corn

Genetic modification by people have produced virtually all plants and animals in the western world. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, and brussels sprouts are all derived from a wild mustard plant in Europe. None of these vegetables exist but-for early genetic engineering.

Similarly, all dogs, cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens are modern man-made creations. Scientists speculate that dogs “self-domesticated” — that is, got it into their dog brains that pets have great lives and befriended people on their own. However, the rest are all manufactured. They derive from wild species bred into something different to yield meat and milk.

One important milestone came in 1909 when food scientist George Shull developed a new way to manipulate corn and other plants.

Before Shull, people would cross-breed plants for desirable strains. For example, they might cross a tall rice plant that produces poorly with a short rice plant that produces a lot to make a tall rice plant that produces much more than either parent.

Shull theorized the genetics could be better controlled by repeatedly inbreeding to cancel out random genetics. He repeatedly inbred two strains of corn plants, each with individual desirable traits. As other scientists already knew, the inbred plants produced poorly. The plants were short with few ears of corn and the ears had few rows.

Eventually, after the plants were inbred to the basics he then cross-bred them. The crossed the two basic inbred pairs blended their genetics to produce dramatically better, genetically predictable corn.

Shull’s theories went on to other fields, radically changing food technology. His techniques are still in use today though, in some countries, more sophisticated direct genetic modification (GMO’s) are more common.

Milking Machine

Milking machine safely and effectively milk cows. They vastly reduce the cost of milking a cow.


Nobody likes milking cows by hand. It’s time consuming, laborious, and they poop.

Early attempts at something better involved inserting catheters that would let the milk slide out. However, if not used perfectly these hurt the animal. Catheters often infected cow udders. This caused the co-mingling of infected and good milk leading to sickness in people. American Agriculturist magazine, the trade journal way back when refused advertisements for milking catheters.

Eventually, suction-based machines, that work more like hands, came along. American Anna Baldwin patented an early suction-based milker that, while sub-optimal, was a substantive step on the way towards the modern milking machine. S.W. Lowe built on Baldwin’s machine, sucking from four teats at once.

Finally, L.O. Colvin, cited as “America’s most famous inventor of early milking machines” created a hand-cranked machine that mimicked hands, the modern milking machines.

Women Inventors

A brief digression: we study countless historic innovations, the ones we write about and many more we do not believe are eligible for inclusion. We have never seen so many innovation histories where the inventors use initials for their first name. Way back when milking cows was often a women’s job, milkmaids. We know that Anna Baldwin created and patented one early machine. However, we believe many of these other initials-only inventors were also women. Using initials hid the fact from patent applications, news articles, and men who purchase farm equipment. With this in mind, we refer to these inventors using feminine pronouns.

Colvin’s milk machine received favorable press and sold widely. She sold the English patent rights for $5,000. This was an enormous amount of money in 1860 when the average wage for a skilled laborer was $8/week.

Using iterative development, the modern milking machine came into being. Hand-cranks operated earlier one’s whereas later versions relied on electricity. However, they all operated with a similar mechanism.

At least one publication raises a good question about why it took 50 years from the earliest patents to a fully-functional machine when the grain harvester moved much faster. The answer, they speculate, is that cows are not wheat: they are living animals farmers refused to experiment upon.

Automatic Tomato Harvester

Grain and corn harvesters date back to the 1800s. However, grain and corn are relatively easy to harvest. Grain harvesting involves little more than cutting tall grass whereas ears of corn are large, strong, and similarly shaped.


Interestingly, tomatoes were not common food until the 1800s. Early colonialists brought the tomato plant to Europe in the 1500s as a decorative plant. People thought the plant and fruit were poison. Additionally, early tomatoes were small, yellow, and even for those brave (or foolish, or hungry) enough to try them, they didn’t taste good.

Over the next centuries, people realized it was relatively easy to breed different types of tomatoes. Similar to many other “natural” fruits, vegetables, and animals the tomato is more a creature of people than nature.

While tomatoes finally caught on in popularity around the US and Europe they were still a hassle to harvest. Unlike wheat and corn, harvesting tomatoes is significantly more difficult. Furthermore, they are irregularly shaped and fragile. However, thanks to better breeds, they’d become tasty and profitable. Most tomatoes are crushed tomatoes and used to make ketchup and canned tomato sauces.

Automatic Tomato Picker

Food scientists Jack Hanna and engineer Colby Lorenzen, from the University of California at Davis, started work on an automatic tomato picking machine in 1949. Eventually, more than a decade later, they developed a device. Their picker worked but it was enormous, expensive, and (most importantly) destroyed an inordinate amount of the fruit.

In response, Hanna set out to breed a “square” tomato, a plant with a tough skin and uniform shape. Tomato skin is discarded at canning factories. Therefore, the tough skin made the machines more viable while not hurting the ultimate product.

Eventually, in 1961, Hanna developed tomato VF-145. Its tough skin, hard fruit, and uniform shape made it the perfect match for his $200,000 ($1.7 million adjusted to 2019) tomato picking machine. In 1963 about 60 machines harvested one percent of California’s tomato crop. The price of tomatoes rapidly declined, forcing farmers to purchase a picker or exit the business. By 1968, 1,450 machines picked about 95 percent of tomatoes.

Farms & Crop Yields Grow

To maximize returns, the large machines demanded ever-larger crops and tomato acreage quickly grew. California produced 1.3 million tons of tomatoes in 1954. By 1975, the state produced 7 million tons. By 1977, industrial tomatoes in California was a $500 million crop ($2.1 billion adjusted to 2019).

While prices fell not everybody was happy about the new technology. Small growers could not compete and quit the business. Tomato pickers – largely migrant workers – held strikes and sued. Despite the strikes and lawsuits, tomato harvesters are more efficient than ever and migrant agricultural workers can still find work.
Modern Tomato Harvesting Machine

Modern Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s)

People have been genetically modifying plants and animals for eternity. Virtually every plant we eat is the result of genetic modification via selective breeding. Tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and countless others only exist due to genetic modifications. Furthermore, cows, pigs, chickens and arguably even all modern breeds of dogs are the result of genetic modification.

Modern genetic modification consists of using science to modify the genetic structure of a plant or animal rather than selective breeding. It involves selectively adding, removing, or modifying specific genetic traits.

Modern GMO crops resist weeds, pests, and drought or are immune from pesticides or herbicides. They increase farmer productivity, enabling larger and more efficient farms. GMO foods may last longer before spoiling or resist bruising. GMO’s are simpler and more convenient than traditional methods for weed and pest control. However, critics contend the modifications carry undiscovered risks.

Aranda Chakrabarty discovered modern GMO techniques while working for GE Research. He manipulated the genes of a bacteria so it broke down oil.

Patent protection was initially denied because living things couldn’t be patented. However, in a landmark 1980 case, Diamond v. Chakrabarty, the US Supreme Court decided that modern GMO’s are eligible for patent protection. This ruling created a gold rush.

Subsequently, Genentech developed better insulin in 1982 and companies have engineered pest and herbicide-resistant crops.

High-Yield Rice (IR8)

Asia was on the edge of an epic famine large enough to cause widespread death and civil unrest. Both the Ford and Rockefeller Foundation responded by founding and funding a thinktank to create higher-yield rice, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Straightaway, they sent a team of mainly American scientists to research if anything could be done.

Genetic manipulation of plants and animals is ancient. For ages, humans have cross-bred different plants and animals to create entirely new versions. Broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, kale, bananas, and a myriad of other vegetables and fruits are the result of selective cross-breeding. Furthermore, cows, chickens, sheep, horses, and dogs are for the most part also human creations.

More recent genetic manipulation involves directly changing genetic material. However, these techniques did not exist at the time scientists worked on this problem.

Eventually, IRRI scientists cross-bred over 10,000 varieties of rice and, eventually, found one that yielded 8-10 times the output of any individual rice strain. Specifically, their rice crossed a high-yield short strain from Indonesia with a low-yield tall strain from China. Unquestionably, the resulting rice averted a dire famine and fed countless hungry mouths.

To this day, IR8 rice continues to sell though newer strains produce even higher-yield and specialty rice. In 2019, IR8 and similar rice feeds approximately 700 million people daily.

Fast Food

McDonald’s primary innovation is that food should be ready instantly. No sooner does a customer order than food appears. Individual restaurant orders, individually prepared was the norm for non-buffet restaurants before McDonald’s.

In 1937, the McDonald brothers created their iconic restaurant and built several stores.

Eventually, Ray Kroc was a 52-year-old milkshake machine salesman who noticed the large volume of milkshake machines the brothers purchased. Later, he inquired and learned more about their hamburger factory.

Earlier, Kroc visited many kitchens due to his background selling milkshake machines and the McDonald’s clean stores impressed him. Dirt and disorganization defined most burger restaurants from that era. McDonald’s was different.

In 1955, Kroc convinced the brothers to license him the right to open McDonald’s restaurants in Chicago. Finally, six years after purchasing a franchise, in 1961, Kroc bought out the brothers for $2.7 million. This left each McDonald brother $1 million after taxes, achieving their lifelong goal. The lowest cost to open a single McDonald’s restaurant is about $1 million.

Microwave Oven

Percy Spencer is a self-taught engineer who did not finish even primary school. He self-taught himself math, science, and electrical engineering while standing guard on ships in the Navy.

Before, during, and after WWII, Spencer worked on top-secret magnetrons, the high-powered electrical devices at the heart of a RADAR system. One day he noticed that a candy bar in his back pocket melted. He theorized rays from the magnetron somehow cooked it.

Experimenting, he put popcorn next to the microwave emitter and found that it popped. Repeating, the first purposeful use of microwave energy for cooking was to cook popcorn.

Eventually, Raytheon commercialized his invention as the microwave oven. They branded it the “RadaRange.” However, the ovens were enormous, expensive, and required an enormous amount of electricity. Ovens took about 20 minutes to heat up though then operated at high power and could cook a potato in 30-seconds.

Notwithstanding the failure of Raytheon to commercialize their oven, others shrunk it in size, power, and cost. Eventually, the microwave oven became a staple in kitchens worldwide.

“The microwave oven eventually became known as Raytheon’s largest commercial failure, and the reason why was that like so many other failures, they saw the cool technology but they didn’t understand the market.”

Percy Spencer

Refrigerated Trucks


Frederick Jones

Refrigerated trucks, invented by Frederick Jones, enable modern commerce. Jones is somewhat of an innowiki aberration in that he 1) invented something useful with enormous impact, 2) successfully commercialized it, 3) managed to keep the business and build it out, and 4) was a minority.

We’d like to have a long list of innovators with these attributes but it just doesn’t happen all that often. Two-thirds don’t even make money from their own work, much less do it while working under the stress of racism in the United States in the 1940s.

Jones was a self-taught engineer. African Americans could theoretically enter engineering schools during this time but, as MIT delicately puts it: “only a few students of color were able to take advantage of educational opportunities.”

Jones was bi-racial and, depending on the history either abandoned by his parents. Whichever the case, he was raised by a priest in Cincinnati starting at age seven. Sent to work as a janitor at age 11, his mechanical aptitude landed him a job as in auto repair by age 14. Eventually, in 1912, he moved to Minnesota to work as a mechanic on an enormous farm.

Despite segregation and over racism his engineering skills shined in WWI where he learned more advanced mechanical devices. During the interwar period, Jones invented refrigerated trucking.

In WWII, his trucks were especially useful for transporting blood and his company, US Thermal Control Company (later renamed Thermo-King), grew much larger. After the war, they eventually became ubiquitous in the grocery industry.

Despite his work was useful in both wartime and civilian infrastructure, enabling the modern grocery store, there was little recognition beyond commercial success during his lifetime. He died in 1961. Thirty years later, in 1991, President Bush Sr. posthumously awarded Jones the National Medical of Technology.

Eventually, in 1997, Ingersoll Rand acquired Jones’ Thermo-King for $2.56B in cash, where it remains today as a functioning company.

Frozen Food

Father of frozen food Clarence “Bob” “Bugs” Birdseye was first and foremost a naturalist. Birdseye collected countless insects, opened a taxidermy service in his teens, and worked at the United States Agriculture Department through his early years.

While working with the Inuit in Canada he learned that fish in -40C weather would almost instantly freeze but could be thawed later and retain their freshness. Frozen fish existed before Birdseye but suffered from low quality.

In 1922 he created Birdseye Seafoods to flash-freeze fish. Due to poor marketing, the company quickly went bankrupt in 1924.

Birdseye pivoted from a consumer products company to an equipment manufacturer, selling flash freeze equipment. In 1929, he sold his company to Goldman Sachs and the Potsum Company for $22 million.

He continued working with the business and which eventually became the Birdseye Frozen Food Company, that to this day remains a market leader.

Birdseye died in 1956; he was cremated rather than flash-frozen.