Iowa Public Television


Harold Brock - Designer of the Ford 9n

posted on May 20, 2011

Farmers are no strangers to technological innovation. Revolutionary developments like the plow, hybrid seeds and conservation tillage are just a few of the advancements dedicated to reducing labor and increasing yields while conserving precious topsoil.

More than 75 years ago, a young man began building farm machinery that -- like the plow itself - was revolutionary.

As Market to Market producer Chris Gourley discovered last fall, Harold Brock rubbed elbows with the likes of Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver and Henry Ford. And then he turned his "dreams into designs" of two iconic American tractors. Andrew Batt explains.

Harold Brock, Waterloo, Iowa: "Mr. Ford had an insatiable desire to get rid of animals and in 1939 there were still 19 million animals being used on farms. He said, we need a utility tractor that will replace the horse. That will do more things than just cultivate. When he gave me the assignment he said, well, if you can design it and we can produce a tractor that won't sell for any more than a team of animals, the harness and the ten acres of land it takes to feed the animals that would be good for the farmer because he could use then the ten acres to raise food for himself or other people. So, that was a challenge and the price was $585."

Though Harold Brock never earned high school or college degrees, he is credited with designing what many consider two of the most important tractors in the history of agriculture --the Ford 9n series and the John Deere 4020.

Brock began his career at Ford as a student, at the Henry Ford Technical School in Dearborn, Michigan. There he learned about electrical engineering, pattern making and chemistry… Invaluable skills needed in the production of a car.

Harold Brock, Waterloo, Iowa: "They said, what do you want to be. And I said, oh, I want to be an engineer, and I was fortunate because they assigned me to Mr. Ford, as my apprentice forman. At fifteen, I served Mr. Ford needs as an apprentice, to him plus his handful of skilled technicians."

Because he was Henry Ford's apprentice, Brock met some of the 20th Century's most important inventors and visionary thinkers... Including Thomas Edison… and George Washington Carver.

Harold Brock, Waterloo, Iowa: "Carver was having us eat soup and bread and that made out of soybeans and also Carver was… Wanted Ford to on a…green fiber diet and he'd go out and pick up plant life and bring it in. We'd have grass sandwiches for lunch and he said there's no such ting as a weed. It's just a plant in the wrong place. And so Carver was an excellent person to work with."

In addition to mechanical and metallurgical research, thought and study in the field of chemistry have for years been devoted to the development of new uses for farm products. Until today, the American farmer helps to build motorcars just as the motorcar manufacturer helps to make farming more efficient and convenient. They help each other and that helps the country. One of the most interesting of these harvests because it show the trend, is soybeans. For every million cars produced 600,000 bushels are used annually for the manufacturing of enamels and plastics, electrical parts and similar parts.

Known best as the inventor of the modern assembly line, Henry Ford was also a pioneer in the development of soybeans and soy-foods. The suit he's wearing in this picture taken in 1941, is a blend of 25% soybean fibers and 75% wool. It was Ford's intention that he would someday grow rather than mine an automobile. So, when Ford put Brock in charge of tractor engineering at the age of 25, one of his tasks was to replace the tractors metal seat, with something more organic.

Harold Brock, Waterloo, Iowa: "The steel seat on the little ford tractor was designed maybe 150 years ago and it cost 38 cents to produce and – and Mr. Ford said to me well, why don't you make it our of soybeans. It will be more comfortable for the winter and summer for heat and cold. And, of course you never said you wouldn't do it. So, I did and he asked me well, "How much does it cost?" And I'd have to say $2.50 and he said, "Well, we will keep working on trying to get the cost down." Well, then I had to tell him that the rodents were eating the seat right out from underneath the farmers because they liked the soybeans. So that killed that."

Other endeavors, however, were successful. In 1938, as head of tractor engineering, Brock was put in charge of the development of the Ford 9n tractor. The tractor was a collaboration between Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson. It was a deal sealed with a hand shake with Brock caught in the middle.

Harold Brock, Waterloo, Iowa: "Mr. Ford was there as a chief engineer and Ferguson was there also as a chief engineer and then I had a man who was in charge of all car engineering was there and all of those people met with me almost daily on how to design the tractor. I was following their advice because they never got together as a group so I had a little problem with pleasing them all, that I was following their advice."

The tractor incorporated the Ferguson hitch, an inovation designed to prevent the tractor from flipping over and killing the operator if the plow got hung up on a rock. Brock managed to have the tractor in production in just six months.

When the U.S. entered World War II, instead of designing tractors Brock found himself designing Sherman tanks and Ford Jeeps. However once the fighting ended Brock began working on the iconic Ford 8n, an all-purpose tractor that would be widely used on farms and construction sites. Between 1947 and 1952 Ford sold over 500,000 8ns.

Harold Brock, Waterloo, Iowa: "There was a big pent up demand for tractors after the war so that little tractor, the 8n red and gray tractor. We produced 100,000 a year which was 25% of the tractor market, with one tractor.

Brock left Ford to work for John Deere in 1959. A disagreement over a poorly designed transmission that was failing stress tests, was the cause of his departure.

Harold Brock, Waterloo, Iowa: I was holding it up, wouldn't approve it and finally they came to me and said, we want to put it in production and I said, well, you better get yourself a new chief engineer and they did. When I went to Deere a new generation of tractors, they said well Ford is going to come out with a power shift transmission and we won't have one on our tractor. I said, well don't worry about it, it won't work and so I said, we'll design a power shift transmission that really works."

Brock became Deere's first world-wide director of engineering and while he was in charge, Deere overtook International Harvester as the industry leader. While working for Deere he helped found the Hawkeye Institute of Technical Learning, borrowing 500 dollars to help start the college in Waterloo, Iowa. In 2008 a new Student Center was built and named in his honor. And in 2010, the man who never earned a degree, received an honorary doctor of science degree from Iowa State University, for his contributions… both to agriculture and education.

Harold Brock, Waterloo, Iowa: I think you need education. Yeah, I'm all for education because you would never have the opportunities that I had you see?

Harold Brock passed away in early January of 2011 at the age of 96. While the Man is gone, his contributions to agriculture will be with us for quite some time.

Harold Brock, Waterloo, Iowa: "I'm just happy to give credit to all my people in both ag and automotive group that helped me accomplish what I accomplished. It didn't come by me alone."


Tags: agriculture design engineering history machines news tractors