The Robbins Potato Planter

 [From the Allentown Messenger dated January 1, 1931] Under the heading of “Odd Bits of Agricultural History,” which Carl R. Woodward, of Rutgers University, has been contributing for many months to the State College of Agriculture publication “New Jersey Agriculture,” Doctor Woodward, in the December, 1930, issue has for his thirty-third installment “Josiah Robbins and His Potato Planter.” He has very kindly loaned us the illustrations published herewith and given us permission to use the article.


Mr. Robbins, who has spent his lifetime in and around Allentown, at one time taught school, but has always been interested in plants and flowers and growing crops. He performed a great service when he invented his famous potato planter, and it is refreshing to know that he reaped a substantial reward for his invention.


As intimated by Doctor Woodward, Mr. Robbins is a man whom Allentown is proud to honor, and his story of the invention is told in the following very interesting manner:


The fertile soils of New Jersey’s central counties have acquired a well merited reputation for the vast quantities of potatoes they have produced. Moreover, this region has yielded its share of inventive genius, which, quite naturally, has been fruitfully applied to the problems of potato culture. Improved potato growing machinery has been one of the results, of which there is no better example than the potato planter invented by Josiah S. Robbins.


To many of us farm lads this machine was more than an assembly of boards, wheels, bolts and castings. It was a co-worker and friend, for it brought relief from monotony nad drudgery. Doubtless I am not alone in the memory, as a small boy, of lugging a basket of potato seed up and down an open furrow of interminable length, bending an aching-back as I dropped the seed, piece by piece, that must be spaced just so. But when father purchased a Robbins planter – ah, that was luxury. As I mounted the rear seat to attend to the planting, while my brother sat up front driving the steady farm team – why! No liveried coachman and footman got a greater thrill from a parade on Fifth Avenue! Mile after mile we rode, over acre after acre of Monmouth soil – trying for a 100 per cent record in each field, (not a miss of a single seed-piece) which we usually almost made, but not quite. And we finished the day’s work as full of enthusiasm as we began it.


It may be appreciated, then, that I hoped some day to meet the man who had created this machine. When opportunity came some months ago I made it my business to look him up. I found him, a delightful gentleman, fresh and vigorous in spite of his 88 years, at his home at Allentown, New Jersey. In his modest, engaging way, he told me the story of his invention. As nearly as I recall it, I give it below in his own words:


“The old-fashioned method of planting potatoes, of course, was by hand. It was slow back-breaking work. One of the first potato planters was the Aspinwall. It was operated by one man and the planting device was mechanical, but on account of the variation in the size of the potato seed pieces its work was not accurate. Sometimes it planted one piece in a hill, sometime two pieces, and sometimes none at all. In the late eighties I conceived the idea of a planter which would give which would give more exact results. I used as a basis a Bemis plant setter. By making certain changes in this machine I perfected my first potato planter. It required two men, the driver who rode in front and the operator who rode on a seat in rear. The latter dropped the seed pieces into a spout that led to the furrow where they were covered. The spacing was regulated by a recurring sound made by the machine, originally provided as a guide for the setting of plants. This was not very satisfactory to me, but it seemed to satisfy the farmers of that day.


“I exhibited this machine at the Trenton Fair and demonstrated how it worked. I had it jacked up and had someone turn the wheel while I set up on the seat and ‘planted potatoes.’ It attracted a great deal of favorable attention. Among those who saw the machine was a Mr. Thorne who at once recognized its commercial possibilities and offered to undertake to place it on the market. I made a contract with him and he in turn contracted with the Bateman Manufacturing Company, of Grenloch, New Jersey, to manufacture this machine. I was to receive a royalty of $3 for each planter sold. Meanwhile, I had the machine patented in 1892.


“The planter worked none too successfully at first and at the end of the year Mr. Thorne sold out his interest to the Bateman Company who handled it thereafter. The first year 200 machines were manufactured and it took two or three years to sell them all.


“I soon found out that to feed all the seed pieces by hand was too big a job. It took an expert to keep up with a fast walking team of horses. I then hit upon the idea of a mechanical feed to be assisted by hand operation. So I devised a notched wheel which carried the seed from the feed hopper and dropped it between the spokes of the horizontal wheel that revolved upon the table. This attachment was patented in 1895. It worked very well in New Jersey, but when the improved machines were sent to Long Island we quickly got a report back that the farmers preferred the old type. I went to Long Island to see what was the trouble and found that it was due to the fact that the growers used much smaller seed pieces than the farmers in Jersey. Consequently, the seed fed out to rapidly. I at once saw that the this difficulty could be remedied by using a feed wheel with smaller notches, and I came back and cut out such a wheel in wood. I put it on and it worked perfectly. Subsequently we developed several feed wheels with notches of different sizes.


“Mr. Bateman at first was skeptical of this improvement, but I got five or six of his best customers to come to Allentown for a trial of the improved machine and they unanimously endorsed it.


“The Robbins planter became very popular. As many a 2,500 a year were manufactured while I retained an interest in it, and later a still larger number. It found a large market in New Jersey and on Long Island. It was also used in New York and on then Eastern Shore of Virginia, and some machines were sold in the West. At the expiration of my contract, the Bateman Company purchased the patent rights and changed the name to ‘Iron Age.’ They wanted to change it before this but as long as I had an interest in it, I insisted that the name ‘Robbins’ should stand.


“In recent years, of course, the planter has been largely displaced by other types. It could not compete with the one-man planters, in the face of the rising cost and growing scarcity of farm labor. Without appearing boastful, however, I still believe it is the best planter ever placed on the market. No planter has yet been devised that does such accurate work. Since the reorganization of the Bateman Manufacturing Company some years ago,the machine has been manufactured by the Fred Bateman Co., Philadelphia.