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History of Gallic Reaper
Petr Chuksin

January 23, 2006
When and why did the first combine in the human history appear? What is the invention history?

What will the new generation grain-harvesting combine look like? I worked on the prognosis, constructed structural, functional, parametric, and historical models. And, while studying the combine history, I came, quite unexpectedly, across a very interesting fact. It seems there existed a grain-harvesting combine in the first century of our era. It was called the “Gallic reaper” and was used to strip standing crops. Later, that technology passed into oblivion for many centuries. It came alive again only several centuries ago.

When and why did the first combine in the human history appear? What is the invention history? Why did the Gallic reaper die to be revived again? Is it a particular case or a certain law of technical system evolution?
Why do some machines and mechanisms pass into oblivion while other ones live and become more complicated, living for centuries? What deeper causes lead to changes in machines and technologies? There is still no general answer to these questions. I hope the Gallic reaper history will help solve the mystery of the life, death and new birth of technical systems. I've started investigation…

The Backbone of the Problem
Bread and grain are the strategic resources of any state. From the very first steps of agriculture and grain cultivation, harvesting was the most intense operation of the entire agricultural cycle. Delay means loss of part of the crop, which in its turn means starvation… The main obstacle to increasing the harvesting rate was low power ability per worker. It was impossible to considerably increase labor productivity by using human muscles only. It was just the inventor of the Gallic reaper who was the first to think of using draft cattle for harvesting.

What was the Gallic reaper like? It was a two-wheeled cart with a donkey or bull yoked to its draw bar frame. An animal pushed the cart in front of it. The cart was shaped into a basket for collecting torn heads. A row of tapered teeth was mounted in the front portion of the basket at the height slightly below the top of standing crop (see Fig.1).

Fig. 1 The Gallic reaper design.


The reaper was operated by two men one of them drove animals and guided the aggregate while the other one knocked down heads from the teeth into a trough and leveled the layer of torn heads with a special oar or stick having a cross-bar.
The Gallic reaper employed one more invention. Instead of one bunch grasped with a hand or cut with a sickle, there appeared numerous bunches which were formed by the tapered tops of the teeth and cut by their sharp edges.
As the cart moved, the tapered tops of the teeth (by the way, they were similar to the Gallic sword) moved apart standing crops and formed bunches. Then stalks entered the slots between two sharpened edges of the teeth and were cut by them. The slot between the teeth was larger than the straw diameter but smaller than the cross diameter of a head; therefore, the head did not go through the slot and was cut or torn away from the stalk.

The earliest extant description of the Gallic reaper belongs to Pliny the Elder (see Fig.2). He knew of the reaper (he called it “vallus”) not by mere report. For several years, Pliny the Elder was in command of cavalry in Gaul. “A donkey driven from behind pushes large two-wheeled frames, provided with teeth at the edge, across extensive territories of the Roman province of Gaul; torn heads fall into the frame.”

Fig. 2. The Gallic stripping reaper.


The stripping reaper is depicted on bas-reliefs (see Fig. 3) found in Busenol and Arlon (at present, they are in the museum of Arlon, Belgium)

Fig. 3. The bas-relief and the reaper image.


The epoch history
By the first century of our era, that is, by the moment of inventing the Gallic reaper, work on the land was considered as an honorary occupation in the Roman Empire. Books and tractates were written about farming, stock-raising, and proper way of farm management. That was the time of accumulating and transferring knowledge on soil cultivation and fertilization, crossing and selection of the best sorts of plants, as well as on animal and poultry breeding. Agriculture was making rapid strides.

During the rise of the Roman Empire, agriculture was particularly impressive. Many inventions, agricultural tools and technologies which were made and developed at that time lived till the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. At that time, agricultural tools such as widely used spades, pickers, forks, scrapers, picks, sickles, and scythes were made of iron. Iron ploughs improved soil cultivation. Crops considerably increased. It was necessary to harvest them in time.

Why did the Gallic reaper invented at that time only live till the forth century of our era and then disappear from historical records? Why was not it widely used? Why was it forgotten? It could have changed the agriculture of Europe, the entire process of the European civilization evolution. Why ever didn't it happen? I continued my investigation which was similar to a detective story…

On the eve of the first century of our era, Gaul was a vast territory inhabited by numerous scattered Celtic tribes the Aquitani, Arverni, Gauls, Sequani, Belgae, etc. The tribes had different social orders starting from the primitive communal system to the slave-owning system. The best-organized and most cultured tribes were the Gauls who had well-developed agriculture and animal husbandry. Political, economic and military centers of the tribes were towns where trade and craftwork were successfully developing. The tribes were constantly at war with each other fighting for fields and pastures. The Roman Empire controlled only the Mediterranean part of Gaul.

Now, in the first century of our era, during the rise of the Roman Empire, the first reaper appears in Gaul. Why was the first grain-harvesting machine invented in Gaul, in the outlying provinces of the Empire, whereas the centers of civilization at that time were Rome and decayed Ancient Greece which, nevertheless, concentrated outstanding scholars and engineers of those days.

To answer these questions, I have compiled the chronology of political and economic events of that historical period of Europe.

Epoch chronology
58 B.C. - Gaius Julius Caesar is appointed legate of Cisalpane and Narbonne Gaul and empowered to form legions and wage wars. Caesar increases the army in Gaul to 10 legions by drawing Celtic tribes to his side. Celts (Gauls) were famous for their belligerency and courage and the Celtic sword was famous for its high quality.

58 51 B.C. - During the Gallic Campaigns, Caesar conquers the entire Tramontane Gaul and annexes considerable territories to the Empire. This is facilitated by intertribal dissent of Celts as well as by the fact that Caesar acts as Celts' ally against northern and eastern Germanic tribes.

49 44 B.C. - After becoming Rome's dictator, Caesar introduces a number of reforms which are very important for the provinces.
· gives Roman and Latin citizenship to residents of provinces;
· gives land, including land in Gaul, to his veterans;
· establishes control over the collection of taxes.

27 B.C. 14 A.D. Emperor Octavian Augustus, the adopted son of Caesar, consolidates the reforms. To provide population with food and promote trade, he orders to reduce price for bread.

16 B.C. - Augustus orders to divide Gaul into 4 provinces Narbonne Gaul, Lugdunum Gaul, Aquitaine and Belgica. Augustus reduces the army and gives large quantities of land in Gaul to retired legionaries.

I-II centuries A.D. Emergence of new and growth of existing towns trade centers of Gaul. The population of big Gallic towns Lugdunum (today's Lyon), Arelate (Arles), Burdigala (Bordeaux), etc. grows. Alongside the towns there exists a relatively thinly peopled Gallic periphery with fertile lands and good natural and climatic conditions.

41 54 A.D. - During the rule of Emperor Claudius, the population of Rome reaches 1 million. The total population of the Roman Empire also grows, as well as that of other cities in the center of the Empire Italy.

77 - The first extant description of the Gallic reaper is found in the 37-volume encyclopedia of natural sciences by Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus was the Roman writer, scientist and statesman). Naturally, he saw the reaper earlier. The chances are that the invention was made in the first half of the first century.

69 96 - During the rule of the Flavian dynasty, there arises a conflict between the imperial authorities and senators, wealthy slave-holders. Problems relating to the rule of provinces cause rebellions in provinces. The rebellions are headed by representatives of local nobility (in Britain (year 61), Judaeu (66-73), Gaul (68), etc.).

96 192 - The emperors of the Antonine dynasty overcome the crisis of power. The Antonines, most of whom themselves are from provinces carry out an active campaign of granting Roman citizenship and attracting representatives of provinces to the senate. Under their rule, about 60 percent of senators were from provinces, and higher magistrates, military leaders and legates were appointed from among senators. Merging of the Roman power with provinces ceases rebellions in the provinces. During the rule of Marcus Ulpius Trajanus, the Roman Empire extends its borders to the utmost. The transformation of the Roman Empire into a superstate is promoted by the active development of exchange relations, foreign trade and commodity-and-money relations. During this period, the population of the Roman Empire grows steadily because agriculture provides people with generous fare.

193 284 - “The third century crisis” which started under the rule of the Severan dynasty shows itself in all spheres of social life economy, politics, and religion. The relations between emperors and the senate are escalated. Unreasonable growth of taxes ruins villas. Lands pass to great landowners who divide them into small plots and lease them out to coloni (tenant farmers).
Colonate which existed earlier becomes especially popular in these years. This period is characterized by rebellions of slaves, peasants and troops, capture of provinces by legates, decay of agriculture, handicrafts and trade, inflation. Germanic tribes, the Sarmatians devastate the Roman borderlands. Agricultural production does not keep up with the growth of population.

258 273 - The pressure of the Germanic tribes and crisis of the Roman Empire cause Gaul, Britain and Spain to split off from the Roman Empire for a short time.

273 - Emperor Aurelian reunites Gaul with the Empire.

284 305 - To reduce tension in society, Emperor Diocletian changes taxation. He introduces a direct land and head tax in kind. This reflects crises, decline and naturalization of the economy. Under Diocletian, part of Gaul Aquitaine, the province between the river Loire and Pyrenees is divided into three provinces.

283 285 An anti-Roman rebellion of the Bagaudes takes place in Gaul between the Seine and Loire. The crisis of economy, society and state disturbs the established agricultural relations in the provinces. Most participants of the rebellion are peasants whose farms were ruined, as well as craftsmen, bonded coloni, and fugitive slaves. The Bagaudes form detachments which include infantry recruited from among farmers and cavalry recruited from among cattlemen, and attack villas of great landowners and towns lacking strong defense.

IV century - The second extant description of the Gallic reaper is found in the works on agriculture by Palladius (Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus). He describes an ox as a draught animal. The reaper which had existed for two centuries by that time had a higher “power ability per worker”.

IV-VII centuries Great migration of peoples. The Huns, nomadic people from the Central Asia together with the conquered Alanii defeat the Goths and occupy the lands on the north coast of the Black Sea. From the territory of the modern Hungary, they spread their rule to the peoples living to the north of the Danube as well as to the tribes inhabiting the territory spreading from the Rhine to the Ukraine. During the fifth century, Germanic tribes were dispersing over the entire territory of the Western Roman Empire.

451 The Huns headed by Attila invade Gaul.

451 - In the second half of June, the united troops under command of Aetius defeat the Huns at the battle on the Catalaunian Fields (the north-east of France). The united troops include Roman legions and temporary allies the Visigoths, Burgundians, Franks, etc. Over 130 thousand people were killed during this battle. The battle ceases the Huns' advance to Western Europe.

455 - Rome is ravaged by the Vandals headed by the Germanic king Geyzerih.

476 Odoacer, the head of the Germanic hired troops deposes the last Roman emperor Romulus Augustulus. This event is considered to be the end of the Western Roman Empire.

486 507 - As a result of multiyear wars, the Frankish king Clovis conquers the remaining Roman lands in Gaul.

I think that analyzing the economic and political development of the Roman Empire and Gaul gave me the key to the enigma. Two crucial moments played the most important role in the invention and oblivion of the Gallic reaper.

History of invention
The key moment was merging of Gaul into the Roman Empire, development of agriculture and specialization of the province in grain production. I think that the Gallic reaper appeared at the end of the old or the beginning of the new ear. During the Gallic wars waged by Caesar, the reaper did not exist otherwise information about it would have appeared in the works of Caesar or Varro who knew Gaul very well, or in the works of other writers of the epoch. The grain-harvesting technology was too extraordinary, too fantastic for that time not to be noticed and mentioned in historical sources.

I think that the inventor of the stripping reaper was a retired Roman legionary. Caesar's fellow-fighters who became veterans by the beginning of the first century received large quantities of lands from him and his adopted son Augustus and took up farming. Due to the diffusion of Roman knowledge and technologies, three-course rotations invented in Greece and used in Italy became wide-spread in Gaul. The three-course rotation in agriculture considerably increased grain production on the same areas and reduced labor input. However, there occurred a problem of harvesting great amounts of grain within the same period of time allotted by nature. It is more likely that the Gallic reaper was invented exactly at one of such villas. There, they had what great Gaul landowners and, of course, peasants did not have Roman citizenship and protection provided by the power, as well as money, knowledge, free time and resources for development, manufacture and testing of the reaper. It conveys the suggestion that the sharp wedged stripping teeth of the reaper are the imitation of gallic swords. The swords seem to have been used as working components during the manufacture of the first author's prototype.

Using the reaping machine sharply increased labor productivity during harvesting. The reaper harvested a fairly wide strip of crops per pass. The harvested plants were heads only, which considerably reduced the thrashing cost. The reaper did not only tear heads away but also transported them to the edge of a field.

Provincial, conquered peoples had to supply bread to maintain the center and the army. But in Gaul, this process was realized by means of trade and not by expropriation. Many Roman citizens such as legionaries lived there. Agriculture yielded minor profits. Bread was sold to tax-farmers at a lower price than it really cost. Those measures were supported and subsidized by the Roman government. For agriculture to gain profit, it was necessary to minimize costs to produce grain in large quantities, to use not free labor but practically unpaid work of slaves. Only under such conditions villas which used the best tools and organized work in accordance with the requirements of agricultural practices could be cost-effective.

The first and second centuries were the period of the stable growth of the Empire's economy and also the period of the economic upturn of Gaul. Absence of big wars, control over the actions of legates and their environment as well as stable and moderate taxes facilitated development of specialized agriculture, production growth of grain and other food products. The abundance of food caused growth of the Empire's population. The population of the Gallic provinces, engaged in the production of bread, as well as of large cities and villas of Gaul grows. This process and the improvement of sea and overland routes of communication, crafts and trade contributed to the spreading of the Roman way of life and culture in Gaul. Those were favorable times and conditions for the spreading of the invention. But the reaper was never widely used in the center of the Empire, in Italy. Why so? Below is my hypothesis explaining this phenomenon.

In the first century, bread was the most important element of the emperors' policy. Do you remember “Bread and circuses!” ? In Rome, 100 to 150 thousand poor men received free bread, meat and oil from the state and in other cities they received them from decurions. On festal days, additional gifts were dealt out and costly entertainments were organized.

The emperors' policy of bread cheapening caused an abrupt reduction in grain production, a “velvet crisis” in the agriculture of Italy. The thing is that fruit-growing, viniculture and cattle husbandry were traditionally more important for Italy than arable farming. Olives and especially grapes for the production of wine were preferred. The well-developed dairy and beef husbandry limited arable farming in favor of the development of pastures and fields because there was a need for hay and natural grasslands. In addition, land in Italy had been divided long before and farms were not very large. There was no deficiency of slaves for agricultural work. And the Empire's needs for food products were satisfied by grain import from provinces. Thus, Italy has no need for the Gallic reaper.

History of oblivion
And now we are going to consider the second crucial moment in the Gallic reaper history its oblivion. The cause of oblivion was the decay of agricultural production in Gaul which started during the crisis of the third century. First of all, the crisis had deep roots in the social sphere, economics and agriculture. The growth of money taxes and duties was too heavy for numerous owners of villas who gave the lion's share of stable income to the Empire. It was impossible to raise the labor productivity of slaves, because slaves did not want to work for their masters. Their struggle which manifested itself in passive opposition, thieving, breakage of tools, escapes, killing of masters, and robbery was expanding.

The cost-efficiency of villas reduced, they were ruined and sold. Lands passed to great landowners, were divided and leased out to coloni who paid natural and labor rent. Once again, the basis of rural economy became subsistence farming. The Gallic reaper was a complicated and expensive machine and coloni could not afford it. At coloni's farms, crops were harvested with sickles. Orders for the production of stripping reapers reduced, artisans were impoverished. Under inflation, commodity-and-money relations were replaced with barter, which caused degradation of commerce and reduction of taxes. Low productivity of small farms of coloni reduced food production. In the third and forth centuries, the population of the Empire began to decrease. The invasion of the Huns and Germanic tribes, unstable state and further decline of the Roman Empire caused decay of agriculture and final oblivion of the Gallic reaper.

My investigation is coming to an end… Now we can give both the reasons of the appearance of the first grain-harvesting combine in the human history the Gallic reaper and the reasons of its oblivion.


The most important factors which caused the invention of the reaper are

  • the need for high-productivity harvesting technologies caused by the growth of yields of cereals under three-course rotation;
  • due to the production specialization in the Roman Empire, Gaul became a great supplier of bread;
  • the need for increase and cheapening of grain production caused by the growth of population of the Roman Empire, Gaul;
  • deficiency of manpower. 


The Gallic reaper was not widely used in the Roman Empire because

  • large-scale commodity production of grain existed chiefly in Gaul; 
  • reapers were technically imperfect it was difficult to use them on small and uneven fields or on weedery; they worked badly at high humidity of plants; grain losses were considerable.


Still the Gallic reaper passed into oblivion not for some technical reasons but due to serious changes which took place in the Roman Empire with the passage of time.

  • Uncontrolled growth of population was at the high and it became impossible to provide all population with food;
  • deficiency of food caused tension in the hungry society; 
  • colonate and division of large grain-producing farms made the reaper unnecessary;
  • the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century of our era lead to the epoch of ceaseless wars and dark oblivion of the Gallic reaper. 


By the way, the history of the Gallic reaper was unexpectedly continued… But it is a special story, not a detective one but a bestseller the reborn grain-harvesting process using dynamized stripping teeth will undoubtedly be a great success in new conditions.

Peter Chuksin
Candidate of technical sciences, author of 50 articles and over 70 inventions, consultant in solving complicated technical problems. Participated in the development, manufacture and testing of 25 new agricultural machines. Worked as a chief researcher for the Invention Machine Laboratory (IMLab, IMCorp.) Developer of the prediction unit of the “Invention Machine”. TRIZ-expert for a number of consulting projects in Russia, Belarus, Slovakia, USA, and South Korea. Held consultations for LG Electronics, LG-Philips, LG Cable, LG corporate Institute of Technology, Hyndai Heavy Industrial, Posco, and Rotem. At present, he is a leading TRIZ specialist for INTEKO-AGRO.


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