The late eighteenth through early twentieth centuries was a period of enormous and rapid technological change. The Industrial Revolution—which emerged first in England and then spread to continental Europe and North America—ushered in a fundamental transformation in the way that products were made. The use of coal for fuel, the application of steam power to machinery, and the centralization of production in factories combined to dramatically increase the manufacturing of goods in Europe and the United States. These new technologies also resulted in a transportation revolution, with the development of railways and steamships that allowed people to cross continents and oceans in record time.
While the Industrial Revolution was focused primarily on manufacturing and transportation, tremendous advances were also made in agricultural technology in the first half of the nineteenth century. The United States led the way in agricultural innovation—not surprising, given the huge wave of settlement moving westward beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Inventors such as John Deere and Cyrus McCormick developed iron plows, mechanical reapers and other machinery that greatly improved agricultural productivity. These inventions spread westward with American settlement and eventually diffused into Canada, first to present-day Ontario and then to the Prairie West. Prairie farmers in turn made their own refinements to agricultural technology. Arguably the most important of these contributions was made by Alberta farmer and entrepreneur Charles Noble. In 1936, he developed the Noble Blade, a V-shaped plough blade that permitted weeding but kept a “trash cover” of vegetation on top of the soil.
This “trash cover” of vegetation was crucial to the success of dryland farming, as it protected the soil from damaging erosion. The Noble Blade was a great success, and one of the buildings where it was first manufactured is now a Provincial Historic Resource.
The development of steam- and gasoline-powered farm machinery in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries coincided with the rapid agricultural settlement of western Canada, greatly assisting the pioneer farmers of the Prairie West in the back-breaking task of breaking the soil and raising their crops.
These enormous advances in technology allowed for unprecedented productivity in agriculture, particularly in Europe and North America. At the same time, however, steam- and gasoline-powered machinery did not immediately displace the sources of power that had been most important in farming for centuries—human and animal energy. These new machines supplemented and complimented, but did not completely replace, the importance of animal and human muscle in agriculture. Even after the development of the internal combustion engine and the invention of the gasoline-powered tractor, animals remained central to farm work in most countries well into the twentieth century. Similarly, while railroads and steamships allowed for unprecedented ease of travel, transportation in often isolated rural areas continued to depend largely on animal power until after the Second World War. Given Alberta’s predominantly rural population and agricultural economy, then, it is perhaps not surprising that animal power played an important role in the province’s development in the first half of the twentieth century.