John Appleby Biography (1840-1917)


John Appleby was a clever inventor who, with patience and perseverance, turned an idea he conceived as a young man into a profitable business later in life. He was born in 1840 in Westmoreland, New York, the son of English immigrants. In 1845 his family moved to Walworth County, Wisconsin, where they established a farm homestead. It was in this frontier environment that Appleby, asa boy, had to rely upon his inventiveness to make his own toys. After his father's death in 1849, he shared the responsibility of supporting his family byworking on neighbors' farms as well as on their own. In doing so, he showeda great acumen for repairing farm tools and equipment.

When he was only fifteen, Appleby witnessed a demonstration of a recently invented grain-cutting machine. He immediately saw a major shortcoming in its function. It could mechanically cut grain, but the binding operation--tying thegrain into bundles--still required slow, backbreaking manual labor. He suggested that a device was needed to mechanically tie knots and automatically bind the grain. Those attending the demonstration scoffed at him as much for hisidea as for his age.

Appleby knew that such a device could be created. In 1859, before he was nineteen, the concept for such a knot-tying device struck him while he was working in the field. So vivid was his mental picture of it that he stopped his chores, got out his penknife, and fashioned a model of the hooked device from apiece of apple wood.

He was aware that he needed capital to convert his idea into a working model.To go around simply showing his idea to people could lead to its falling into the hands of dishonest entrepreneurs, so he put his wood carving in the attic, where it remained for many years. In the intervening time, many other newfarm machines were invented, yet no one was able to invent a workable twinebinder.

During the Civil War, while serving in the Union Army trenches at Vicksburg,Mississippi, Appleby invented a magazine and automatic ammunition feeder forrifles. In 1864, he sold this invention for $500; it was resold for $7,000, but Appleby still made enough money to launch his farm machine venture.

During the 1870s, machines were being introduced that bound grain with wire.However, small bits of wire fell into the sheaves of grain, causing animals to die from eating it and farm machinery to break down when wire became caughtin their mechanisms. Appleby knew that twine was the answer. He organized the Appleby Reaper Works in 1874 at Mazomanie, Wisconsin. After persistent experimenting, he patented the Appleby Knotter in 1878 and a binder in 1879.

In 1881, Appleby sold his invention to Cyrus McCormick for $35,000. Twine binders completely replaced wire binders by 1882, and twine binders using Appleby's principle continue to be used on 90 percent of the grain harvested today.

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I had read in one of my farm history books of this man Appleby that he had seen a bird with a piece of string and as it grabed the string with it bill, he observed that this could make what was needed for a knotter, hence the name "bill hook" for that part of the knotter.

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