Ben Gravely and His Beginning
August 3, 2016
While gardens appear to be growing in popularity once again, back in the early 1900’s they were a necessity for many families. These kitchen gardens, such as the one Ben Gravely cared for with his wife and five children, stretched the family budget. Thanks to canning during the summer months, this helped many northerners get through the long winters.
Ben Gravely wondered how he could make the garden more efficient, and that curiosity led him to invent his first plow. With a design in mind, he turned to a friend, Mr. McClellan, for help. He used his friend’s machine shop to design the engine and build the first six or seven tractors. Each weighed about 190 pounds.
Once a machine was ready, Ben Gravely would load it up in his Studebaker Touring Sedan and drive out to find a farmer who was interested in purchasing it. The original plows sold for $150, which was considered a lot of money in those days, yet Gravely had little trouble selling them. Gravely spent five years working on the patent for his original machine.
Although Gravely was a brilliant innovator, he approached his designs in a remarkably low-tech fashion. George Randolph, a friend, recalled, “Even though he was an excellent designer, he couldn’t read a blueprint. Therefore, when he wanted a specific part for his cultivator made, he would draw the part with chalk or the points of a nail on the factory floor or with a pencil on cardboard. The engineers would then make the blueprint.”
In the early days, Ben Gravely also operated his business without an assembly line. Unlike Henry Ford and his famous approach to assemble the Model T, each worker was responsible for building his own machine from start to finish. In total, employees were turning out about 100 plows per day. The challenge, employees recalled, was that Gravely was constantly trying to make the machines fail so he could figure out how to make them better. This drive to improve whenever possible was great for customers, but it meant frequent shut downs in production.