The Museum of Innovation: The Story of Harry Ferguson

In keeping with the International Museum Day 2021 theme - The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine – we invite you to peek behind the scenes into an upcoming exhibition at the Ulster Transport Museum, the Museum of Innovation, which honours the local people who reimagined the world of transport and technology and propelled society into the future.

The Museum of Innovation will allow us to tell tales of Irish and Northern Irish ingenuity and invention and show how these innovations are relevant to the engineers and scientists of the future. These individuals pushed the boundaries of what was thought achievable in pursuit of their dreams. Their machines had a global impact in their respective fields inspiring generations of future scientists and engineers in the process.

One important story in the exhibition is that of Henry "Harry" Ferguson, a Northern Irish mechanic and inventor best known for developing the three-point linkage system for the modern tractor, which revolutionised agriculture globally, as well as being the first person in Ireland to build and fly his own aeroplane.

Timeline: The Rise of Harry Ferguson  

Image: Outside J. B. Ferguson and Company. Little Donegal Street. c1906. HOYFM.L1976.3
Outside J. B. Ferguson and Company. Little Donegal Street. c1906. HOYFM.L1976.3

1902

Harry began working with his elder brother, Joe in his bicycle and car repair shop, Hamilton and Ferguson, later named J.B. Ferguson and Co. The brothers had a reputation for accuracy and quality and used the latest equipment. It was while working as a mechanic that Harry developed an interest in aviation, visiting air shows in his spare time in the UK and Europe.

Image: Harry Ferguson in front the Mark 1D in Donard Park, Newcastle newly arrived from Magilligan, c.18th July 1910. Harry’s recovering from a slight accident at Magilligan. HOYFM.L1864.8
Harry Ferguson in front the Mark 1D in Donard Park, Newcastle newly arrived from Magilligan, c.18th July 1910. Harry’s recovering from a slight accident at Magilligan. HOYFM.L1864.8

1908

Captivated by the newly emerging human flight technology and influenced by key players in the industry, particularly the Wright brothers, the American aviation experts who made their first flight in 1903, Harry persuaded his brother that they should attempt to build a plane in their Belfast workshop. He set to work using his own research and notes from air shows that he attended.

Image: Two aircraft in garage of Spence & Johnston.After an aborted Air Race from Dublin to Belfast on Saturday, 7th September 1912 two airmen were invited by Harry Ferguson to put on a flying display at Balmoral, Belfast. They were H J Astley (Bleriot, 70hp Gnome engined aircraft) and James Valentine (Deperdussin, 50hp Gnome engine). HOYFM.ARH.63
Two aircraft in garage of Spence & Johnston.After an aborted Air Race from Dublin to Belfast on Saturday, 7th September 1912 two airmen were invited by Harry Ferguson to put on a flying display at Balmoral, Belfast. They were H J Astley (Bleriot, 70hp Gnome engined aircraft) and James Valentine (Deperdussin, 50hp Gnome engine). HOYFM.ARH.63

1909

By December 1909, Harry had built his first aircraft, the Ferguson monoplane. After a few failed attempts, Harry flew the monoplane 160 yards on 31 December, making him the first Irishman to build and fly his own aeroplane.

Image: Harry Ferguson's aeroplane at Newcastle, Co. Down, with the Mountains of Mourne in the background. BELUM.Y16778
Harry Ferguson's aeroplane at Newcastle, Co. Down, with the Mountains of Mourne in the background. BELUM.Y16778
Image: Harry flying over the sand at Newtownards. HOYFM.L1978.4
Harry flying over the sand at Newtownards. HOYFM.L1978.4

1911

Following a disagreement with his brother about future of aviation and the time he was dedicating to it, Harry and his brother went their separate ways. Harry founded his own company, The May Street Motor Company, later named Harry Ferguson Ltd., selling Star, Maxwell and Vauxhall cars and Overtime Tractors.

Image: Harry on the left supervising the assembling of his aircraft at Magilligan Point 1910. HOYFM.L1978.2
Harry on the left supervising the assembling of his aircraft at Magilligan Point 1910. HOYFM.L1978.2

1917

As a tractor salesman, Harry knew first-hand the problems associated with tractors having separate plough units. In 1917, he developed a plough that could be attached to a Model T Ford car. A year later, Harry met with Henry Ford, owner of the Ford Motor Company to persuade him to produce the plough, but Ford declined.

Image: Ferguson-Brown tractor with plough. HOYFM.L2011.3
Ferguson-Brown tractor with plough. HOYFM.L2011.3

1928

Over the following years, Ferguson and his team continued to develop the invention, creating a hydraulic draft control system which was designed for a Fordson F tractor.  Unfortunately, this was also the year that Ford ended production of the tractor. Harry set about designing his own tractor that would accommodate his new invention, a prototype dubbed the ‘Ferguson Black’ tractor.

Image: HOYFM.L1980.4
HOYFM.L1980.4

1938

In October 1938, Ferguson made the famous "handshake agreement" with Ford, the beginning of a fruitful partnership which saw Ford manufacture tractors using Ferguson’s patents, including the Ford-Ferguson 9N and the Ford-Ferguson 2N.

Image: HOYFM.L2089.5
HOYFM.L2089.5

1947

Henry Ford II, Ford's grandson, ended the handshake deal on 30 June 1947, following unsuccessful negotiations. Ferguson was left without a tractor to sell in North America and sued the Ford Motor Company in 1948 in a legal battle which lasted 4 years and cost Ferguson a great deal of stress and money. Ferguson finally accepted an out-of-case settlement of $9.25 million in 1952 and Ford agreed to stop using his patents.

Image: HOYFM.L1980.8
HOYFM.L1980.8

1953

Ferguson became involved with Massey Harris, a large agricultural equipment producer in the Canada. Massey Harris Ferguson was established in 1953, later named Massey Ferguson, as it is known today, a multi-national manufacturer of agricultural machinery.

Image: HOYFM.L1979.2
HOYFM.L1979.2

1954

Ferguson resigned as Chair of Massey-Ferguson in 1954 and spent his remaining years devoted to the development of car design. He was the first to develop a 4WD system which he employed in his racing car, the P99. This was very successful on the Formula 1 circuit notably when driven by Stirling Moss when he won the Formula 1 Oulton Park Gold Cup in 1961.

Image: HOYFM.1481.2000
HOYFM.1481.2000

1960

Harry Ferguson died on 25 October 1960 but his inventions and influence live on, having changed the face of agriculture globally forever and inspired others to pursue their dream.

Discover more stories in the Museum of Innovation at the Ulster Transport Museum.

Opening summer 2021!