(December 17, 1870-October 9, 1969)
Iowa State College student, mechanical engineer, draftsman-designer, superintendent, and assistant chief engineer with the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, developer of the Farmall tractor.
Bert was born at Newton, Jasper County, Iowa, a son of Jonathan E. Benjamin and Louise Maria Boydston Benjamin. He grew up on a farm about 3 ½ miles northeast of Newton, attended local schools there and the Hazel Dell Academy where he received almost perfect grades. He exhibited mechanical abilities at a very early age. At the age of twelve, he was able to work effectively with the machinery on the family farm and developed a local reputation for being able to fix any piece of farm equipment that was out of order. He then attended Iowa State College where he played on both the baseball and tennis teams. Between terms at Iowa State, he taught in country schools in Jasper County. He graduated from Iowa State in 1893 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering.
Shortly after graduation from Iowa State, Benjamin was employed by the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company (later International Harvester Company and now Navistar International Corporation) in Chicago. He began at McCormick Works as a draftsman in the experimental department. In 1901, he was promoted to chief inspector for the company, and the following year, when the International Harvester Company, was formed, he continued as chief inspector. It was during this time that he married Wilhelmina Louise Bergman on November 25, 1903. She was a younger sister of Dena Bergman Maytag, wife of Frederick L. Maytag, owner of the Maytag Company in Benjamin's home town of Newton.
Benjamin's work with McCormick brought continued promotions. In 1910, he was promoted to superintendent of the McCormick Works experimental department, and in 1922 he was promoted to assistant chief engineer in charge of development of the Farmall tractor. Benjamin had developed the idea as early as 1917 to manufacture a tractor that would operate as an all-purpose, all-crop tractor. Existing tractors were clumsy to work with, could do little more than pull plows and disks, and displaced very few draft animals. Benjamin related years later that, “I knew that we had to come up with an all-purpose tractor—one with rear wheels that could be adjusted to straddle two rows of crops, and a narrow front with a wheel which would fit into one crop row.” Working with the chief engineer and a draftsman, Benjamin produced a working model within three years. It used a power take-off, which was a means of transmitting power by shaft and universal joints directly from the tractor engine to the mechanism of the machine it was pulling. This enabled the Farmall to be used for plowing, harrowing, planting, cultivating, and harvesting a wide variety of crops. The company accepted the design in 1923, and the first Farmall tractor went into production in 1924. It featured a four-cylinder engine, steel lugs and steel wheels, ten horsepower at the draw bar and twenty horsepower at the pulley, and it sold for $1,000.
The Farmall was met initially by considerable skepticism. Nine out of ten bankers who made farm loans believed that such a tractor would land most farmers in bankruptcy. Farmers were skeptical because of high pressure sales tactics used by other farm implement manufacturers in the past to buy their machinery. Even the company board of directors initially refused the accept the proposal but was eventually won over. Sales started modestly but eventual set stunning sales records while revolutionizing American agriculture. By 1927, International Harvester was selling 10,000 Farmall tractors annually and 15,000 by 1929. In 1932, the rubber tire was introduced which stimulated many more sales. By 1940, 85-90% of all tractors sold in the United States were either Farmalls or other company models using the Farmall design. This trend brought the beginning of the end for the use of horses and mules as agricultural draft animals.
In 1937, Benjamin was reassigned by International Harvester to work in the company's research division and continued his work there until his retirement in 1940. During the course of his career, he obtained 140 patents in general farm implements, tractors, and tractor attachments. This included developments on the corn binder, a knotter for the grain binder, corn shredder, and the cotton picker. It was estimated in 1943 that he held more patents in agricultural machinery than any one else in the industry.
A few years after his retirement, on June 21, 1943, Benjamin was awarded the Cyrus Hall McCormick Medal by the American Society of Agricultural Engineers at the Society's annual dinner at Lafayette, Indiana. In 1968, the College of Engineering at Iowa State University established a new award called the Professional Achievement Citation in Engineering and gave the award to six ISU alumni including Bert Benjamin on June 6 at a banquet and ceremonies at the Memorial Union. Benjamin was 97 years old at the time.
Delbert Rufus “Bert” Benjamin died on October 9, 1969 at his residence in Oak Park, Illinois at the age of 98. He was interred in Newton Union Cemetery in Newton, Iowa.
The primary source of information on the life of Bert Benjamin is found in the Bert Benjamin Papers, RS 21/7/57, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library. The collection includes biographical materials, Benjamin family genealogy, correspondence with friends, family, and with the Iowa State University Alumni Association, drawings and advertisements of the Farmall tractor, history and articles on International Harvester, and photographs of family, friends, the Farmall tractor, and of cotton production.
The biographical information includes articles from agricultural journals and from the Iowa State Alumnus, news releases from the Iowa State University Information Service and the Jasper County Historical Society, newsletters, and newspaper articles.
The journal articles include “Benjamin of Chicago: The Iowa Farm Boy Who Became a Famous Inventor,” The Sun and Agricultural Journal of South Africa, May, 1929, pp. 445-453; “Bert R. Benjamin Receives Recognition,” Farm Implement News, Volume 64, Number 13, June 24, 1943, pp. 14, 30; and “The 1943 A. S. A. E. Gold Medalists,” Agricultural Engineering, Volume 24, Number 7, July, 1943, pp. 241, 247. Articles from The Alumnus include” News From Your Friends,” Volume 40, Number 2, September-October, 1944, p. 36; and “Classnotes,” Volume 63, Number 6, June, 1968, p. 27. A newsletter article, Farm Equipment Research and Engineering Center News Letter, Volume 2, Number 26, July 5, 1968 provided information on Wilhelmina Bergman Benjamin.
The journal articles include “Benjamin of Chicago: The Iowa Farm Boy Who Became a Famous Inventor,” The Sun and Agricultural Journal of South Africa, May, 1929, pp. 445-453; “Bert R. Benjamin Receives Recognition,” Farm Implement News, Volume 64, Number 13, June 24, 1943,
pp. 14, 30; and “The 1943 A. S. A. E. Gold Medalists,” Agricultural Engineering, Volume 24, Number 7, July, 1943, pp. 241, 247. Articles from The Alumnus include” News From Your Friends,” Volume 40, Number 2, September-October, 1944, p. 36; and “Classnotes,” Volume 63, Number 6, June, 1968, p. 27. A newsletter article, Farm Equipment Research and Engineering Center News Letter, Volume 2, Number 26, July 5, 1968 provided information on Wilhelmina Bergman Benjamin.
There are occasional references to Benjamin online. Interment information can be found at https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/28425235/delbert-rufus-benjamin.