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Davidson, Jay Brownlee

Published onJul 30, 2021
Davidson, Jay Brownlee

(February 15, 1880 – May 8, 1957)

Quick Facts

University professor in the university’s budding agricultural engineering department, Davidson became an international consultant.


J. Brownlee Davidson, Professor and Head, Agricultural Engineering, 1905-1946, 1944 by Othmar Hoffler (American, 1893-1954). Oil on canvas. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U89.61

Location: Iowa State University, Biorenewables Complex (BRL)

Brownlee was the child of James H. and Margaret Jan Davidson, and grew up in the southeastern Nebraska town of Douglas. He attended area schools and graduated from Douglas High School. He spent his youth working on local farms until enrolling at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studied mechanical engineering. As an undergraduate he was a student assistant in a machine shop. He later worked in a locomotive shop and as a draftsman, gaining additional skills and understanding of metal work and machinery.

In 1904 Davidson attained his BS from the University of Nebraska in mechanical engineering. On June 14, 1905, he married Sarah Jennie Baldridge at her parents' home. They raised two daughters. Davidson earned an agricultural engineering degree from the University of Nebraska in 1914, while teaching at Iowa State College (ISC, now Iowa State University). In 1931 he received a PhD from Nebraska.

In 1904 he spent the summer at Deere and Company, and worked as a service agent for International Harvester in 1905 before beginning a 50-year academic career in the fall of 1905, when he joined the faculty of ISC in agricultural engineering, a position he held until 1915.


He published more than 25 extension bulletins on topics such as silos, creameries, and farm structures. He also received nine patents for power measuring devices and farm machinery. Davidson worked with faculty and students to exhaustively review and test farm machinery and wrote a definitive volume titled Farm Machinery and Farm Motors in 1908. In 1910, under Davidson's leadership, ISC granted the first degree in agricultural engineering. The degree program served as a model for other institutions, and its graduates influenced farm machinery production across the country.

Davidson participated in a multitude of professional academic groups. In 1907 he spearheaded the organization of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers. He served as its first president and in 1933 received its highest honor, the McCormick Medal. He judged machinery at the Winnipeg Tractor Trials in 1909, 1910, and 1911, formative years of tractor development. He was president of the now defunct Sigma Tau engineering honorary fraternity, and held memberships in the Iowa Engineering Society and other honor societies, including Tau Beta Pi, Sigma Xi, and Gamma Sigma Delta.

In the fall of 1915 Davidson left ISC for the University of California at Davis, but returned to Ames in 1919 with an appointment as chair of the agricultural engineering department. He retired from active teaching in 1946.

Davidson served the federal government and private industry as a consultant and adviser. His reputation gained him an appointment to conduct a survey of farm machinery for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in cooperation with the National Association of Farm Equipment Manufacturers while on leave from ISC. In 1929 he traveled to the Soviet Union as part of the American Commission studying colonization in the eastern Soviet Union. He served as a consultant to the War Production Board during World War II for the appropriation of steel for the production of agricultural machinery. After the war, he advised the United Nations on allocation of machinery for the liberated European nations. He counseled the federal government and chaired an advisory group of agricultural engineers to help "Westernize" Chinese agriculture in 1947 as part of a group sponsored by International Harvester. The visit was cut short by the fall of Chiang Kaishek. He joined Ford Motor Company's Dear-born Farm Equipment as a consultant beginning in 1951. Davidson retained a home in Ames until 1956.

He died at age 77, after a prolonged illness, in Denver, Colorado. Davidson is interred in the Iowa State University Cemetery.

Selections of text republished with permission from the Iowa Biographical Dictionary, edited by David Hudson, Marvin Bergman, and Loren Horton. Published by the University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA. Online publication, 2009.

Selected Sources

Jay Brownlee Davidson papers, RS 9/7/11, University Archives, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames.

Other sources include:
Jay Brownlee Davidson, "Agricultural Engineering," Journal of Engineering Education 35 (1944), 227–32

Jay Brownlee Davidson and Leon Wilson Chase, Farm Machinery and Farm Motors (1908)

Sherwood S. DeForest, The Vision That Cut Drudgery from Farming Forever (2007)

Several short articles about Davidson in the December 1944 issue of the Alumnus of Iowa State College .

Landis, Leo. "Davidson, Jay Brownlee" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 9 June 2017

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