RIDLEY, John (1806-1887)

RIDLEY, John (1806-1887)
inventor of the reaping machine
was born near West Boldon, Durham, England, on 26 May 1806. His father and mother, John and Mary Ridley, were first cousins, and were probably related to the same family as Bishop Ridley's. John Ridley the elder was a miller who died when his son was five years old. His widow carried on the business and when Ridley was 15 he began to share in its management. He had come across an encyclopaedia soon after he was able to read, and took the greatest interest in the scientific articles which he read again and again. Science and theology were to be the great interests of his life. In September 1835 he married Mary Pybus, in November 1839 sailed for South Australia with his wife and two infant children, and immediately after his arrival obtained a piece of land at Hindmarsh, close to Adelaide. There he built a flour-mill and installed the first steam engine in South Australia able to cut wood and grind meal. In 1842 he had a well-stocked farm of 300 acres, but finding the management of his mills took tip too much of his time, let the farm on the shares system. Being much interested in mechanical inventions he spent some time on a horizontal windmill to be used for raising water. It was said of him at this period that if his child cried in the night his first thought would be how to make an apparatus for rocking the cradle. There was some shortage of labour and Ridley gave much time to the problem of devising a mechanical method of harvesting the wheat. Other people were working on the same problem. In 1843 the corn exchange committee offered a prize of £40 to anyone submitting a model or plans of a reaper of which the committee would approve. On 23 September 1843 it was reported that several models and plans had been submitted, but no machine had been exhibited which the committee felt justified in recommending for general adoption. Ridley had not exhibited any plans or model but he had been constructing a machine, and on 18 November 1843 the Adelaide Observer announced that "a further trial of Mr Ridley's machine has established its success". This machine, which both reaped and threshed corn, has been of inestimable benefit to Australia. Though no doubt it was improved in detail as the years went by, no substantial advance was made on it until H. V. McKay (q.v.) constructed his harvester some 40 years later. Ridley not only declined to patent his machine, but refused all suggestions of reward.
Early in 1853 Ridley returned with his family to England. He was in comfortable circumstances, partly by the success of his mills and partly by fortunate investments in copper-mining. He travelled for some years in Europe and then settled down in England. He did some inventing but finished nothing of great importance. He retained his interest in scientific and religious questions and spent much of his income on charity. He was greatly worried in his later years by a claim made by J. Wrathall Bull that he was the real inventor of Ridley's reaping machine. Mr Bull's claims are set out in his volume Early Experiences of Colonial Life in South Australia. He was one of the men who had sent in models that were rejected by the committee, and his contention was that Ridley had seen his model and constructed his machine on its principles. Ridley, who was a man of the greatest probity, denied this, and his denial is borne out by the fact that his machine had had two successful trials within two months of the models being exhibited. In those days a machine could be constructed in Adelaide only by primitive methods, and it would have been quite impossible to make a machine, overcome all the practical difficulties of adjustment, and have it in working order in so short a period. In his final letter to the Adelaide Register written in 1886 Ridley said that the first suggestion of his machine had come from a notice of a Roman invention given in Loudon's Encyclopaedia of Agriculture, and that "from no other source whatever did I receive the least help or suggestion". In his last days Ridley spent much money and time in distributing literature relating to temperance and religious questions. He died on 25 November 1887 and was survived by two daughters. A silver candelabrum presented to him by old South Australian colonists in 1861 is now at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute; there is a scholarship in his memory at the Roseworthy Agricultural College; and in 1933 the John Ridley Memorial Gates at the Agricultural Showground, Adelaide, were opened. (Fred Johns, An Australian Biographical Dictionary).
Annie E. Ridley, A Backward Glance; S. Parsons, John Ridley; The Advertiser, Adelaide, 15 September 1932.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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