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John Deere and the Birth of Precision Agriculture

Farmers were on the fence about precision farming, until Deere engineers made it more accurate and economical

4 min read
Photo by Division of Work and Industry/NMAH/Smithsonian Institution
Photo: Division of Work and Industry/NMAH/Smithsonian Institution

In the early 19th century, a blacksmith named John Deere moved from Vermont to Illinois, where he noticed that the farmers were having trouble. The sticky prairie soil accumulated on their traditional iron plows, forcing them to stop frequently to clean the blades.

Deere had an idea, and in 1837 he introduced his “self-scouring” steel plow. The blade cut through the tough, root-filled earth, and its curved shape allowed the soil to turn over. Deere’s invention became known as “the plow that broke the plains” and helped transform the Midwest into fertile farmland. His eponymous company became the largest plow manufacturer in the world.

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polaroid sx-70 camera, silver with brown leather, open on white surface
Thomas Backa

In one corner stood the defending champion, Texas Instruments. In the other stood the challenger, Fairchild Semiconductor. The referee, judge, promoter, and only spectator was Polaroid. In contention was the contract for the electronics of Polaroid’s secret project—a pioneering product introduced in 1972 as the SX-70, a camera eventually purchased by millions of people.

As the embodiment of truly automated instant photography, the SX-70 fulfilled a long-held dream of Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid Corp., Cambridge, Mass. Vital to this “point and shoot” capability was a new film—one that would develop while exposed to light and so eliminate the tear-away covers of previous Polaroid films. Also vital were sophisticated electronics to control all single lens reflex (SLR) camera functions, including flashbulb selection, exposure control, mirror positioning, start of print development, and ejection of print. These circuits were divided into three modules, one each for motor, exposure and logic, and flash control. At the final count, some 400 transistors were used.

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