Theo Brown's Power Lift

John Deere Evolution
post by
Lee Klancher
theo brown patents

John Deere Evolution is a visually stunning work that blends tractors photographed in custom-built studios with concept drawings and behind-the-scenes looks at how the machines were designed and built. This encyclopedic history covers every model line built by John Deere since 1919. In this excerpt from the book, read about Deere designer Theo Brown's contributions to the power lift. Theo Brown was one of the key engineers for John Deere, perhaps the brightest mind in the company at that time. An artist, engineer, and brilliant observer of life, he kept a diary filled with observations, sketches, and ruminations about John Deere innovations. The brain behind the power lift, the GP, and the early small letter series Deeres, Brown is one of the key figures in American agricultural innovation.

Theo Brown spent the first weeks of 1933 sketching a lift for a new tractor. He wrote that the HX was designed to be 65 percent the size of the forerunner to the Model A, and that they hoped to have prototypes running by mid-April. By early February, Brown had come up with a new swinging drawbar design and a ratcheting engagement for the power lift.

The following October, Brown was testing the Model HX in the field with his implements. He was pleased with the results and pasted a number of photographs of the tractors at work into his journal. On October 30, he added a chart showing the number of patent applications filed by each of the major tractor makers between 1931 and 1933. John Deere had filed more than 234 requests—an amazing 41.5 percent of all requests filed.

theo brown lift patent drawing
Theo Brown’s lift patent eventually led to IH paying John Deere for every single lift they sold that used a similar design. Theo Brown Diaries / WPI

Brown’s power lift was a sensation. On December 1, 1933, he wrote, “IH seems to be trying to keep away from the power lift on the Farmall as they must realize that we have the idea so well patented. I’m hoping we will capitalize the power lift and get real business from the monopoly we ought to have with it.”

A few weeks later, as drizzle fell outside, the experimental group presented to the chairman. The presentation included Elmer McCormick’s conclusions regarding the GX and the HX, now known as the new Model A and B, respectively. After a few days of Christmas parties and “blissful relaxation” with his wife, Brown wrote a few lines about his approach to design: “In thinking ahead as to what the tendency in implement design will follow, it seems as tho [sic] it might be wise to go around somewhat and talk to farmers and find out what they think they would like to do with machinery etc. that they can’t do now. In visiting I might be able to get some new hunches and develop to a point where we could get patent applications in. Now we are using ideas on which I applied for patents five years ago. It is much better to have others try to copy us than to have to try to copy the other fellow.”

theo brown tractor drawing
Theo Brown was awarded 158 patents during his long career at Deere. This patent is for a lockable suspension system on a tractor, which would allow a smooth ride on the road and, when locked out, good performance in the field. Brown’s prolific production of patents prompted IH to dub him “The Awfulest Brown.” US Patent

This philosophy would mark Brown’s work. His creativity was fueled by conversations with men of the day who worked long hours with tractors and implements, and his sketches and thoughts resulted in bits and pieces on most John Deere tractors created between 1918 and 1952.

Also note that Theo’s work on the power lift generated significant income for John Deere. On May 25, 1937, he wrote in his diary, “Silver told me they [International Harvester] are making 300 mechanical power lifts a week and their schedule calls for 18,000 for the year. This at the royalty of $4.80 each which they pay Deere & Co. would mean $86,400.00 for the year.

theo brown patent list
Theo Brown kept detailed records on all kinds of things, including this incredible number of patents created by John Deere in the 1930s. Theo Brown Diaries / WPI

The next time you examine a power lift on a John Deere of this vintage, know that the words of hardworking farmers were catalysts for the steel in your hands.

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