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Early Cow Milking Machines

Richard Van Vleck

Development of a usable milking machine took several decades of trial and error, unlike the rapid development and acceptance of other dairy innovations, such as hygienic milking and processing, the Babcock test, and the centrifugal cream separator. Some editors of 19th century dairy and ag publications acknowledged a need for a good milking machine, but, were dissatisfied with all that were being offered. Others discouraged all attempts at machine milking, stating that it was unnatural or intrinsically injurious to the cow. As late as 1892, S.M. Babcock, (of Babcock test fame), wrote in the National Dairyman that "milking machines would result in poorer quality of milk and lowering the standards of dairy animals". In The Farmers Advocate, L.B. Arnold, secretary of the American Dairyman's Assoc., wrote about the great value of hand milking in the development of the bovine udder, and warned against resorting to machine milking.

The earliest devices for mechanical milking were tubes inserted in the teats to force open the sphincter muscle, thus allowing the milk to flow. Wooden tubes were used for this purpose, as well as feather quills. Skillfully made tubes of pure silver, gutta percha, ivory, and bone were marketed in the mid-19th century, and, in fact, a few were still being sold well into the 20th century.

A novel milking tube illustrated in the Scientific American in 1875, used a slide valve at the bottom of each catheter to close off the opening. Several U.S. patents were granted for milking tubes joined by flexible rubber tubing to direct the milk to pail. The extensive tubing increased the problem of contamination already present with the use of catheters.

Catheter milking was blamed for various problems, such as spread of disease, weakened sphincter muscles causing continuous dribbling, and injury to the teats. In 1868, the editor of The American Agriculturist writes in regard to a query about milking tubes, "Those who sell them keep shy of The American Agriculturist; so do dealers in humbug, generally. We are desirous of giving any such thing a fair trial, and, have tried, and failed, even to witness a trial of a cow-milker". However, ten years later, in 1878, the same publication softens its tone while still not really endorsing milking tubes; "There has been a prejudice against any other methods of milking than the old-fashioned one, and, we confess to have felt the influence of this prejudice, and have been very cautious in referring to the milking machine. After a personal trial, we have been forced to modify our previous opinions". The article goes on to describe a set of silver tubes ending in India rubber tubes to conduct the milk to a pail. At this point, The American Agriculturist began to accept advertisements for milkers, although, very few were printed. Their expressed opinion was that the milkers were of little value, but, did no apparent harm harm to the cows. The great variety and number of early milking machines can be categorized into two groups, those that tried to emulate hand milking (mechanical pressure devices), and those that tried to emulate the sucking calf (vacuum devices). Proponents of both types of milkers turned out an endless variety of contraptions for over 50 years, until the modern pulsator made the suction method the clear winner.

The earliest vacuum milkers used a large gutta percha cup, fitting over the entire udder, and connected to a hand pump. Hodges and Brockenden secured an English patent for such a device in 1851. In America, Anna Baldwin patented such a milker, using a pitcher pump and bucket in her patent illustration. In 1859, S.W. Lowe, of Philadelphia, patented a cup fitted with a diaphragm with 4 holes for the teats. A hand cranked suction pump drew milk from all four teats at once. Such devices created a continuous suction on the udder, damaging the mammary tissue and frequently causing the cow to kick.

In 1859, John Kingman, of Dover, NH, patented a tin teat cup with elastic flange for use with a suction pump milker. The first successful use of teat cups with a vacuum milker is found in the 1860 patent of L.O. Colvin, perhaps America's most famous inventor of early milking machines. This lever operated suction device drew a great response from the agricultural press. Favorable articles appeared in The Dairy Farmer Journal, The Agricultural Gazette, and many smaller publications. However, the Colvin milker still subjected the cow's teats to constant vacuum, causing blood to pool there. Colvin sold the English patent for this machine for $5000, and, at least 1500 machines were sold in England, according to an article in The Agricultural Gazette. In the U.S., Colvin was even more successful, and, continued to make improvements and acquire new patents.

In Scotland, William Murchland invented a very successful vacuum milker in 1889, which hung suspended under the cow. He was granted a U.S. patent in 1892. The Murchland milker, along with the famous "Thistle" milker, was extensively tested by the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland in 1898. Numerous other hand pumped suction milkers were devised in the next thirty years, with the foot operated Mehring machine being, perhaps, the ultimate in pre-pulsator suction milkers. This machine was praised in a letter to Hoard's Dairyman in 1898. Two cows could be milked at the same time, using this machine, with the operator sitting on it's bench, between the cows, and working the foot levers to provide vacuum. The Mehring foot power machine was still marketed well into the 20th century and many were sold. A fine example was recently noted at one of the Brimfield shows, priced at $400.

The pulsator was first introduced in the "Thistle" milker, using a steam driven vacuum pump. While the Thistle machine presented problems of sanitation, it proved an efficient milker. In Hoard's Dairyman, in 1898, a reviewer of the Thistle machine demonstrated at the Hamburg Exposition faulted the machine for its intermittent flow, as observed in the glass tube leading to the milk vessel. That reviewer was Dr. Benno Martiny, one of the most prominent dairy scientists of the time. The pulsator, resulting in this intermittent flow is what finally led to a really workable milking machine. The USDA finally tested and gave it's approval to a pulsator milking machine in 1898.

During the late 19th century, while many inventors were struggling with the problems of the constant suction milkers, others were working on a great variety of mechanical devices to simulate hand milking. Most of these devices incorporated rollers or fingers that intermittently pressed on the teat, often working from top to bottom. Some of these devices were simple, others were composed of hundreds of parts and worked by cranks. Such mechanical milkers were still being patented after the turn of the century, despite the arrival of the pulsator machines. Mechanical milkers could not compensate for the changing size of the cow's teats as milking progressed, and did not milk to completion. They also forced some milk back into the udder.

With so many inventors applying themselves to the task, why did the development of a satisfactory milker take over 50 years? This question was, perhaps, answered in an 1879 issue of The Agricultural Gazette, where a comparison was made to the development of the grain binder. By that year, 5000 U.S. and English patents had been file for improvements in harvesting machines. The article suggests that the rapid development of the grain binder was aided by a great deal of testing and suggestions by farmers. Testing a grain binder offered no risk, while testing a milking machine could (and did) do great harm to the cow, or at least, her milk production. Farmers were understandably reluctant to offer their herd as guinea pigs, and this may have been the greatest obstacle to development of the milking machine.

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© 1996, 1998, American Artifacts. Reprinted from SMMA issue 20.
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