John Ridley migrated from England to South Australia in 1840. He became a miller and wheat farmer and in 1843 developed the Ridley stripper harvester – a harvesting machine that reaped and threshed grain. In seven days it was able to reap and thresh more than 70 acres, stripping the grain from the stalks. The South Australian Agricultural and Horticultural Society recognised his achievement and awarded Ridley a prize of ten pounds and ten shillings.
In the 1840s the wheat crop in South Australia was increasing and there was a shortage of agricultural labour to harvest it. This made the development of more effective harvesting machinery important. The Ridley stripper harvester was well suited to Australia’s hot, dry conditions. It ensured that the grain was kept dry and that its quality was maintained – important for what was an export crop.
Ridley never patented his invention but went on to make a good income from manufacturing the machines. By 1850, more than 50 of his machines were in use in the colony and some had been exported.
There has been ongoing controversy about the true inventor of the stripper. Some claim that the machine was in fact invented by John Wrathall Bull, even though Ridley was the first to demonstrate it in practice. Historians have argued both sides of the case. Bull did develop a working model of a machine in 1842. Ridley denied having been inspired by Bull’s design, writing in 1886 that he had drawn inspiration for his machine from a notice of a Roman invention given in John Claudius Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Agriculture, and that “from no other source whatever did I receive the least help or suggestion”.
In early 1884, a Victorian, Hugh Victor McKay invented his own stripper harvester. The design was commercialised in 1885 and became widely adopted in Victoria and New South Wales. McKay’s design became the Sunshine Stripper Harvester and by the 1920s McKay’s company had become the largest manufacturing enterprise in the Southern Hemisphere.