Oral History Sketches the Life of Founding Father J.B. Davidson

Wednesday, March 03, 2021
Oral History Sketches the Life of Founding Father J.B. Davidson

A new video captures the highlights of the life of Jay Brownlee (J.B.) Davidson, founder of ASABE and widely regarded as the father of agricultural engineering.

The video comprises a conversation between ASABE Past President Sherwood DeForest and Executive Director Darrin Drollinger.  DeForest authored the Brownlee biography  The Vision that Cut Drudgery from Farming Forever, which serves as the basis of the conversation. He also was a student of Brownlee's, at Iowa State University.

Davidson was born in 1880 on a 160-acre homestead in Nebraska. With a talent for mechanics and working with his hands, he enrolled at the University of Nebraska, where he acquired the knowledge and skills to ease what he termed the "arduous and irksome" manual labor associated with agriculture.  After briefly working for Deere & Co., Davidson was persuaded to return to the University of Nebraska to teach farm machinery. One year later, Iowa State College enticed him to move to Ames, Iowa, and it was there, in 1905, that he created the world's first agricultural engineering department. 

Ever active, Davidson recognized that the new profession would only flourish with broad scholarly support, and so he helped found the organization that eventually became ASABE, serving as the Society's first president. Over the years he wrote textbooks and technical bulletins, cultivated relationships with equipment manufacturers, supported the development of standards for farm equipment, and successfully advocated for recognition of the new profession by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Along the way, he pursued his interest in engineering, designing equipment and tools like the dynamometer, a simple, durable device "for accurately, conveniently and easily testing the tractive power of draft animals, engines and so forth," as it was described on its patent application. 

He remained dedicated to the discipline and to education even after retirement, traveling to China to establish departments there and to bring students to U.S. He died in 1957.

The 14-minute video can be viewed on YouTube and is intended to be the first in a series of recorded ASABE oral histories.