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Before the 1940s, most hitching of farm implements to tractors was done simply with a drawbar, on the same principle as a modern tow hitch. The drawbar was a flat bar with holes in it, and the implements were trailers, with tongues that attached to the drawbar with a pin through a hole.
The main reason why this was the default hitching idea is that it was the natural follow-on from the days of horse-drawn implements, which were towed as trailers by the horse or team (and often had an operator’s seat). In fact, for decades during the mechanisation of agriculture in Europe and North America, as tractors gradually replaced horses in increasing degrees, existing implements from the horse era were often what the tractor pulled. Towing with a drawbar is a good, practical system for many purposes, and it has continued to be used even up to today, but the three-point hitch outperforms it in several ways (described below).
Harry Ferguson patented the three-point linkage for agricultural tractors in Britain in 1926. He had long been a champion of the importance of rigid attachment of the plough to the tractor. The idea did not originate with him, but he led its popularization over many years of development, explaining, and selling. During the decade of 1916 to 1926 he developed his ideas through various iterations, duplex and triplex, mechanical and hydraulic, to arrive at the patented form. During the next decade, he continued explaining and selling his hitches and implements and even produced his own model of tractor in cooperation with David Brown Ltd. via the Ferguson-Brown Company.
Three-point linkage on a Ferguson 35 tractor. The tractor and linkage are painted gold. The grey bars are a separate implement (a towing ball hitch) attached to the linkage. The three-point hitch is made up of several components working together. These include the tractor’s hydraulic system, attaching points, the lifting arms, and stabilizers.
Three-point hitches are composed of three movable arms. The two lower arms—the hitch lifting arms—are controlled by the hydraulic system, and provide lifting, lowering, and even tilting to the arms. The upper center arm—called the top link—is movable, but is usually not powered by the tractor’s hydraulic system. Each arm has an attachment device to connect implements to the hitch. Each hitch has attachment holes for attaching implements, and the implement has posts that fit through the holes. The implement is secured by placing a pin on the ends of the posts. The hitch lifting arms are powered by the tractor’s own hydraulic system. The hydraulic system is controlled by the operator, and usually a variety of settings are available. A draft control mechanism is often present in modern three-point hitch systems. The draft of the implement, the amount of force it is taking to pull the implement, is sensed on the top link and the hydraulic system automatically raises the arms slightly when the draft increases and lowers the arms when the draft decreases.
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