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Carroll, Thomas (Tom) (1888–1968)

by John Lack

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Thomas (Tom) Carroll (1888-1968), mechanical engineer, was born on 12 April 1888 at Bullengarook, near Gisborne, Victoria, eldest of five children of Victorian-born parents Michael John Carroll, farmer, and his wife Mary Elizabeth, née Fitzgerald. Tom's education to eighth grade at the local state school was frequently interrupted. From about the age of 10 he drove the family's horse-drawn binder, and ran the steam engine and threshing machine whenever the visiting German contractor got drunk. Tom learned the fundamentals of blacksmithing from his father, picked up carpentry and bricklaying from local tradesmen, drove a sawmill traction engine, and became fascinated by mechanics while repairing neighbours' implements and machinery. Although he attended night school, and later took a two-year correspondence course in mechanical engineering from the United States of America, he remained essentially self-taught.

At the age of 16 Carroll began working for the Buckeye Harvester Co. in Melbourne, assisting farmers to set up their American binders and mowers. Supervising their tillage implement business acquainted him with foundry and moulding practices and machine shop operations. As an expert with J. Mitchell & Co.'s stripper harvesters from 1909, he soon encountered Massey-Harris of Toronto's reaper-thresher; it had been developed by Australians Matt H. East and J. S. Charlton employing the North American header principle in order to dodge the stiff tariff on imported copies of the Australian stripper-harvester. The Canadians' South American distributor engaged Carroll in 1911 to assemble and test run reaper-threshers for farmers in Argentina. Revelling in life on the pampas, and soon fluent in Spanish, he entered the direct employment of Massey-Harris in 1917, the year he married Thomasine Laidlaw of Toronto, Canada. She often travelled with him, and their life became virtually one continuous summer spent on the Argentine pampas, the Canadian prairies or the Australian plains. He estimated that in fifty years he experienced only four winters.

After Carroll's reaper-thresher took clear honours in the field trial at Bahia Bianca, Argentina, in the summer of 1919-20, he was appointed chief field engineer, and by 1924-25 his machine was harvesting extensively in North and South America. He was a good listener, ever alert to farmers' needs. In the Argentine, Italian farmers were experimenting with self-propelled harvesters. The attempt of H. V. McKay Pty Ltd to supply the Americas with Headlie Taylor's brilliant but expensive auto-header from a plant at Waterloo, Ontario, failed spectacularly in the droughts and Depression of the early 1930s. When times improved, the initiative had passed to Massey-Harris, who gave Carroll the responsibility of developing a self-propelled combine. His successful No.20 of 1937 was followed three years after by a version light and cheap enough to command a wide market. The No.21 went into volume production in 1940, just in time to answer an acute wartime rural labour shortage. By 1955, when Carroll was promoted chief combine engineer for the Western Hemisphere, self-propelled machines were working grain fields across the globe, and in 1963 the company held the largest slice of a world combine market that had eluded the Australians.

In 1954 H. V. McKay's heirs sold their business to Massey-Harris, Headlie Taylor retired, and Tom Carroll came home to supervise over three seasons (1956-58) the design of a new self-propelled header for Australian conditions, the successful Massey-Ferguson 585. In 1958 he became the first non-American to be awarded the American Society of Agricultural Engineers' Cyrus Hall McCormick medal for his outstanding contribution to world agriculture.

Although he had become a Canadian citizen, Carroll always remained an Australian at heart. His wife died about 1954; they had no children. Carroll retired in 1962. He died after a short illness on 22 February 1968 in Bethlehem Private Hospital, Caulfield, Melbourne. After a requiem mass, he was buried in the family grave at Gisborne. In Australia and Canada, Massey-Ferguson and the press properly hailed him as the pioneer of modern harvesting, who had designed the 'world's first commercial self-propelled combine'.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Denison, Harvest Triumphant (Toronto, Canada, 1948)
  • E. P. Neufeld, A Global Corporation (Toronto, Canada, 1969)
  • G. R. Quick and W. F. Buchele, The Grain Harvesters (Michigan, US, 1978)
  • Agricultural Engineering, 29, no 3, Mar 1948, p 101
  • Canadian Farm Implements, Nov 1961, p 12
  • Massey-Ferguson Review, June 1964
  • J. Lack and C. Fahey, ‘Harvester Wars: The Global Struggle between H. V. McKay, Massey-Harris and International Harvester’, Ontario History vol 96, no 1, 2004, p 9
  • Family Herald (Toronto, Canada) 16 Aug 1962
  • Telegram (Toronto, Canada), 16 Mar 1967
  • Weekly Times, 6 Mar 1968, p 6
  • T. Carroll papers in Massey-Ferguson collection (University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada)
  • information from the Gisborne and Mount Macedon Districts Historical Society
  • private information.

Citation details

John Lack, 'Carroll, Thomas (Tom) (1888–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/carroll-thomas-tom-12841/text23181, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 30 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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