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A look back at milking machines Contributed by DairyBusiness Communications


ilk has been long recognized as an important source of human nutrition. People living in towns and surrounding communities had to be fed. Because the centuriesold practice of hand milking was labor-intensive and, increasingly, fell short of meeting the growing demand for fresh milk, inventors began to devise mechanical gadgets to take the place of hand milking from about the 1830s.

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 Association, wrote about the great value of hand milking in the development of the bovine udder, and warned against resorting to machine milking. As a result, success of machine milking proved difficult and it would take more than a half of a century before it gained in popularity.

The earliest evidence of attempts to replace hand milking comes from archaeological records which show that wheat straw was inserted into the teat canal around 380 BC and, later, leg bones of birds were tried. Despite the obvious flaw in this early attempt to replace hand-milking, the world’s first patent for a mechanical milking device – in 1836 to Blurton (Britain) – involved the same flawed principle. Blurton’s patent involved the insertion of metal tubes, or cannula, into the four teat canals of an udder to allow milk in the teat and udder cisterns to flow out under the forces First milking machine patent, filed in of gravity and intramammary 1836 by Blurton. pressure. Not surprisingly, Blurton’s device was destined for the scrap-heaps of history – like its predecessor in 380 BC – no doubt due to the inevitable increase in mastitis caused by pathogens carried through the teat canal on contaminated tubes.

Later, some astute innovators began studying the way calves suckled their mother’s teats. The observation of suckling led to the idea of using vacuum. Early inventions used vacuum tubes placed inside the cow’s teat while others covered the whole udder. Hand pumps and cranks were used to extract the milk. A device using single-chambered, individual teatcups was patented in 1860 by L.O. Colvin of Cincinnati, Ohio. The individual teatcups were connected to hand-operated diaphragm vacuum pumps by short rubber tubes to facilitate adjustment. This technology laid the ground work for the first of three key principles required for successful mechanization of milking – i.e., milk withdrawal from the teat using a regulated vacuum supply.

From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, lots of would-be inventors attempted to mechanize the process of milking dairy cows. The inventors were a mixed bag of plumbers, tinsmiths, inventor-farmers, doctors and engineers. The first machines ranged from simple mechanical devices to highly elaborate mechanisms which were wheeled, or hung, under the cows. Some of the milking inventions even provided seating for the operator. Cheap labor and a strong belief that the natural method of milk harvest could never be duplicated by a mechanical process remained strong among farmers. Most farmers remained reluctant to use any form of mechanical milking especially since some experts declared milking machines to be unnatural and injurious. In 1892, for example, S.M. Babcock (from the University of Wisconsin) wrote in the National


The Colvin hand operated vacuum milker (1860).

A Scottish plumber, William Murchland, introduced a vacuum milker in 1889 that is considered to be the first successful commercial milking machine. This machine used a hand-operated vacuum pump to maintain a vacuum and used a water column as the regulation device. This vacuum control strategy had a great deal of merit in that there were no moving parts. This vacuum supply was connected to an overhead pipe system around the cowshed with a stall cock between each pair of cows. Each stall cock could be connected via a rubber hose to a bucket suspended under the cow. Apparently, ‘one boy could maintain the necessary vacuum to enable three girls to operate two or three units each’. The vacuum applied to the teat was continuous and the

National Mastitis Council

NMC Commemorative Booklet  

This book is a collection of the past 50 years of mastitis control, milk quality, the history of the National Mastitis Council, personal rec...

NMC Commemorative Booklet  

This book is a collection of the past 50 years of mastitis control, milk quality, the history of the National Mastitis Council, personal rec...