The combine harvester got its name from combining of three separate operations (reaping, threshing, and winnowing) into a single process. Combine harvesters are one of the most economically important labor saving inventions.

Scottish inventor Patrick Bell invented the reaper in 1826. The combine was invented in the United States by Hiram Moore in 1834. Early versions were pulled by horse teams, mule teams, or ox. In 1835, Moore built a full-scale version. By 1860, combine harvesters with a cutting width of several meters were used on American farms. In 1882, Hugh Victor McKay, from Australia, had a similar idea and developed the first commercial combine harvester in 1885, called the Sunshine Harvester.

As combines continued to progress, they switched to using steam for power. After World War II, tractor-drawn combines became common. In about the 1980s on-board electronics were introduced to measure threshing efficiency.

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