Czech Made: the Veverkas' revolutionary ‘Ruchadlo’ plough
The Veverka cousins invented a revolutionary plough in 1827 known as the ‘Ruchadlo’, which cut, lifted and turned soil upside down by means of a curved plate. So why weren’t they better known outside of Bohemia? Find out in the latest edition of our Czech Made series!
“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door”, so the saying goes.
In the early 19th century, two cousins from a small Bohemian village built an immensely better plough, one that not only dug troughs but tilled the soil and turned it upside down in one motion, evenly, leading to higher yields than ever before.
And yet, outside of the Czech lands, the names Václav and František Veverka – inventors of a revolutionary plough called the ‘Ruchadlo’ – are all but unknown, a footnote in farming history. For it is not enough to build a better “mousetrap”. One must also patent and promote it, lest someone steal your idea. In this edition of Czech Made, we give the inventive Veverka cousins their due.
Václav Veverka, born in April 1796, was three years František Veverka’s senior. Václav was a blacksmith and a cottager, and František a somewhat reluctant farmer, having inherited his father’s smallholding.
Both cousins became widowers as young men, remarried, raised families and grew famous but died in poverty in February 1849: Václav at age fifty-two and, a couple of weeks later, František at age forty-nine.
Long before the Veverka cousins rolled out their plough in 1827, František was always tinkering with farming and other tools. A self-taught watchmaker, he was called on to repair timepieces and even milling machines. He also designed a system to – literally –separate the wheat from the chaff.
František had begun working on a new kind of plough that could peel back the soil like a carpenter’s plane made wood shavings. He bent the blade on his old-fashioned plough in various ways until he had nearly achieved the desired effect.
He then enlisted the help of Václav, a blacksmith. Together, they fashioned curved cylindrical blades, capable of cutting through and turning over the soil in one motion. It sounds so simple, even obvious today. But before the ‘Ruchadlo’ came along in 1827, ploughing and tilling the soil was a two-step, laborious process.
While already revolutionary, field testing (again, literally) revealed a design flaw. Every time the plough hit a stone, it was necessary to back up, and redo a part of the trenches, known as furrows. Also, it took a lot of elbow grease to keep the cylindrical blades from veering off to the side. It was Václav who came up with a solution, welding a rudder of sorts to the rear of the plough.
The farmers and villagers from Rybitví were astounded, František Veverka recalled, according to a chronicle whose authorship has been lost to time.
“The first evaluators of the new tool were the peasants from Rybitví. They marvelled at the way the plough both cut through soil and flipped it over. The bottom, undrawn layer of soil came to the surface, covering the original top layer with all the weeds and unwanted seedlings. The new plough also cleaned the field.
“In fact, the hitherto difficult problem of soil fertilization has been solved. In the past, animal manure (a necessary precondition for a obtaining a higher yield) was only scattered over the surface of the field and planted at small depths – much of it dried up and lost its value.
“However, the new plough pushed it to the desired depth, where it slowly decomposed and provided a breeding ground for microorganisms, which are just as important for the good development of plants as are water and the sun.”
In Bohemia, their plough came to be known colloquially as the “Veverka” (which by the way, is the Czech word for “squirrel”). The cousins called it as the “Ruchadlo”, a word derived from an antiquated Czech verb meaning “to disturb something” – as their plough certainly did, both to the soil and the status quo.
In the village of Rybitví, František and Václav have long been honoured with a statue to themselves and a monument to the plough itself. But, as noted earlier, they did not patent their invention; nor did they seek to profit from it (beyond obtaining a higher yield of crops). And so, it was stolen.
In 1828, one year after their ‘ruchalo’ came to light, word of the revolutionary plough – and drawings of it – were circulating at a trade fair in Prague that drew 220 exhibitors. František and Václav may not have even been aware of it. In any case, they did not attend, a fateful moment, as noted by our anonymous chronicler:
“The ‘Ruchadlo’ of the Veverka cousins quickly spread and took root, causing a complete revolution in agricultural production. And it has become easy and welcome prey for foreigners, especially in Germany.
“The first thief, however, was a native Bohemian (albeit a German speaker), a Czech economic society official named Jan Kainz... He recognized its value and did not hesitate to make an exact drawing.
“Then he went to the blacksmith Jan Pechman to forge the pre-drawn blade and assemble a new plough. Kainz sensed an opportunity to get rich from the looted invention, so he teamed up with Mr Weiss, the owner of an agricultural machinery factory, and together they launched an advertisement for ‘his’ plough.”
The factory owner began largescale production of what he called the Kainzpflug – Kainz’s plough – for sale throughout the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Austrian Empire and beyond.
Josef Jaroslav Langer, a Czech patriot named from the same region at the Veverka cousins, and a noted poet, journalist and ethnographic collector was outraged. And he made it his mission to set the record straight. In an article titled, ‘The Ruchadlo – a new Czech plough’, Langer wrote:
“They are not men of learning or famous mechanics; they are not members of economic concerns, as found perhaps in England and France; in the Czech lands, we are usually farmers, and I’m not ashamed to say publicly: farmers around the world cannot keep up with Czech farmers.”
Other influential supporters of the Veverka cousins included Ignác Lhotský, a professor of economics at the Theological Institute in Hradec Králové and an estate director who pushed the Czech economic society to deal with the matter – albeit in secret, as Jan Kainz was an influential member.
In January 1835, Prof. Lhotský wrote the following expert opinion to the Czech economic society:
“The undersigned has the honour to announce that confirmation that on an estate in the region of Pardubice, in Rybitví u Bohdanče, two cousins named Veverka actually invented a new plough, which they named the ruchadlo. This plough has been in general use for several years and not only in the local landscape, as its advantages are undeniable.
“The invention thus brought significant benefits to the entire economy. So please, oh glorious Czech economic society, kindly acknowledge the Veverkas as the inventor of the ruchadlo and by desire and honest effort recognize them as worthy of honour, to prove that the merits, even if earned by a modest, simple peasant tradesman, do not go unnoticed and unrewarded.”
Alas, it was not to be. Václav and František Veverka died in 1849, eleven days apart, in dire financial straits, due to house fires and illness. Meanwhile, the H.F. Eckert company in Berlin produced over a million ploughs based on their idea and became known as the best plough maker in the world.
It was not until 1883 that a definitive report was written with six surviving witnesses from Rybitví, who once again confirmed the plough’s true inventors. That year, a monument was unveiled in Pardubice, presided over by none other than František Ladislav Rieger – a Czech National Revival leader, and spokesman of the Austro-Slavs in the Imperial Diet.