The ‘wizard’ vs the farmboy

by Andy Bryenton

One was called the ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’ thanks to his inventions, which transformed modern society. The other was a farmer’s son from Pahiatua. When the pair faced off over creating a new way to milk cows, all the smart money was on Thomas Alva Edison, enthroned as the ‘new Isaac Newton’, friend of industrialists Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone. However, the smart money would have lost.

In turn-of-the-1900s Wairarapa, machinery was becoming a bigger part of farming. The leather belts, steam engines and turning wheels of wool processing machinery, and the shuttle ploughs and timber mills, which ran off traction engines fascinated young Norman Daysh. He knew that others had been trying to perfect a milking machine for some time.

Previous attempts had all been made by engineers and scientists who did not have his practical experience.

As a Kiwi farmhand, Norman was all too familiar with milking cows, and he knew that contraptions that hurt or scared the animals would be useless in the shed.

Thomas Edison had fixed his sights on various designs, in an attempt to do for dairy what others had done before him for grain with the combine harvester. The inventor of the record player and the light bulb examined ideas with rollers, gripping automaton ‘hands’, pulsators and many other concepts. None was practical in the reality of the farmyard, where complicated machines could be kicked to pieces or contaminated with dirt, and anything that spooked the cattle would cause more harm than good.

Contraptions with belts, springs and tanks for the cow to wear were rejected out of hand.

Enter Daisy, the first cow to experience a modern milking machine. In the farm kitchen of Norman Daysh, this pioneering animal was the test subject for his final development. It was a milking machine of the kind we know today, vacuum-powered, with cups that mimic the action of a suckling calf.

Daysh took out a swathe of patents, then set off for New York, where the DeLaval company accepted his idea with open arms. They have been quoted as saying that “What Norman Daysh achieved remains the basis of our company today”, and worked with Daysh to release a revolution in farming in 1917.

The farmer’s son from the back blocks beat Edison, who was thankful for the advancement even if he didn’t win the race. In his later years, he swore by fresh milk as a health tonic, and Norman and DeLaval’s creation kept it in ready supply.