One of South Australia's first inventions was a machine known as The Stripper, the world's first mechanical grain harvester. This invention speeded up the reaping process on the farm and reduced the number of labourers needed to harvest the crop. The shortage of labour in 1842 was so severe that Governor Grey appealed to England for more emigrants. The machine, which has been modified and improved many times, was produced in South Australia and exported to many of the other colonies and even overseas.
Unfortunately, an argument has continued ever since about the name of the inventor. Some assume that it was J.W. Bull whereas others are convinced that it was John Ridley. Early in 1843 models and drawings of reaping machines were submitted by Ridley, Cotter, J.W.Bull and several others. In June 1843 Scotch Thrashing and Winnowing machines were advertised in the Adelaide newspapers. Imported from Scotland they were sold by Alexander Elder in Hindley Street.
Ridley was born on 26 May 1806 near Hylton Castle. Very soon after his parents moved to West Boldon, Durham, England. His parents, John and Mary, who had a further 3 daughters, had John baptized into the Church of England. His formal education was completed at the local village school but greatly extended by his love of reading, a sharp memory and a love of science. By the age of 7 he had already invented a workable electrical machine. When his father died in 1811, his mother took over the milling business. When John reached the age of 15 he in turn took over from his mother.
While still a teenager, and working in the business, he became interested in religion, particularly the Wesleyan, and by the time he was 18 he started preaching. Within a few short years he had become a recognised and respected local preacher.
After his mother’s death in 1835 he married Mary Pybus in September of that same year. They settled at Segletch and soon had two daughters and the four of them left for South Australia on the Warrior in 1839. They arrived on 17 April 1840 with some 200 other passengers, including members of the Kekwick and Rosewarne families.
Fortunately the Ridleys did not need to live in a tent as a cottage was available while they put up a wooden house brought from England. Apart from this, it was not a happy start for the young family. Shortly after their arrival they lost their four year old daughter Mary when her clothes caught fire when she went too close to the outside fireplace. Not long after this they lost their little boy who was only seventeen days old and later a girl of eight months.
Despite the personal tragedy and hardship, Ridley soon started his own business when he took over the flour mill from the South Australian Company and installed a steam engine. He also bought land at Hindmarsh, and other places, and started growing wheat. By 1843 there was for more wheat than could be harvested by the available labour. When a price was offered for the design of a harvesting machine Ridley did not enter the field because he was already in the process of building a harvesting machine. However at a meeting of the Agricultural Committee in September 1843 as many as 13 people exhibited models and drawings of various machines.
Ridley produced his machine at his Hindmarsh workshop in 1843 just in time for the coming harvest. When it was tested though it failed to work properly but he kept at it, making adjustments and adding combs and beaters. This time it did work. Within seven days it reaped and threshed more than seventy acres. It stripped the grain from the stalks and threshed them to separate the grain from the ears. In February 1844, the South Australian Agricultural and Horticultural Society awarded John Ridley its prize, ten Pounds and ten shillings, which was presented to him by the Governor.
In 1845 he made an additional 7 machines and another 50 during the next five years. Ridley never patented his invention but generously gave South Australians the full benefits of his invention. Even so, he still made a very good income from it and from his investments in the Burra mine, flour mill and land. His stripper was ideally suited to the hot and dry conditions of Australia. It harvested the wheat with a minimum of labour and ensured that it was kept dry. This meant that it arrived in excellent condition at its overseas destinations.
With a good income and the purchase in 1846 of a block of land at Glenelg, the wooden house at Hindmarsh was removed to Glenelg where it became a summer residence for the family. The stone cottage at Hindmarsh was extended. Several rooms were added, including a library, drawing room, kitchen and dining room. Ridley loved gardening and had an extensive one at both places. When not working in his gardens he was reading, studying, writing letters or conducting scientific experiments. After further financial success the wooden house at Glenelg was now replaced by a substantial stone house.
There were also other inventions. He tried to build irrigation equipment, a cradle rocker, bone crusher and many others. He also built a chapel and was instrumental in the formation of a mechanics institute and very concerned for the salvation of the Aborigines.
On 18 March 1853 the Ridley family left for an extended holiday in Europe. They visited Ireland, Belgium and Germany. As it turned out they never returned but settled in England, where he once more devoted his time to further inventions and religion. He financed the printing of thousands of sermons and tracts, and their distribution, became a lay preacher and donated large sums of money to churches and missions.
In 1858 the South Australian Government officially thanked him for his services which had made it possible to increase the wheat growing area even further. On 27 February 1861, at a public dinner given by colonial residents in London, Ridley was presented with a silver candelabrum sent from Adelaide. Among the colonials present were Colonel Gawler, Charles Bonney, Sir Rowland Hill and Captain C.H. Bagot.
During the 1860s Ridley made several trips to Europe. In 1863 Ridley made a journey to Italy with Alexander Hay, visiting Naples and Venice. In 1865 he took his daughter Annie to France to escape the winter in England. Two years later he was there again, this time to visit the Great Exhibition. During these years he gave large sums of money to hospitals and other social organisations and the needy in general.
During the 1870s and 1880s his claims as the inventor of the Stripper were for the first time challenged by J.W. Bull and his friends. But there were even more supporters. In 1879 it was stated that as long as wheat farming was carried on in South Australia, Ridley's name would not be forgotten. It was also suggested that a Chair in Agriculture or a Ridley Scholarship should be established.
Ridley’s claim was strongly defended by Anthony Forster and in 1886 by the Register newspaper. The same newspaper also published letters of support by Hirman Mildred and Jas. Umpherstone. Other letters of support were written by C.H. Bagot and ex Governor Grey.
Ridley died in London on 25 November 1887 but the argument continued for some time yet. In February 1911 a meeting was held by the Chamber of Manufacturers. At it a report was presented by John A. Bagshaw and J. Mitton concerning the question of commemorating the name of John Ridley. It took some years but his memory is now honoured by the Hundred of Ridley, The Ridley Memorial Scholarship at Roseworthy Agricultural College, The Ridley Gates at the showground in Wayville, The District Council of Ridley, changed in 1991 to Ridley-Truro but changed again to Mid Murray Council in 1997 and the electoral district of Ridley.
The first white baby born in the Hundred of Ridley, to Mr and Mrs Edson, on 24 June 1891 was named Ridley.
As late as the 1930s G.L. Sutton produced an authoritive work defending Bull's claim and in 1992, when J.W. Redding published his book The First Stripper, defending Ridley's claim, there were still people who disagreed with him. Their strongest argument based on the fact that Bull had received a reward of £250 for his claim from the South Australian Government.