If you’ve ever driven through parts of the Midwest, or even flown across the Great Plains region of the United States, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen an abundance of crop circles.
Circular in shape, these crop fields received their form and name from the development of the center-pivot irrigation system. 2020 National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Frank Zybach is the inventor of this technology, and his story reflects a lifetime of resourceful thinking.
An Inventive Mindset
From a young age, Zybach learned to value the hands-on applications of tinkering and invention. After quitting school in the seventh grade to help his father’s farm and blacksmith shop, he took up metalworking and developed the skills that would lead him to secure 10 patents throughout his lifetime. At age 13, he built a small cart with swivel wheels and a seat to help him on the farm. In his twenties, he built an automatic tractor guide for steel-wheeled tractors.
By the late 1940s, Zybach had moved from Nebraska to Colorado and was working as a farmer while continuing his inventive pursuits. In the summer of 1947, Zybach observed workers struggling to assemble pipes in an irrigation field. He knew that a better irrigation system needed to be built and believed that he could be the one to do it.
The Forefront of Efficiency
After just one year, Zybach had designed the first center-pivot irrigation system. The system pivoted around a wellhead that supplied water while towers rode along on skids. Wires extended downward from the towers to support sections of pipe with attached sprinklers. The system was powered by the water pressure running through it. Zybach then replaced the skids with wheels as he continued to improve his invention. Thanks to his skills as a metalworker, he crafted the majority of the system’s parts and pieces himself.
In 1952, Zybach received a patent for his invention. He soon realized that he needed help in marketing the system, so he contacted Nebraska businessman A.E. Trowbridge to help him secure capital in exchange for 49% interest in the patent rights. Zybach and Trowbridge were able to manufacture 10 systems before agreeing to license the system’s patent to Valley Manufacturing (now Valmont Industries).
In the decades since Zybach first created the center-pivot irrigation system, the invention has revolutionized agricultural production. In 1976, Scientific American called the system “perhaps the most significant mechanical innovation in agriculture since the replacement of draft animals by the tractor.” Zybach’s invention transformed the Great Plains region’s agricultural geography and revitalized its agricultural communities, leaving a permanent mark on history.
Frank Zybach will be celebrated as one of our newest Inductees at the NIHF Induction Ceremony. Look for more blogs introducing our inspiring 2020 Inductees at invent.org.