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Ransomes Jacobsen in Ipswich looks to electric vehicles
A History of the World
By Jon Wright and Andrew Woodger
BBC Suffolk

Cast iron plough

Accident that changed agriculture

Ransomes of Ipswich is celebrating over 200 years of history by looking ahead to the future with electric vehicles.

A Ransomes plough was submitted to the BBC's A History of the World project by the Museum of East Anglian Life.

The firm still manufactures in Ipswich although its core business is turf and golf course maintenance mowers and equipment.

"Electric power in some shape or form is probably the way we're going to be going," said Peter Driver of Ransomes.

The Ransomes fortune was built on an accidental discovery.

Robert Ransome set up the foundry in Ipswich in 1789, but it was a spillage of molten iron that gave the firm its revolutionary patent in 1803.

Peter Driver of Ransomes-Jacobsen
Peter Driver at the Ipswich plant where they have a 3-hole golf course

As the molten iron solidified on the workshop floor, it was noticed that it was harder where it had come into contact with colder surfaces.

'Chilled cast-iron' was born and the firm put it to use in plough shares and mass production.

"All the pieces on Ransomes ploughs were interchangeable," said Linda Harris, collections manager at the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) in Stowmarket.

"That's one of the special things about Ransomes and why they were leaders in their field.

"He could adapt different pieces and ploughs could be sent all over the world where there are different conditions just by building different parts that could be bolted on."

That extended to exports to places such as India where the ploughs were designed to be pulled by oxen or even elephants.

Among many other Ransomes products was a threshing machine and you can watch video of one in action here at Hulver Farm, St Michael South Elmham near Bungay.


How the thresher boosted farming

Electric dreams

Ransomes started making lawnmowers in 1832 and this has proved to have greater longevity.

In the mid-1970s the grounds care division (as mowing/turf management is known) overtook the agriculture division in sales.

A Ransomes Jacobsen electric vehicle
Electric vehicles can be used as people carriers or litter trucks

At the firm's 1960s peak it had around 4000 employees in Ipswich.

"We're renowned as innovators in our industry, but it's probably only because [US multinational firm] Textron came on board in 1998 that we're still here," said Peter Driver, Ransomes' public relations man for Ipswich.

The firm, which trades under the name Ransomes-Jacobsen, employs 300 people at its site on the Ransomes Europark - an area that it used to completely cover.

"Automation's moved on, business has contracted but we're nicely sized," said Peter. "We are one of the top three manufacturers of commercial mowing equipment in the world."

The future could see the company turn full circle with a new focus on zero-emission vehicles and electric-diesel hybrids.

"We've gone back to what we did in the 1930s, because Ransomes produced the first electric truck," said Peter.

Ransomes ploughs
The Stowmarket museum has an array of agricultural machinery

"We've now gone back 60-70 years and are producing our Diabline machine which is a totally electric truck for use in airports and by local councils who have an environmental policy where machines are emission-free at the point of use.

"We've launched the first mower to be driven by diesel-electric. The real driver is to try and get away from the use of hydraulic motors.

"Battery technology will only get better while fuel costs will get higher.

"We've been here for 200 years and we want to stay here. Last year was a poor year for us.

"This year has started fantastically well for us and the order book's looking good."

The Ransomes discovery of 'chilled cast iron' will be featured on BBC1's A History of the World programme for the Eastern region on Monday, 17 May, 2010 at 1930 BST.

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