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Roy Burton Gray


Posted By: Dean Broz (email)
Date: 11/6/2002 at 14:40:56

Award of the John Deere Medal by the American Society of Agricultural Engineers, Washington, D.C., June 21, 1950, for "Distinguished Achievement in the Application of Science and Art to the Soil." Roy B. Gray, The 1950 John Deere Medalist.

In the selection of Roy B. Gray to receive the John Deere Gold Medal for 1950, the Jury of Awards of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers has indeed designated a man whose long and varied career has increasingly concentrated on "application of science and art to the soil."

Born June 10, 1884, at Hampton, Iowa, Roy B. Gray was the son of Henry and Alice Gray. His education in the Iowa schools was climaxed by graduation from Iowa State College in 1909 with the B.S. degree in electrical engineering, and a year later with a duplicate degree in agricultural engineering. In 1931 his alma mater conferred the professional A.E. degree on him.

Besides being active in track athletics in college, he was active in football as a tackle; in fact, it has been alleged that he was more interested in football than in electricity. There is a legend, possibly apocryphal, that he came to be known as "Muscles," and that for reasons mainly physical he was recruited into the department of agricultural engineering as a means of cranking the behemoth tractors of those days. Anyway, he became Iowa's second graduate in agricultural engineering.

During the decade 1910-1920 he was an experimental tractor engineer with the International Harvester Company, mostly in foreign countries including Canada, England, Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Romania, and South Africa. However, there was a hiatus when in 1916 -17 he had charge of a tractor assembly depot and a military tractor school in England, and in 1918 was technical advisor to the British Army on agricultural tractors in France and to the Italian army in Italy.

In the 1921 - 24 period he was in charge of the department of agricultural engineering at the University of Idaho. In 1925 began his present connection with the U.S. Department of Agriculture where he is head of the Division of Farm Machinery in the Bureau of Plant Industry, Soils, and Agricultural Engineering. Immediately he began "diggin in" to the soil with a project on fertilizer placement machinery.

But then came the invasion by the European corn borer, and Mr. Gray was assigned to an action program, extending from 1927 into 1931. It was a holding operation, and a huge task of organization and cooperation among various agencies of the federal government, the states and Canada. He directed the research and design work as it involved machinery for borer control. It included destruction by burial, through proper plows, plow attachments, and plowing; burning, by machines that had to be developed swiftly from scratch; and by machine treatment of stalks during harvest or otherwise.

In 1931, when agricultural engineering was given separate bureau rank in the USDA, Mr. Gray was put in charge of research on farm machinery and equipment. Among many activities he has directed, a major opus was related to the planning and establishment of the tillage machinery laboratory at Auburn, Ala. Here, in what is probably the world's most completely controlled, comprehensive array of full-scale soil samples, can be studied practically every relation between various soils and every machine element which they touch.

Also under his direction is the pest and plant disease laboratory at Toledo, Ohio. What with the length of his career and the breadth of his responsibility, there is hardly a farm machine or operation with which he has not been concerned. Listing many such, his former chief, the late S.H. McCrory, made special mention of Mr. Gray's guidance in the development of new machines for specific tasks, such as harvesting pyrethrum, hulling tung nuts, harvesting sweet potato vines , and lifting down cornstalks. In 1936 he spent several months observing farm machinery and farm electrification developments in seven countries of Europe.

As an author, he has been more technical than popular, more authoritative than prolific. To be sure, his name appears on a few circulars and farmers' bulletins. In contrast are seven articles in the current Encyclopedia Britannica, articles in several USDA Yearbooks, preparation or revision of a variety of department publications, and papers published from time to time in Agricultural Engineering, the journal of ASAE.

Mr. Gray has been a member of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers since 1920. He was chairman of its Power and Machinery Division in 1933 - 34, and of the Washington, D.C., Section in 1941 - 42. He has served on no less than nine of its technical committees. In allied fields he has been chairman or member of committees on farm production and processing equipment of the Farm Chemurgic Council, motor fuels of the American Society for Testing Materials, application equipment of the Agricultural Insecticide and Fungicide Association, and farm equipment requirements of the Marshall Plan, having been appointed in 1948 to an ECA farm machinery mission to study farm machinery needs in some ten European countries.

In addition he has served as consultant to still other technical committees in such organizations as the Farm Bureau and the American Petroleum Institute. He was a member of the Interbureau Committee of the USDA which estimated farm machinery needs for 1942 and made recommendations to the Office of Product Management. Other memberships include the Society of Automotive Engineers, the Congregational Church, and Sigma Alph Epsilon Fraternity.

Even in his avocations Mr. Gray includes the soil. According to one of his associates, his "garden is always better than the neighbors' -- his radishes are earlier, his tomatoes are rounder, and his spinach has more vitamins." Languages, once a necessity, remain an abiding interest. On this point it is alleged:
"Unfortunately, it is apparently the case that the words of a foreign language most easily learned and longest remembered are the invectives and cuss words. Gray, with the resources of six languages at his command, can really tell a man off. For this reason it is necessary to keep a plate glass top on his desk in order to save the varnish."

This talent, if actual, is all the more amazing in a man whose usual manner is gentle almost to the point of diffidence, whose smile and greeting are the essence of friendliness. More credible is his accomplishment as a bass singer, the "spark plug" of the male quartet of the Divisions of Agricultural Engineering, singer of leading roles in departmental and community presentations."

Mr. Gray's wife is the former Carolyn J. Skilton. They have a daughter, Virginia, besides Mrs. Gray's sons, Jack and George Skilton.

Award of the John Deere medal to Mr. Gray recalls an earlier honor conferred on him by the French government, the decoration of "Officer du Merite Agricole." The letter from the Minister of Agriculture said it was in recognition of services rendered to French agriculture.


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