An Australian Invention: Falkiner Cane Harvester in Operation

An Australian Invention: Falkiner Cane Harvester in Operation
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The harvester is operated by a person seated on one side of the machine. The camera films, from various positions, the harvester as it is guided along the edge of the cane field. Men walk behind the harvester bunching together the discarded cane tops. The camera pans across slightly to capture the cane being discharged in bunches from the hopper. In another fixed view, the harvester is seen moving towards the camera. Summary by Poppy de Souza.

In the final shot of this clip, it is possible to make out the discarded ‘trash’ that is removed through air blasts at the top of the harvester. These contaminants are blown through slats that eject them upwards.


An Australian Invention synopsis

This promotional documentary for the mechanical Falkiner Cane Harvester incorporates animated sketches, intertitles and live-action examples to demonstrate how the harvester operates in the cane fields of Bundaberg, Queensland.


An Australian Invention curator's notes

The Falkiner Cane Harvester was one of the first mechanical harvesters to be developed for the cutting of cane. Until this time, cane cutting was done manually, and only decades earlier had been done by indentured Melanesian labourers brought to Queensland to work in the cane fields. This manual harvesting of cane has been captured on film in South Sea Islanders Cutting Cane, 1899: Nambour, Qld and serves as a contrast to the clips shown here.

The intertitles throughout this film succinctly describe the action and parts of the harvester in detail. The intertitles use the symbol of the cane stalk as a border to frame the text, providing a direct link to the action they describe. The illustrations and animated sketches often precede a live-action demonstration and are both easy to understand and detailed enough to let audiences grasp the mechanics and design principles. These devices combine to give a lot of information in an effective and interesting way. Sections of the film focus on specific features of the harvester, including the ‘revolving knives’ that it uses to cut the cane from below the surface of the ground. Additionally, a willing volunteer points with a stick or their hand, to the part being described.

Aside from the opening title, there are no production details on this film, and its intended use therefore remains uncertain. It was deposited with the National Film and Sound Archive by the Queensland Cane Growers Organisation (now known as CANEGROWERS) and was possibly made by them or an associated organisation to promote the use of the mechanical harvester – a real innovation at the time.

Notes by Poppy de Souza


Education notes

This black-and-white silent clip shows the operation of the mechanical Falkiner cane harvester, being demonstrated to members of the Australian Sugar Producers’ Association in Bundaberg, Queensland. It gathers up the cane, cuts it into lengths and then tosses the cut cane from the hopper. Shots show the driver, seated at the side of the machine, driving it past the camera. Other scenes display the long gatherers that project in front of the machine and draw the cane inside. An intertitle decorated with a sugar-cane motif describes one phase of the process.

Educational value points

  • The Falkiner cane harvester represented a significant innovation and improvement on earlier mechanical harvesters. It offered a speedy and efficient way of dealing with the differing lengths of cane so that the leafy ends could be cut off. A blast of air then separated the tops from the cane lengths that dropped into a bin for collection. With the assistance of US engineers, further improvements were made and it was a success in the USA and Cuba.
  • The clip provides an example of the industrial documentary genre of film in its silent form, featuring detailed intertitles and close-up images demonstrating how industrial processes, in this case a mechanical cane harvester, work. Different viewpoints demonstrate phases of the harvesting process from the cane being severed at its base, gathered onto the cane elevator, the discharge of the cane tops and the delivery of the cut lengths of cane onto the hoppers.
  • Those viewing the demonstration of the cane harvester would have been keenly interested in its potential to replace the arduous labour and cost involved in hand cutting, but the machine was a failure in Australia. It worked well in straight, upright cane but could not cope with the heavy haphazard growth of Queensland cane. The Queensland sugar-cane industry depended largely on manual cutters until the mid-1960s.
  • Inventors Ralph Falkiner (1877–1946) and Walter Charley (1889–?) took out the patent for the Falkiner Cane Harvester in 1928. Charley went on to invent a rice-cutting machine and cane-cutting machinery in Cuba. Falkiner came from a wealthy Riverina sheep-breeding family but his interest was in machines. He acquired a cane harvester developed by a farmer called Hurrey in 1908 and refined and improved this invention to produce the model seen in the clip.
  • At the time of the clip Queensland’s sugar industry was set to boom. From its establishment in the 1860s the high cost of workers in this labour-intensive industry made it difficult for it to compete with overseas markets. Improved rail access, new technology, the availability of cheap labour from the South Pacific islands and then European migrant workers as well as protective import duties enabled the industry to grow. Australia became a sugar exporter in the 1920s.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia