Biography of Cyrus McCormick, Inventor of the Mechanical Reaper

Cyrus McCormick

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Cyrus McCormick (Feb. 15, 1809—May 13, 1884), a Virginia blacksmith, invented the mechanical reaper in 1831. Essentially a horse-drawn machine that harvested wheat, it was one of the most important inventions in the history of farm innovation. The reaper, which one observer likened to a cross between a wheelbarrow and a chariot, was capable of cutting six acres of oats in one afternoon, the equivalent of 12 men working with scythes.

Fast Facts: Cyrus McCormick

Known For: Invented the mechanical reaper

Known As: The Father of Modern Agriculture

Born: Feb. 15, 1809, in Rockbridge County, Virginia

Parents:  Robert McCormick, Mary Ann Hall

Died: May 13, 1884, in Chicago, Illinois

Spouse: Nancy "Nettie" Fowler

Children: Cyrus McCormick Jr., Harold Fowler McCormick

Notable Quote: "Indomitable perseverance in a business, properly understood, always ensures ultimate success."

Early Life

McCormick was born in 1809 in Rockbridge County, Virginia, to Robert McCormick and Mary Ann Hall McCormick, who had migrated from Great Britain. He was the eldest of eight children in a family that was influential in the area. His father was a farmer but also a blacksmith and an inventor.

Young McCormick had little formal education, spending his time instead in his father's workshop. His father held patents for inventing such farm machinery as a clover huller, a blacksmith’s bellows, a hydraulic power machine, and other labor-saving devices for the farm, but after more than 20 years he had failed to come up with a workable, horse-drawn mechanical reaping machine. Cyrus decided to take up the challenge.

Seeds of the Reaper

McCormick's invention would make him prosperous and famous, but he was a religious young man who believed his mission was to help feed the world. For farmers in the early 19th century, harvesting required a large number of laborers. He set out to reduce the number of hands needed for the harvest. He drew on the work of many other people in developing the reaper, including that of his father and Jo Anderson, one of his father's slaves, but he ended up basing his work on principles entirely different from those employed by Robert McCormick.

After 18 months, he came up with a working model. His machine had a vibrating cutting blade, a reel to pull the grain within reach of the blade, and a platform to catch the falling grain. He had succeeded, and he was only 22. The first version was rough—it made such a clatter that slaves were assigned to walk with the frightened horses to keep them calm—but it clearly worked. He received a patent for his invention in 1834.

Ironically, after he had received the patent, McCormick set aside his invention to focus on his family's iron foundry, which failed in the wake of the bank panic of 1837 and left the family deeply in debt. So he returned to his reaper, setting up production in a shop next to his father's house and focusing on improvements. He finally sold his first machine in 1840 or 1841, and business slowly took off.

Moves to Chicago

A visit to the Midwest convinced McCormick that the future of his reaper was in that sprawling, fertile land instead of the rocky soil in the East. Following more improvements, he and his brother Leander opened a factory in Chicago in 1847 and sold 800 machines that first year. The new venture, the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co., eventually became the largest farm equipment manufacturing firm in the country.

In 1851, McCormick gained international fame when his reaper won the Gold Medal at the landmark Great Exposition in London's Crystal Palace. He became a leading public figure and remained active in Presbyterian causes as well as Democratic politics.

 In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed McCormick's company, but the family rebuilt it and McCormick continued to innovate. In 1872, he produced a reaper that automatically bound the bundles with wire. Eight years later, he came out with a binder that, using a knotting device invented by Wisconsin pastor John F. Appleby, bound the handles with twine. Despite fierce competition and legal battles over patents, the company continued to prosper.

Death and Tragedy

McCormick died in 1884, and his eldest son, Cyrus Jr., took over as president at only 25 years old. Two years later, though, the business was marked by tragedy. A workers' strike in 1886 that involved the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. eventually turned into one of the worst labor-related riots in American history. By the time the Haymarket Riot ended, seven policemen and four civilians were dead.

Charges were brought against eight reputed anarchists: Seven were sentenced to death; one committed suicide in prison, four were hanged, and the sentences of two were commuted to life in prison.

Cyrus McCormick Jr. continued as president of the company until 1902, when J.P. Morgan bought it, along with five others, to form the International Harvester Co.

Legacy

Cyrus McCormick is remembered as “The Father of Modern Agriculture" because he made it possible for farmers to expand their small, personal farms into much larger operations. His reaping machine brought an end to hours of tedious field work and encouraged the invention and manufacture of other labor-saving farm implements and machinery.

McCormick and his competitors continued to improve their products, leading to such innovations as self-raking reapers, with a continually moving canvas belt that delivered the cut grain to two men riding on the end of the platform, who bundled it. 

The reaper was eventually replaced by the self-propelled combine, operated by one man, which cuts, gathers, threshes, and sacks the grain mechanically. But the original reaper was the first step in a transition from hand labor to the mechanized farming of today. It brought about an industrial revolution, as well as a vast change in agriculture.

Sources

  • "Cyrus McCormick." http://www.inventionware.com/cyrus-mccormick/.
  • "McCormick, Cyrus Hall." http://www.anb.org/view/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-9780198606697-e-1001098.
  • "Cyrus McCormick: American Industrialist and Inventor." https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cyrus-McCormick.
  • "Nancy Fowler McCormick." https://www.revolvy.com/topic/Nancy%20Fowler%20McCormick&item_type=topic
  • "Cyrus McCormick Biography." https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/cyrus-mccormick-6675.php