Cyrus McCormick, Inventor of the Mechanical Reaper

Cyrus McCormick, engraving by George Smillie. Library of Congress

Cyrus McCormick (1809-1884) was a Chicago industrialist who in 1831 invented the first commercially successful mechanical reaper, a horse-drawn machine to harvest wheat. The invention, one of the most important in the history of farm innovations, made him prosperous and famous, and he's remembered as “the Father of Modern Agriculture.”

The Seeds of the Reaper

Born in Virginia, McCormick was a religious man who saw it as his mission to help feed the world.

McCormick teamed with and drew on the work of many other people in developing the reaper, including his father and one of his slaves. Ironically, this device—developed, in part, by a slave—went on not just to enrich McCormick, but to liberate free farm workers from hours of back-breaking labor.

The invention of two successful reaping machines (Obed Hussey independently created a reaper in Ohio, obtaining the first patent in 1834) brought about an end to hours of tedious field work and encouraged the invention and manufacture of other labor-saving farm implements and machinery

The first reapers cut the standing grain and, with a revolving reel, swept it onto a platform from which it was raked off into piles by a man walking alongside. It could harvest more grain than five men using the earlier cradles. The next innovation, patented in 1858, was a self-raking reaper with an endless canvas belt that delivered the cut grain to two men riding on the end of the platform, who bundled it.

 

The Rewards

Meanwhile, Cyrus McCormick had moved to Chicago, built a factory in 1847, begun the mass manufacture of his reaper, and founded what eventually became the International Harvester Company. In 1872 he produced a reaper which automatically bound the bundles with wire. In 1880, he came out with a binder which, using a magical knotting device (invented by John F.

Appleby, a Wisconsin pastor), bound the handles with twine. 

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 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