Cyrus McCormick, Inventor of the Mechanical Reaper

Ushering in the Age of Modern Agriculture

Cyrus McCormick
Cyrus McCormick, engraving by George Smillie. Library of Congress

The mechanical reaper was invented by Cyrus McCormick (1809-1884), a Virginia blacksmith, in 1831. Essentially, it was a horse-drawn machine that harvested wheat, and it was one of the most important in the history of farm innovations. 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.

At the time, McCormick was only 22 years old, but his invention made him prosperous and famous. Remembered as “the Father of Modern Agriculture," he made it possible for farmers to expand their small, personal farms into much larger operations.

The Seeds of the Reaper

Born in Virginia, McCormick was a religious man who believed his mission was to help feed the world. He 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 also to liberate free farm workers from hours of backbreaking labor.

McCormick priced his first reapers at $50 each (about $1,500 today), but had no takers. Still, he persisted, setting up production in a shop next to his father's house. Slowly, by word of mouth and by creating a better product than the competitors who rushed to market with similar machines, he built his reputation.

The Rewards

Sensing that the Midwest offered a greater market for his product, Cyrus McCormick moved to Chicago. In 1847, he and his brother Leland built a factory and a established the Harvester Machine Company (which eventually became the International Harvester Company) to mass manufacture his reaper.

McCormick also 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 which, using a magical knotting device (invented by John F. Appleby, a Wisconsin pastor), bound the handles with twine. 

In 1851, McCormick gained international fame when his reaper won the Gold Medal at the landmark Great Exposition in London's Crystal Palace.

McCormick died in 1884, but his business lived on, even if it was marked two years later by tragedy. It was at McCormick's factory that, in 1886, a strike by workers eventually turned into one of the worst labor-related riots in American history. By the time the Haymarket Riot ended, several people were dead and four more were on trial for their lives. In 1902, J.P. Morgan bought the company, along with five others, to form International Harvester.

McCormick's Impact

The invention of reaping machines 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. 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 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