First Reaper: The Beginning of Farm Mechanization

Cyrus Hall McCormick takes the first step toward farm mechanization with the first reaper

McCormick harvester and twine binder

The McCormick harvester and twine binder, maufactured in 1881, was the first binder which tied the bundles with twine. After the development of this machine only minor developments, tending to give greater durability and lighter draft, were added.

Content Tools

Cyrus Hall McCormick, a 22-year-old Virginian, gave America its first step toward farm mechanization when he invented the reaper 150 years ago this spring.

He first showed it publicly in July 1831, in a field near Steele's Tavern, not far from the valley of Walnut Grove, where the family farm lay.

McCormick walked behind the reaper, which was drawn by a single horse ridden by a boy. Jo Anderson, a slave, raked the platform clear of cut grain.

Neither McCormick nor any of those on the field or watching could have had any idea of what lay ahead how eventually all field operations of American farmers, and farmers over most of the world, would be performed through the use of machinery.

McCormick was not satisfied with this first reaper. He did not seek a patent until 1834. In the meantime Obed Hussey, a Maryland inventor, obtained a patent for a reaper. McCormick obtained his first patent on June 21, 1834.

Continuing his experiments through 1841, McCormick sold seven reapers in 1842. By 1843, he sold 29, and in 1844 he sold 50.

In those days, machines were handmade. The family's log blacksmith shop was the first factory. But after the harvest of 1844, McCormick set out on horseback to see what chances for sales might be found in the broad prairies of the Midwest.

By 1847, he decided to place his headquarters in Chicago, which then had a population of 16,859. He built his factory on the north bank of the Chicago River; in the following year 700 reapers were built and sold. He expanded the plant, adding machinery, steam power and manpower.

Looking for markets overseas, he exhibited his reaper at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851. After receiving the highest award at the fair, the Council Medal, he started a campaign of introducing his machine to other countries at fairs and exhibitions. Sales went up worldwide.

During the late 1850s and 1860s, McCormick and his brothers, Leander and William, both partners in the firm, added machines designed to cut hay. These included a combination mower-reaper and a mower designed to save drudgery and speed production of hay in areas where dairying was becoming important. New employees specialized in product improvement and new machine development.

Farm interest in labor-saving devices rose during the War Between the States. In 1862 McCormick equipped his reaper with a rake arm which raked the cut grain off the platform and to the side of the machine. This eliminated the work of one man, the raker. This meant more grain produced with less manpower.

When Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over the lantern in 1871, the Great Chicago Fire demolished the McCormick Reaper Works. Undaunted, McCormick rebuilt a new works outside the city.

A wire binder was developed in 1874. This machine tied bundles with bands of wire, eliminating the band binders who had ridden the March-type harvester, invented by C. W. and W. W. Marsh of DeKalb, Illinois.

The wire binder was followed in 1881 by a machine which used twine to tie the grain.

McCormick, an advocate of world marketing, lived to see his products in all civilized regions. He died May 13, 1884.

The partnership had been dissolved in 1879, succeeded by a corporation headed by McCormick. His son Cyrus succeeded him, continuing growth.

In 1902 a merger took place which brought the International Harvester Company into being. Companies taking part with McCormick were Deering Harvester Company, founded in Piano, Illinois; by William Deering and located in Chicago by 1880; Piano Manufacturing Company, Milwaukee, (Wis.) Harvester Company, and Warder, Bushnell and Blessner, of Springfield, Ohio.

The workshop-grist mill area of the McCormick farm has been designated a national historical landmark by the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of Interior. It is visited by many tourists annually, and this year will probably draw its biggest visitation ever.

A similar landmark honor has been conferred on the site by the American Society of Agricultural Engineers. IMA