Early in the harvest season of 1831, a young fellow by the name of Cyrus McCormick stood in a field east of his father’s farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and watched workers cradle the golden wheat. It was a slow process, requiring hour after hour of manpower and sweat. The ablest man could cradle no more than three acres a day. There had to be an easier way.
Cyrus’ father was posing the same question. In a small blacksmith shop near the mill, the elder McCormick had been toying with an invention for 15 years.
It was a bulky contraption, built to be pushed instead of drawn by horses, hitched to a long tongue protruding from the rear of the machine. It tested well on strong upright wheat, but failed miserably with damp stalks heavy winds had pushed to the ground. Robert McCormick had set aside the idea and concentrated on building a successful thresher instead.
With his father’s working model at his disposal, Cyrus began to tinker. A serious young man who shunned the interests of others his age, he showed a remarkable mechanical aptitude. Other than a passing interest in music, invention became the one thing worthy of his time.
At the age of 22, he had constructed a workable hillside plow superior to any on the market. Plans for a Virginia reaper, using some of his father’s previous ideas, quickly followed. Cyrus was convinced a practical machine to harvest wheat could be built by changing some of the basic principles. By mid-June 1831, he and a dedicated slave, Joe Anderson, began building on some new ideas. A hired workman, Sam Hite, later joined the project when Robert McCormick realized the depth of his son’s efforts.
But time was not on Cyrus’ side. By the middle of that year’s harvest, the unlikely trio still toiled over hot coals, shaping unusual pulleys and blades as workmen met another daybreak with cradles in hand.
The harvest couldn’t wait for any machine, and Robert McCormick finished well ahead of schedule. He did, however, leave one small tract of overripe grain standing for his son’s trial with the Virginia reaper. It proved enough.
Near the end of July, Cyrus and his devoted helpers wheeled their odd-looking machine out of the dim shop and hitched a mare to the long wooden tongue protruding from the right front side. The dead-ripe field of wheat lay rolling in the distance.
The machine had become nothing like his father’s failed experiment. There were no bulky cylinders to clog, and the horse pulled instead of pushed. An interesting feature was a rather simple wooden divider projecting from the left side, a feature designed to keep the grain separated so the blade could cut smoothly.
The blade was the most significant part, although it would later be modified with serrated cutting teeth and made to vibrate. A “gathering reel” was also added later to aid in picking up damp or windblown stalks of grain. It took an additional 10 days to add the modifications that made the machine fully operational.
Cyrus continued for several years to make improvements on his invention. Although he made some effort to keep it secret, he neglected applying for a patent until 1834. In fact, he came close to being the victim of one-upmanship by another inventor, Obed Hussey of Ohio, who designed a similar machine.
Even with a patent, Cyrus remained unconcerned about the scope of his invention. It wasn’t until six years later that he began marketing his reaper on a wide scale. He rarely advertised it, and continued to use it chiefly at Walnut Grove (his father’s farm) as if blind to the fact he had created something that would change farming forever.
Finally though, from 1840 to 1847, Cyrus transformed his father’s blacksmith shop into a factory of sorts. He already had plenty of iron and lumber at Walnut Grove since his father ran a successful iron mine and foundry on the 600-acre farm. Hardwood timber such as ash, hickory and oak was plentiful. The farm also had its own sawmill and carpentry shop.
Cyrus continued to do most of the assembly, assisted by two brothers, his father and hired hands or slaves. But the output remained small, going to contracts in nearby Richmond and surrounding counties.
It wasn’t until 1843 that leases to build the machine were expanded to independent shops as far away as Maryland, New York, Missouri and Ohio. By then the reaper had been improved with a longer blade that could cut up to 14 acres of grain a day.
Agricultural journals of the time hailed Cyrus as a genius. But it was the great open Midwest that gave him the warmest reception. Unlike the hilly terrain of Virginia, the flat plains and prairies of the Mississippi Basin seemed designed for the reaper. The lack of ample manpower in that unsettled land made any laborsaving device a godsend.
By the end of 1847, Cyrus knew he had to move his operations from rural Virginia to an urban setting. His father’s death in 1846 was probably a deciding factor. Cyrus left his mother to run Walnut Grove and found a place for a factory in the greater Chicago area.
Cyrus’ decision was providence. He became an astute businessman, earning vast wealth and prestige. Several more important modifications over the years improved his simple machine’s ability to produce at astounding levels, compared to sheer manpower. One or two workers could operate it with relative ease.
There’s at least one lasting irony to Cyrus’ story. By taking his harvesting miracle north and west prior to the Civil War, he gave the Union an advantage in feeding its armies, thereby releasing more able-bodied men to fight the war against his native South. But by then, even he chose to fight for the Union cause, further putting himself at odds with Virginia friends and relatives.
If anything, Cyrus McCormick’s story proves that great inventions usually have a way of becoming impersonal to place or time. The needs of humanity as a whole overcome the best or worst intentions of a single idea. It happens whether the invention is a simple reaper, or a vexingly complex space station circling the earth. FC
Now known as the Shenandoah Valley Agricultural Research and Extension Center, the McCormick farm is open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day year-round (weather permitting). Admission is free. It’s located at 128 McCormick Farm Circle, Raphine, VA 24472, midway between Lexington and Staunton, Va., on Interstate 81. Take Exit 205 to US Route 606, go east on Rt. 606/Raphine Road for 1/2 mile. Turn left on Rt. 937 (McCormick Farm Circle). For more information, call the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University at (540) 377-2255; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edward Myers is a contributor from Martinsville, Va.