The Largely Forgotten Role of Jearum Atkins in Reaper Development

Lesser known than other inventors and businessmen, Jearum Atkins still had a major influence on the evolution of the reaper.

| July 2018

You’ve heard of Cyrus McCormick, haven’t you? Of course you have – hasn’t everyone? OK then, how about Jearum Atkins? That name draws a blank, right? Well, old Jearum Atkins had a great deal to do with reaper development, same as McCormick, Obed Hussey and many others.

The McCormick, Hussey and other early reapers eliminated the backbreaking work of swinging a sickle or scythe all day. A reciprocating cutter bar was moved through the standing grain by horses and a revolving reel swept the grain back against the cutter bar and laid the cut grain on a flat platform.

A man walking alongside the machine wielded a wide hand rake to pull the cut grain from the platform, ideally into neat bundles called gavels. Other workers gathered up each gavel, tied it into a sheaf with a couple of wisps of straw and placed the sheaves into shocks to “sweat.” In heavy or tangled grain, the raker was often unable to leave neat gavels and the sheaf tiers had to spend a lot of time gathering up the grain.

The invalid inventor

The earliest improvement to the reaper was addition of a seat for the raker, so he didn’t have to stumble along beside the machine, but what was badly wanted was a mechanical self-raking device (doohickeys to automatically tie the grain into bundles came later). Inventors and tinkerers had tried with no success, but then Jearum Atkins, a man who was nearly bedridden by an accident, dreamed up the first self-raker that actually worked.

Atkins was born in 1815 in Vermont, where his father ran a water-powered sawmill. As a boy of 10, he built a perfect miniature replica of the mill, even making pewter fittings to represent the metal parts of the real mill. Later he learned the millwright trade. While visiting Chicago in 1840, his spine was seriously injured in a runaway horse accident, confining him to his bed at his Evanston, Illinois, home for many years.

Undaunted, Atkins rigged up a drawing board, suspended face-down above his bed with a movable T-square permanently attached to it and, according to the December 1893 issue of Cassier’s Magazine, on this board “he worked out a great number of intricate and ingenious problems. The drawings made by him under these adverse circumstances are marvels of neatness and accuracy.”


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