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.”
Publisher sold on design
At that time, McCormick and Hussey were battling over which one of them had invented the reaper. Atkins had an opportunity to study one of these machines as it sat outside his bedroom window. A local farmer supposedly told Atkins that if he could only attach a raker to it, he’d “make his fortune.”
Taking the remark to heart, Atkins is said to have thought out and planned every part of his self-raker in his head before committing it to paper. He had a model built from the plans and then a full-size reaper that was called the “Automaton.”
John S. Wright, then the publisher of the Prairie Farmer, who had been manufacturing and selling Obed Hussey’s reaper in some western states, apparently felt that Atkins’ machine had much promise. He undertook to manufacture the machine and promoted it tirelessly, travelling to many state fairs and reaper demonstrations throughout the U.S. and at least once to England.
Everything that could go wrong …
The first trial of Atkins’ machine didn’t go well. It was decided at the last minute to enter it in an 1854 trial by the New York State Agricultural Society at Geneva, New York. The reaper was barely finished in time to put it on a railroad car for Geneva and there was no opportunity for a field test. Then the railroad briefly lost the car, causing another delay and eliminating the possibility of an on-site test before the trial.
At the trial, the reel was found to revolve much too fast so it was decided to try it without. Unfortunately the wind was blowing from behind the machine, causing cut grain to fall in front of the machine instead of being swept back onto the platform. Then a part broke and Atkins’ machine was out of business.
The committee report told the story, “Atkins’ Automaton machine, entered by Mr. J.S. Wright, attracted much notice, not for the work performed, that was indifferent, but for the ingenuity displayed in the mechanism, whereby an arm was made to rise from the machine, descending with a rapid motion, it seized the cut grain on the platform, carried it to the side of the machine and laid it in a tolerably well-formed gavel, beyond the track of the reaper.”
The broken part was repaired and the machine worked well the next day, although there were no committee members present to witness it. A bystander later told Wright that he’d heard one of the shock tiers remark “that he had rather tie behind the Automaton than any of the other reapers in the field.”
Other trials were more successful and the Atkins Automaton is said to have been quite popular among farmers for a few years. A news item from the 1854 Illinois State Fair tells us, “It [Atkins’ Automaton] attracted more attention than any other implement on the ground, and is certainly a most ingenious and useful article. Twelve hundred, we were informed by the proprietor, J.S. Wright, were built for the harvest of 1855.”
Demise of the Automaton
But there were problems, too. In a Sept. 29, 1860, New York Times article on the National Fair in Cincinnati, a reporter wrote, “Ever since Jearum Atkins, the bedridden cripple, astonished the world in the production of a machine for raking grain off the platform of the reaper, the wits of our inventors have been at work to discover a shorter cut to the desired end. It was found in practice that the ‘artificial arm’ of Atkins was not always to be depended upon, as it sometimes worked well and sometimes worse. Nowadays – for instance, at this fair – the farmer may see a dozen or more contrivances for getting the cut grain out of the way of the falling grain.”
The reporter goes on to describe four or five other self-raking devices exhibited at the fair and says, “These are only a few specimens of a great host of contrivances for accomplishing the great end and aim of the harvester, and it is curiously instructive to watch the annual display of new contributions to this department of invention.”
1857 was a bad year, with heavy, tangled grain in which the Atkins machine didn’t perform well. That and a financial panic that year “wrecked both machine and manufacturers,” in the words of Robert Ardrey, in his 1894 book, American Agricultural Implements, and that seems to have been pretty much the end of the Automaton.
Before long, the sail-type reaper with wooden arms (sails) that raised and lowered as they revolved and both swept the grain onto the semi-circular platform and then swept the cut grain off into gavels, soon became the standard, at least for a few years until self-binders made reapers obsolete. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.