Few people changed American agriculture more than Cyrus McCormick. His invention, the McCormick ‘Virginia’ reaper, revolutionized farming by combining many steps involved in harvesting crops into one machine. McCormick’s reaper could cut more wheat in a day than a half-dozen farmhands. The machine’s speed increased crop yields, decreased the number of farmhands needed and helped turn the Midwest into the nation’s breadbasket.
Beginning in 1831, 22-year-old Cyrus McCormick continued his father’s failed quest to produce a mechanical reaper design. Cyrus’ father, Robert McCormick, had extensively researched the mechanical reaper, but his design was never perfected. For three years, Cyrus toiled on a machine and finally secured a patent in 1834. Cyrus’ horse-drawn reaper used back-and-forth-moving cutting blades and a revolving device to push cut grain onto the back of the machine.
Obed Hussey of Baltimore, Md., had patented a reaper of his own one year earlier, which by many accounts was the most improved over earlier devices and nearer in design to later successful models. Cyrus, however, won market supremacy for his patent by using better business tactics, eliminating Obed from the reaper market.
During the 1840s and 1850s, Cyrus continued to improve his reaper by building on Obed’s formula and pushing for worldwide distribution. The noisy machine is said to have scared horses, but it made a farmer’s job much easier. In 1847 and 1848, Cyrus added a seat for the raker, a cutting apparatus, reel divider and a platform. By 1849, another seat was added for the driver, and a sickle – made in sections – replaced the straight knife in 1851.
Cyrus realized an untapped market existed in the large, open fields in the Midwest. In 1847, he founded the McCormick Harvesting Co. in Chicago to meet the swelling demand for his reapers.
In 1851, Cyrus’ reaper won the highest award of the day: A gold medal at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition. Cyrus became a world celebrity and an international sensation.
The reaper’s efficient production power wasn’t the only thing that made them popular. Cyrus was a savvy businessman and used newspaper ads, product warranties and installment plans to boost sales. By 1870, Cyrus sold more than 10,000 reapers a year.
It seemed nothing could stop the growth of Cyrus’ reaper business -until fire engulfed the factory in 1871, leveling his Chicago facility and destroying $2 million in inventory. Cyrus was distraught with grief, but vowed to rebuild the factory bigger and better than ever before.
The fire was a blessing in disguise because it essentially destroyed an outdated factory. Annual reaper capacity of the old factory was limited, but the new factory had a whopping 300,000 feet of floor space, including ample testing fields.
In 1873, the new factory opened its doors, positioning Cyrus and his company for a successful and lucrative future in the reaper and farm machinery market, which ultimately led to the formation of International Harvester Co. in 1902.
– For additional information about McCormick’s reaper revolution, read 300 Years of Farm Implements by Ron Barlow or International Harvester Farm Equipment by Ralph Baumheckel and Kent Borghoff.
Cyrus McCormick’s farm
Visit Cyrus McCormick’s Virginia farm in Steeles Tavern, Va., which is a National Historic Landmark. A grist mill and a blacksmith shop – as well as a life-sized replica of the original reaper and other farm equipment – are on display. Admission is free. For more information, call (540) 377-2255 or visit www. vaes.vt.edu/steeles/mccormick/mccormick.html