The Story of The Reaper


| September/October 1972



Route 4, Huntington, Indiana 46750.

Cyrus Hall McCormick has always been given credit by Historians as being the inventor of the Reaper. It might be surprising to some that this can be quite disputable. He was born Feb. 15, 1809 of Scotch-Irish ancestry at the family farm called Walnut Grove in Rockbridge County, Virginia. His father, Robert, had tried from 1809 to 1816 to make a reaper, but with little success and had quit trying to go any farther with it.

In 1831 the entire population of the United States was thirteen million people of which seventy five percent lived on farms. The U. S. Dept. of Agriculture said in 1841 it took 65 man hours of labor to produce, harvest and thrash one acre of wheat. In 1941 it took two and one half hours to do the same thing. I can remember my grandfather saying that one man could cradle two acres if he worked real hard. In 1831 all small grain, and wheat was the main one, was cut with cradle or scythe, bound by hand and shocked. After experimenting with a reaper of sorts for a few years, McCormick demonstrated in July 1831 in a field on the family farm. After more adjusting, he and his faithful black slave helper, Joe Anderson, made it workafter a fashion. Now unknown to each other, several other men in Ohio and New York state were doing the same thing with varying results. The most important was Obed Hussey from near Cincinnati, Ohio. He patented his in 1833 while McCormick patented his in 1834. However in 1831 McCormick had patented, made, and sold a few hillside plows in the stone blacksmith shop on his father's farm which was still standing at least a few years ago. In 1832 and 1833 he was again in the field with a still better machine which in 1834 he had patented. He continued to build more reapers for which he had a ready sale. At this stage his brothers helped and they built an iron furnace on the farm. During the panic of 1837 he and his father about went broke and lost part of their home farm. But he went right on making and selling reapers for one hundred and twenty dollars each.

It is interesting to note that his seven principles of grain cutting would still be good today. They are as follows: 1. A reciprocating knife for cutting the standing grain. 2. Fingers or guards as we know them today to hold the grain in place. 3. The reel for holding and pushing the straw back to the platform. 4. The platform on which the grain falls. 5.   The drive wheel for operating the machinery. 6. Having the platform offset so it runs along side the standing grain. 7. The divider on the outer end of the platform to separate the standing grain.

Everyone has seen the pictures of an early reaper pulled by one horse, while a man walked along the side to pull off the grain with a rake in bunches later to be bound by hand. McCormick continues to make improvements. He added a seat, and in 1851 he riveted the cutting section to the knife for easier replacement.

Now to get out more reapers, he either sold or allowed on a royalty basis the rights to make the reaper; mainly to two men in New York state and in Illinois. Later this worked against him, as they made improvements from which he got little or no benefit. As I had mentioned before, Obed Husset, had patented his own invention at his home near Cincinnati. He later moved to Baltimore, where most of his sales were in eastern states. A bitter feud broke between McCormick and Hussey which lasted for years. Hussey did not have a reel on his machine. In 1848 McCormick lost his patent rights, or could not get them renewed, and which was the start of a long list of lawsuits with a number of concerns which lasted for years.