The American inventor, manufacturer, and philanthropist Cyrus Hall McCormick (1809-1884) was the first to successfully mechanize grain harvesting.
Cyrus McCormick was born in rural Virginia and received a limited formal education. His interest in mechanical problems led him to seek improvements in various farm implements, and in 1831 he got a patent for a hillside plow.
During the early years of the 19th century, farming was still largely a hand operation. Animals, used exclusively for transportation, plowing, and harrowing, provided the only other power. During the first half of the century, inventors concentrated on trying to bring power to bear on harvesting, which was not only exhausting but highly seasonal. In 1831 McCormick, living in a grain-producing region, turned his attention to this problem, which had also long intrigued his father.
In approaching the problem of harvesting by machine, McCormick made progress almost immediately, and the initial seven principal parts of his reaper have remained standard down to the present time. He was not satisfied with his success, however, and continued to improve his machine while working on other problems. In 1832, for example, he took out a patent for a self-sharpening horizontal plow. In 1834 he was spurred on to more work on his reaper by the news that Obed Hussey had announced a reaper of his own. He immediately warned Hussey that he had had a working reaper previous to 1833 and proceeded at long last to take out a patent on June 21, 1834.
The announcement of two new reapers was met with some skepticism. McCormick was cautious too. For the next several years, while operating an iron furnace in Virginia, he continued to make improvements on his reaper. When the Panic of 1837 wiped out his iron venture, he began selling his reapers to the public. Beginning in 1844, he issued licenses to individuals in different parts of the country to manufacture the machines. This proved to be a mistake because he was unable to control the quality of the reapers made under these agreements, and poorly constructed machines were giving his invention an undeserved bad name. In 1847 he erected his own reaper factory in Chicago. He was so successful that by 1850 he had virtually cornered the national market for reapers, despite the fact that his patent had run out in 1848 and he already had as many as 30 rivals in the field—a figure that was to rise to at least 100 ten years later. Obed Hussey was still his major competitor.
The two rivals had a well-publicized contest in 1851 at the London Crystal Palace Exhibition. On a wet July day in a field of green wheat, the McCormick Virginia Reaper (as it was called) handily beat the Hussey machine. There were then no other reapers in the British Isles, and the effect of this demonstration was dramatic. The generally anti-American London Times wrote that "the reaping machine from the United States is the most valuable contribution from abroad, to the stock of our previous knowledge, that we have yet discovered."
McCormick continued to expand his factory, and the reaper itself was constantly improved, though the actual inventive work after about 1860 was left to mechanics hired by the firm. McCormick himself was embroiled in many court fights but was successful on that front as well. The machine was most widely used in the Middle West, as McCormick knew it would be when he built his factory in Chicago. The South remained unmechanized for many years after the Civil War; and as late as the beginning of the 20th century, harvesting in New England was still primarily a hand operation. By that time in the Far West, however, the machine had been transformed into a steam-powered, self-propelled combine that both cut and threshed the grain in one pass across the field. The basic unit was still, of course, McCormick's original reaper.
The last quarter century of McCormick's life was devoted to good works and to building his industrial empire. His innovations of this period were largely managerial rather than mechanical. He invested heavily in western mines, was a supporter of the idea for a canal across Nicaragua, and was a director of such enterprises as the Union Pacific Railroad. As a philanthropist, he patronized religion extensively. In 1878 he was honored by election to the prestigious French Academy of Sciences for "having done more for the cause of agriculture than any other living man."
The standard biography of McCormick is William T. Hutchinson, Cyrus Hall McCormick (2 vols., 1930-1935). A more popular, but biased, account is Cyrus McCormick, The Century of the Reaper (1931). The claim that Robert McCormick, not his son Cyrus Hall, deserves credit for the reaper is made in Norbert Lyons, The McCormick Reaper Legend: The True Story of a Great Invention (1955). The case for Hussey is made in Follett L. Greeno, ed., Obed Hussey, Who, of All Inventors, Made Bread Cheap (1912). □