Despite having had little formal education, Cyrus McCormick was the inventor of the first successful reaper, which ultimately revolutionized farming not only in America but throughout the world. He started American Harvester, which became an international company, and in his later years, he was known as a philanthropist and a generous contributor to the Presbyterian Church.
McCormick was born on February 15, 1809 at "Walnut Grove," a 1,200-acre family farm located in rural Virginia. He was the son of Robert McCormick, a farmer, an inventor of farm machinery, and a whiskey distiller, and Mary Ann Hall. Robert McCormick's inventions included hydraulic machinery and reapers, but he was never successful at selling any of his inventions commercially. Although McCormick received very little formal education, he began working on the farm alongside his father and tinkering with the farm tools and machinery.
As a young man, McCormick became interested in politics. He was a loyal Democrat and avid defender of slavery. He viewed Abraham Lincoln's election to the Presidency as a disaster, and traveled North in the late 1840s where he would ultimately purchase the Chicago Times. The paper would serve as a forum for his pro-Southern ideas.
In 1858, McCormick married Nancy Maria Fowler, whom he met when he first moved to Chicago. He was 49 years old at the time and 26 years her senior. She served as McCormick's secretary, helping him formulate his business plans and offering encouragement to her husband throughout his career. She shared her husband's politics and became a significant benefactor to the Democratic Party. In all, the couple had seven children, including Cyrus Jr., Harold Fowler, and Robert.
McCormick devoted the last quarter of his life to religion—specifically the Presbyterian Church—and to building his large industrial empire. In 1859, he endowed four professorships at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of the Northwest; 27 years later, the school was renamed McCormick Theological Seminary. He also kept his hand in publishing, purchasing another newspaper, the Interior,in 1872. That paper, renamed the Continent, would later become a leading Presbyterian paper in the country.
McCormick's political passions, which had stirred in him since he was young, continued to be an important factor in his life. In 1860 and 1861, he tried to get the North to make a number of concessions to the South, often using his Chicago paper to promote his ideas. Residents disliked McCormick's views and his biased paper and he became very unpopular in his adopted city. For the next two years, the McCormicks traveled abroad, spending very little time in Chicago. In 1864, McCormick ran for a Democratic seat in Congress, on a platform to stop the war, but he was soundly defeated. Up until the very end of the Civil War, in fact, McCormick continued to believe the South was undefeatable. Ironically, his reaper contributed, in part, to the triumph of the North.
Beginning in 1872, McCormick served a four-year term on the Central Committee of the Democratic party in Illinois. After the war ended, he was one of the founding organizers of the Mississippi Valley Society, which promoted the use of New Orleans and Mississippi ports for European trade. In addition, he tried to secure support to annex Santa Domingo into the United States. McCormick died in 1884.
In 1831, McCormick invented a hillside plow and was able to secure a patent for his invention. That same year, he invented the reaper for which he would become famous. While he was satisfied with the essential design of the reaper, McCormick continued to modify his invention for the next two years, even as he worked on other projects.
It was competition which spurred McCormick to seek a patent for his reaper. In 1833, Obed Hussey announced his invention of a reaper similar to McCormick's. McCormick informed Hussey of his machine, which predated Hussey's, and he sought and received a patent on June 21, 1834.
McCormick, however, still was not entirely satisfied with his reaper and continued to make improvements on it over the next few years. He was living on a 500-acre tract of farmland his father had given him in 1835 and was producing a small number of reapers in his father's workshop. McCormick would display his reapers on nearby Virginia farms. This managed to get the attention of several area newspapers, including the Farmer's Register and the Lexington Union. In 1836, McCormick and his father purchased an ironworks factory which ultimately bankrupted them both. It took them each almost seven years to turn around this financial setback.
By this time, McCormick had decided to have his reapers manufactured near the larger, more productive and lucrative farms in the Northeast and Midwest. He authorized licensees in several towns, including Brockport, New York and Cincinnati, Ohio, to manufacture his invention. Unfortunately, though, it was impossible for McCormick to oversee these operations. His licensees began producing inferior reapers, which threatened the reputation of the McCormick reaper.
McCormick took control, revoking his contracts and deciding to manufacture all of his reapers at a central facility. He picked Chicago, which was then a relatively insignificant lake town. The factory was built in 1847, but by the next year, McCormick was unable to get the reaper's patent renewed. He continued to improve his invention through innovations and spread word of the reaper through marketing. By 1950, the business was a success; McCormick had essentially secured the reaper market, despite the competition of more than 30 others, including his first rival, Hussey.
Hussey and McCormick would put their rival reapers against each other in a well-publicized contest in 1851 at the London Crystal Palace Exhibition. The Virginia McCormick Reaper handily beat its competitor, prompting the London Times to write 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."
While the contest was a boost for the reaper, it was McCormick's business savvy which finally secured his success. Not unlike other manufacturers, McCormick hired distributors, who in turn hired salespeople, for the actual transactions. McCormick kept a close eye on his distributors, through correspondence and by using what he called "traveling agents."
McCormick also continued to refine and reorganize his manufacturing operations. He instituted a system of mass production in the factory and also incorporated as much automation as he could. This all increased production. For example, from 1879 to 1886, the number of machines produced each year almost doubled, from about 13,000 in 1879 to over 25,000 in 1886. Within the next five years, production tripled.
As production increased, McCormick continuously refined his business organization to meet the demand. By 1885, McCormick was buying sawmills in the South, so the company would have enough wood. The office itself was centralized, purchasing was systematized, and a shipping department was formed to oversee all purchases. In addition, McCormick began hiring canvassers in the 1890s which would provide back-up to and reinforcement for the dealers. The dealers themselves were paid on a commission basis to increase their productivity incentives. By the early 1900s, McCormick had 65 regional offices across the country, six offices in Canada and a small office abroad.
Despite the reaper's success at the London Exhibition, European farmers were not quick to embrace this new invention. The machine, though, did garner a lot of awards, which subsequently boosted the reaper's sale in the United States. After the financial depression of 1893, as sales in the United States began to dry up, McCormick and others began to focus more of their attention on foreign markets unaffected by the financial upheaval.
McCormick also continued to improve his reaper. In the early 1860s, however, the actual modification work was done by firm mechanics, rather than McCormick himself. In fact, the inventor spent much of his time in court, successfully battling competitors. He also turned his attention to the much-neglected South. As McCormick had anticipated, his reaper was used primarily in the Midwest; the South and the Northeast remained unmechanized for years, even after the Civil War. In fact, in the New England states, innovative farming techniques were not widely adopted until early in the 20th Century.
While McCormick was the principle motivator and inspiration behind the company's expansion and innovation, he did receive invaluable assistance from his family members. For one thing, his wife, Nettie Fowler, proved to be an astute businesswoman, as well as a morale booster. It was she who encouraged McCormick to persist with the business in 1871, after the Chicago plant was destroyed by fire. She also suggested many of the corporate and administrative innovations McCormick put into practice, and she traveled with her husband on his marketing trips to Europe. McCormick's brother, Leander McCormick, headed the factory operations; brother William McCormick handled business operations. Initially, the brothers worked on salary, but in 1859, both of them became partners. Twenty years later, the business was incorporated as McCormick Harvesting Machine Company; Cyrus McCormick retained his position as corporate president until his death in 1884.
After McCormick's death, his wife took over the business, before finally devoting herself solely to philanthropic interests—the Democratic party, and the church—which she and her late husband had shared. It was her efforts which ultimately brought about the formation of the International Harvester Company.
Chronology: Cyrus McCormick
1831: Invented hillside plow and reaper.
1834: Secured patent for reaper.
1847: Built reaper factory in Chicago.
Social and Economic Impact
In the 1800s, farming in the United States was largely done by hand, with animals assisting in plowing, breaking up the soil, and transporting crops. Farming was a seasonal occupation; it was also labor-intensive. A number of people sought ways to revolutionize the process, bringing machine-age developments into the farming industry. Cyrus McCormick's father, Robert, focused a lot of his inventive energy on this, but it would be Cyrus himself who would ultimately create a reaper so revolutionary and efficient that its central components continue to be used in modern-day equipment. The McCormick reaper would have a profound impact on the American economy, and it would go a long way toward shaping the history of the time.
The reaper enabled the crops to be cut and harvested in much less time and by using fewer workers. Farmers' costs were reduced, and their yields increased significantly. In addition, workers were free to leave their jobs as farmhands, and many went West, to help build in that flourishing region.
One event changed by the invention of the reaper was the duration and ultimate outcome of the Civil War. Ironically, the thing which became McCormick's legacy contributed, in part, to the defeat of his beloved and, as he thought, unconquerable Southern homeland. The reaper helped the North maintain a larger military front while still being able to export grains to Europe and feed the military. The South, without this machinery, saw their farms suffer, which impacted the regional economy while the war was going on.
McCormick's business acumen distinguished him almost as significantly as did his inventions. As his business grew, he realized he needed a stronger sales force, with a clear organizational plan. As part of his reorganization, McCormick created a number of regional offices. Each was supervised by a manager who was responsible for the dealers and also for credit and collection. In addition to managers, these offices also had mechanics, trained to work on McCormick products. They could not only repair the machines, but they could also assemble them when they first arrived from the factory, and they could provide product demonstrations for interested customers. The entire regional staff provided back-up to the sales force.
This decentralization increased sales, which McCormick further augmented through his manufacturing innovations. These included factory mass production and continuing automation. Finally, McCormick left a significant corporate legacy, which ultimately resulted in the creation of the International Harvester Company.
Sources of Information
Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.
Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Duffy, Bruce. "Harvest of Stubbornness." D&B Reports, May-June 1993.
Byers, Paula K., and Suzanne Bourgoin, eds. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.
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