McCormick, Cyryus Hall (1809-1884)
Cyryus Hall McCormick (1809-1884)
Virginia Childhood. Cyrus Hall McCormick was born into a strict Presbyterian farming family in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia on 15 February 1809. Cyrus’s grandfather moved to Rockbridge Country from Pennsylvania during the American Revolution (in which he fought) and there settled the homestead that stayed in the McCormick family until the twentieth century. Cyrus’s father, Robert, Considered himself something of an inventor and had designed among other things a clover huller, a bellows for blacksmiths, and even a reading machine. Cyrus, who gerw up working the family farm and attending a rural school when time permitted, must have caught the mechanical bug from his father. By the time he was twenty-two, he had a U.S. patent to his credit for a hillside plow. But Cyrus used his own ideas when it came to designing and building his first reaper in 1831.
Lucrative Market. When McCormick (with the help of the slaves owned by his father) wheeled his ungainly new contraption out onto John Steele’s oat field for a field, trial, it was not the first 1820s Patrick Bell of Scotland built a machine that harvested as much as ten acres a day, several times what man could do by hand. With their small farms and ample cheap labor, however, British farmers had little interest in mechanical harvesting devices such as Bell’s reaper. In America, on the other hand, the situation was reversed. The vast expanse of arable land, and comparatively scarce supply of workers, called out for the adoption of labor-saving devices. Wheat in particular had to be harvested at just the right time, before its grain heads riphened too much and spilled their precious cargo on the ground, and since everyone’s wheat in a particular region reached maturity at roughly the same time, farmers who could not find enough labor during the crucial period might lose their entire crop. An inexpensive machine that could safely and quickly cutgrain in the field had the potential to tap into a lucrative market.
Early Competitors. After Cyrus’s first reaper stumbled through six acres of Steele’s oats, and then survived another larger public trial in 1832 (after several mechanical improvements), McCormick began to thick his machine had the potential to make money. He continued to improve on his original desigh throughout the 1830s, but other family ventures absorbed his time, and he did little in the way of marketing or manufacturing his machine until Obediah Hussey of Ohio began building and selling a reaper of his own in the middle of the decade. Each man had arrived at his desigh independently (Hussey patented his reaper in 1833, one year before McCormick received his patent), yet Hussey’s reaper operated under principles similar to McCormick’s which became a source of friction and rivalry between the two men. An 1843 head-to-head field trial of the two machines proved inconcusive, but the competition (as well as accumulated debt from another family business) prompted Cyrus to begin producing and selling his machines in earnest. Using the family blacksmith shop and the help of his father and brothers, McCormick built and sold twenty-nine reapers in 1843 and fifty in 1844. McCormick realized, however, that he could sell only so many of the expensive ($100 to $150) reapers to the farmers of the Shenandoah hills, with their small, rocky fields and worn-out soils.
Moves West. In 1844 McCormick sold several reapers to farmers in the rich lands of the Ohio Valley and late that year went west himself to see that his machines were properly assembled. Visiting the vast, recently settled prairie farmlands of Illionis, Wisconsin, and Missouri, McCormick observed a situation tailor-made for his reaper, and in 1847 he and his family moved to the up-and-coming city of Chicago. Within a year the railroad and telegraph reached the city, and Chjicago and shipping center for the entire West. McCormick stood at the epicenter of that transition, armed with an invention ideally suited to the harvesting of the prairie.
Innovations. McCormick sold 450 reapers out of his Chicago factory in 1848, and more than 1, 000 by 1850, but his success was by on means assured. His patents expired in 1848, opening the field to dizens of competitors, some with designs superior to McCormick’s own. Furthermore, farmers were hesitant to spend more than $100 on a piece of machinery they knew nothing about. McCVormick adopted some of his rivals’ improvements, such as seats for the rider and raker, a better cutter bar, and eventually automatic binders, and kept his prices down through cost reductions in his factory. He was an aggressive and very litigious competitor. But McCormick’s real innovation came with his marketing schemes. McCormick agents demonstrated his reaper at agricultural fairs throughout the Midwest, pitting the machines against those of other companies in contests that drew large crowds. He wrote his own advertisements extoklling the virtues of his “Virginia Reaper” (often with testimonials from farmers) while at the same time illustrating how easy and profitable it was to use his device. He organized a system of sales agents who sold reapers on commission but were also resposible for repairing the machines and educating farmers on their operation. Finally, he offered his reapers for sale on a credit installment plan, allowing a farmer to make a down payment in the spring, use the machine to bring in the harvest, and then pay the rest of the cost by December. Aided by the rapid expansion of the rail network and a sharp increase in the price of wheat, McCormick sold over four thousand reapers a year by the mid 1850s, and had sold a total of eightly thousand by 1860. In 1851 the reaper won the coveted Council Medal at the London Crystal Palace Exhibition; McCormick used this opportune moment to start an overseas sales network.
Last Years. By his own admission, McCormick lived for his reaper business. “I have one purpose in life,” he said, “the success and widespread use of my machines. All others matters are to me too insignificant to be considered.” McCormick neither darnk nor smoked and did not marry until well into middle age though he and his wife still managed to have seven children, one of whom, Cyrus Jr., took over the company. He contributed heavily to the Democratic Party, served on the party’s national committee, and ran for office (unsuccessfully) several times, once for vice president. One of the first of America’s industrial tycoons, McCormick invested in railroads, mines, and other business endeavors, becoming a director on the board of the giant Union Pacific Railway. A lifelong strict Presbyterian, McCormick also donated large sums of money to the church and to the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of Chicago (called the McCormick Theological Seminary until 1928). Despite all of these activities, however, the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company (incorporated in 1879, and combined with other firms to form International Harvester in 1902) remained the central institution in his life. He continued to serve as the firm’s president, supervising improvements in the manufacturing and design of the McCormick reaper, until his death in 1884.
Craig Canine, Dream Reaper (New York: Knopf, 1995);