McCormick Reaper

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Reapers were machines developed in the early 1800s to help farmers harvest grain. The first commercially successful reaper was built in 1831 by Virginia-born inventor Cyrus Hall McCormick (18091884), who patented it in 1834 and first sold it in 1840 in Virginia. The McCormick reaper was horse-drawn and sharply reduced the amount of manual labor required to harvest grain. It worked in this way: a straight blade (protected by guards) was linked to a drive wheel; as the drive wheel turned, the blade moved back and forth in a sawing motion, cutting through the stalks of grain, which were held straight by rods; the cut grain stalks then fell onto a platform and were collected with a rake by a worker. The device increased average production from two or three acres a day to ten acres a day.

McCormick's reaper was soon in wide use, and the inventor was on his way to becoming an industrialist. In 1847 he moved his business to Chicago, the heart of the expanding Midwestern farm market, where he could transport his machines via the Great Lakes and connected waterways to the East and to the South. Within five years McCormick's business became the largest farm implement factory in the world. As production continued to rise, consumption kept pace: In 1850, for example, U.S. wheat-flour consumption reached 205 pounds per capita, up from 170 pounds in 1830. Sales and distribution of McCormick's equipment increased further during the 1850s as Chicago became a center for the nation's then-expanding rail system.

Because the reaper replaced as many as eight to ten workers, many historians believe the invention played an important role in the outcome of the American Civil War (18611865): Farmers in the North had more widely adopted the machinery, allowing more farmhands to go into battle while wheat production continued. The North's superior manpower was critical to Union victory.

In 1879, Cyrus McCormick's business became the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, with the inventor himself as president (until 1884, when he was succeeded by his son). The reaper was improved over time: in the 1850s a self-raking feature was added, further reducing the amount of labor required to harvest grain; in the 1870s, McCormick introduced a binder, which bound the sheaves of grain and dropped them to the ground to be collected. In the late 1800s the reaper (or harvester) was joined with another invention, the thresher, which separates grains from the stalks. The new reaper-thresher machine was called a combine. Today's combines still use the basic features present in McCormick's revolutionary 1831 invention. His company later became International Harvester (1902) and today is known as Navistar Corporation.

See also: Agriculture Equipment Industry, John Deere, Cyrus McCormick

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McCORMICK REAPER. The machine with which the name of Cyrus Hall McCormick has always been associated had many inventors, notably Obed Hussey, who patented his machine in 1833, a year before the first McCormick patent. Hussey's machine was the only practicable one on the market before 1840. It was the McCormick reaper, however, that invaded the Midwest, where the prairie farmer was ready for an efficient harvester that would make extensive wheat growing possible. In 1847 McCormick moved from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, where the first machine was built, to Chicago.

Perhaps, as his biographer contends, McCormick (or his father, Robert McCormick) did most effectively combine the parts essential to a mechanical grain cutter. Other improvements came in the 1850s and 1860s—the self-raker, which dispensed with the job of raking the cut grain off the platform, and then the binder, first using wire to bind the sheaves and later twine. The first self-raker was sold in 1854, seven years before McCormick produced such a machine. The first wire binder was put on the market in 1873, two years before the McCormick binder. Through effective organization the McCormick reaper came to dominate the field. The invention helped facilitate the rapid economic development of the rural Midwest, and the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company's massive factories in Chicago helped transform that city into an industrial giant.


Hutchinson, William T. Cyrus Hall McCormick. New York: Da Capo Press, 1968.

McCormick, Cyrus. The Century of the Reaper. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Ozanne, Robert W. A Century of Labor-Management Relations at McCormick and International Harvester. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.

Ernest S.Osgood/a. r.

See alsoAgricultural Machinery .