Mccormick, Cyrus Hall

views updated May 29 2018


Born in Virginia on February 15, 1809, Cyrus McCormick (18051884) obtained a grammar school education and assisted his father in the operation of a 1,200-acre grain and livestock farm. While working on this farm McCormick invented a mechanical reaping machine that greatly decreased the amount of time it took to harvest wheat. He first developed his reaper in 1831 and spent the next 10 years perfecting it, making only a few, which were used on his father's farm.

By 1843, after bankruptcy and several unsuccessful attempts at a variety of business pursuits, McCormick finally decided to concentrate on making his fortune by producing and selling his reaping machine. In 1847 he moved to Chicago, the heart of U.S. agricultural trade, and opened a factory to manufacture his reaping machine. Though he was having problems renewing the patent on his reaper, he nonetheless organized a mass-production system in his factory, investing heavily in labor-saving machinery to aid his work force.

McCormick offered many incentives to farmers to buy his reaper. He provided deferred payments similar to credit loans and offered money-back guarantees on his product. He advertised everywhere and conducted numerous personal demonstrations of his reaping machine. These demonstrations were usually enough to convince farmers to buy it. On average, a farmer using a McCormick reaper could harvest 10 acres of wheat a day, compared to two acres without the reaper. McCormick also established a research department in his business and hired a staff to systematically improve his products. He paid good wages to his workers, and was one of the first large manufacturers of his era to negotiate with the labor unions.

By 1856 McCormick had accumulated over $1 million in profit from his operations, and continued to earn $300,000 annually. He also began investing heavily in Chicago real estate, increasing and diversifying his personal wealth. McCormick sold 250,000 reapers and mowers in Europe, and with much of his European profits he invested in U.S. railroads and South American mining interests.

McCormick devoted most of his life to work, and did not marry until age 49. His main interests outside of work were his religion and the South. McCormick was a devout Presbyterian, his main relaxation activity was discussing theological issues with Presbyterian clergymen. He lavishly gave to the Presbyterian church from the fortune he made in business. McCormick was a southerner by birth, and supported the cause of the Confederacy throughout the American Civil War (18611865).

Cyrus McCormick served as the head of his company until his death in 1884, at the age of 75. In his life he was rewarded with personal fame and awards from many governments for his worldwide contribution to agriculture. After his death, his son Cyrus McCormick, Jr. assumed control of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. In 1902 the company merged with four other companies and became the International Harvester Company, which later became Navistar International Corporation.

See also: Agricultural Equipment Industry, Mc-Cormick Reaper


Casson, Herbert N. Cyrus Hall McCormick, His Life and Work. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1977.

Hutchinson, William. Cyrus Hall McCormick. New York: Century Co., 1930.

International Harvester Co. The United States as it Appeared in 1831, When Cyrus Hall McCormick Invented the Reaper. Chicago, IL: International Harvester Co., 1951.

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

. Wages in Practice and Theory: McCormick and International Harvester. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.

Cyrus Hall McCormick

views updated May 17 2018

Cyrus Hall McCormick

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."

Further Reading

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). □

Cyrus Hall McCormick

views updated May 29 2018

Cyrus Hall McCormick


American Inventor

Cyrus McCormick developed an agricultural reaper that mechanically cut crops. Farmers needed to harvest wheat soon after it ripened, and McCormick's reaper enabled them to cut the same amount of wheat in a day that required one person two weeks using hand tools. The mechanical reaper inspired the improvement of other farm machinery, encouraged farmers to migrate to unsettled western land, and allowed workers to shift from agricultural to business or industrial employment. Most significantly, the reaper helped farmers produce enough food to meet population demands.

A native of Rockbridge County, Virginia, McCormick was the son of Robert and Mary Ann (Hall) McCormick. His father was an inventor who patented blacksmith and farm tools. Attending school infrequently, McCormick worked with his father. The elder McCormick's unfulfilled goal was to develop a reaping machine. Other inventors were striving to accomplish this too. Reapers needed devices to isolate grains on stalks, position them for cutting with a blade, and collect the pieces.

Cyrus McCormick introduced a horse-drawn reaper for wheat harvesting in July 1831 and received a patent three years later. A year prior to McCormick's legal claim, Obed Hussey, a Maine inventor, patented a reaper. Competition with Hussey and other inventors resulted in McCormick seeking patent rights, although he did not market his reaper immediately because he wanted to refine its design and was distracted by duties at the McCormick's iron works. Technical aspects of McCormick's reaper outlined in the patent not only modernized American agriculture but also were incorporated in all reapers afterwards.

Beginning in 1837 when an economic panic threatened his financial stability, McCormick assembled reapers at the family's blacksmith shop at Walnut Grove, Virginia, for local consumers. By 1843 he sold rights to manufacturers in New York and Ohio to make reapers. These producers, however, did not create machines of the quality upon which McCormick insisted. To increase production while maintaining standards, he established a factory in Chicago in 1847. When his first patent expired the next year, McCormick sued competitors that threatened his business. Some of his revisions to the reaper were protected by patents, but his original design entered the public domain and could be copied.

McCormick's reaper was the first of its type that was commercially viable. He promoted his reaper at exhibitions. His reapers also were sold by salesmen who convinced farmers to purchase McCormick's machinery by traveling through rural neighborhoods and sharing testimonials. They also demonstrated the benefits of other farm tools such as cultivators. McCormick encouraged payment plans to assist farmers to buy machinery. All customers received performance guarantees.

The company became the country's largest manufacturer of agricultural technology. McCormick began selling his reaper in Europe in 1851, displaying it at the Crystal Palace in London. During the American Civil War, the reaper had a significant impact in that it freed men from farm labor to fight in the war. Although the foundation structure of the reaper was retained, McCormick constantly sought design enhancements such as adding the twine binder. McCormick overcame such obstacles as the 1871 Chicago fire and hostile farm organizations protesting equipment prices. He was elected to the French Academy of Sciences in 1879. In the 1880s McCormick sold 50,000 reapers annually and hired 1,400 employees.

At the time of McCormick's death, six million harvesters had been manufactured by his company. Wealthy from profits, McCormick invested in railroad and mining stock. He donated funds to the Presbyterian church and schools. A Democrat, McCormick unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1864. Merging with five farm implement producers in 1902, McCormick's business became the International Harvester Company. McCormick had married Nettie Fowler in 1858, and they had six children, some of whom directed the company and participated in reaper centennial celebrations.