Cyrus McCormick Invents the Reaping Machine

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Cyrus McCormick Invents the Reaping Machine


In 1831, Cyrus McCormick (1809-1884) developed the first device to reliably and effectively cut and gather grain in the field. Further refinements gave rise to the combine and other mechanical devices that have made it possible for a relatively small number of farmers to maintain and harvest thousands of acres of crops and to feed thousands of people each year.


Agriculture, the domestication of plant and animal species for food production, is arguably the most important development in human history. Many have argued convincingly that the development of agriculture is what allowed nomadic hunter-gatherers to develop written language, cities, civilization, and more. However, for most of human history, growing grain and other crops has been wholly dependent on the availability of human labor for field preparation, planting, and harvesting. This placed severe constraints on not just farmers, but on society as a whole because workers in the fields were not available to operate factories, provide nonfarm services, or perform any of the other tasks upon which a technological society rests.

For thousands of years grain was harvested by people wielding scythes and other manual cutting devices. The grain was then bundled together by hand and brought to a central place where grains were separated from the stalks and chaff using technology that dated back to the earliest farmers. Although attempts were made to automate parts of this process, they were unsuccessful for a variety of reasons. This limited a farm's productivity to the amount of grain and the number of acres that could be maintained by a single person or family with occasional assistance.

McCormick built his first reaper in 1831, at the age of 22. In 1847 he opened his first factory, near the city of Chicago, then a small and unimportant town. He presented his reaper to the world at the 1851 Great Exposition in London, winning acclaim and increasing orders almost immediately. Already increasingly popular in the United States, McCormick's reapers spread overseas, helping to revolutionize agriculture in Europe and elsewhere.

In 1871, the reaper was mated with a mechanical thresher to form the first combine, a single machine that would cut wheat plants and thresh the grain at the same time. The combine was only the first of many mechanical farm implements to be developed, and the development of internal combustion engines made them even more efficient. The mechanization of agriculture has continued to the present day and, even today, agricultural engineers continue to work to automate and mechanize some of the most arduous and time-consuming tasks that remain.


The development of agriculture allowed a relatively few farmers to grow food for many. This gave nonfarmers the opportunity to invent forms of government, written languages, and to develop technologies that were not available to hunter-gatherers who spent their entire existence struggling to survive. Over the centuries and millennia, complex civilizations and technology were built around agriculture. In inventing the reaper, Cyrus McCormick set in motion events that would profoundly affect farm life and rural communities and that helped to make possible the technological and mechanized society in which most of the developed world finds itself. It has also led to the strange situation in which developed nations sometimes pay farmers to leave land fallow or to burn grain while in less developed countries, people starve. This, in turn, has led to interesting situations in global politics.

Farming, even with the assistance of machinery, is hard, dirty, back-breaking labor. It is highly dependent on weather conditions and, if using animals for heavy work, is also highly dependent on the ability to feed, water, and care for the animals. Regardless of any other factors, horses or oxen can fall ill, jeopardizing a harvest if they cannot be cured in time. By removing the dependence on less predictable animals, tractors and harvesting equipment have made planting and harvesting crops more predictable, giving farmers the ability to better plan their activities and the results in advance. In addition, by reducing the manpower required to bring in a harvest of many crops, mechanization has helped reduce the cost and much of the uncertainty of the harvest time. Finally, by speeding the farming process and reducing the amount of work to a manageable level, machines such as McCormick's reaper have let a single person farm an incredibly large amount of land. However, mechanizing food-gathering has also led to attempts to breed foods that can better withstand machines, sometimes leading to less tasteful fruits and vegetables.

In general, societies without agriculture are primitive, societies with primarily manual agriculture (farming without machinery) are less developed, and societies with highly mechanized agriculture are more developed. This observation could be construed to indicate that more developed societies can afford machinery to perform heavy and dirty work, but this interpretation would appear to be false. Rather, history has shown that developing mechanized agricultural methods results in a vast reduction in the number of people required to feed a society. The workers no longer needed to till fields and harvest grain in turn can go on to work in factories, attend universities, and participate in all the other activities that allow a civilization to progress. Therefore, it seems likely that the invention of the mechanical reaper was the first step in the process leading to the society found throughout the developed world.

Using strictly manual methods, a single person can harvest an acre of wheat in 14 hours and can process a bushel's worth of grain in three hours. These same tasks can be accomplished by a single person in just over 30 minutes today, using mechanical farming equipment. This came at a price, however. By reducing the number of people needed to farm, many farming jobs disappeared, forcing a migration to the cities to find work. In the United States this has led to a steady decrease in rural populations and, according to many, an erosion in many of the values of joint sacrifice and hard work that seem to characterize farming communities.

Mechanizing agriculture also contributed significantly to the "green revolution" of the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, the green revolution rested on three developments: improved fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; better crops (albeit through conventional crop-breeding in pre-biotechnology days); and enhanced machinery. In fact, the green revolution is machinery-intensive. Machines till the fields, plant seeds, spray agricultural chemicals, and harvest the grains around the globe. One can argue, in fact, that farm machinery is a necessary prerequisite for the other elements of green revolution because, even if these activities could be performed without machinery, machines are necessary to harvest the resulting high crop yields before they rot in the field or on the vine. Although, even in the United States, much of food production remains dependent on manual labor, a great deal of it is amenable to mechanization, and machines are used extensively wherever possible.

In some ways, mechanizing agriculture has led to a near-embarrassment of riches in the developed world. In fact, many farmers are victims of their own efficiency in that their production techniques are so efficient that consistent bumper crops drive prices down, threatening to bankrupt the farmers. Governments around the world respond to this in similar ways. In the United States, governmental subsidies aimed at supporting the price of agricultural products resulted in paying farmers to leave land fallow, while other governmental agencies would sometimes purchase grain at artificially high prices, again to help support higher grain prices, and the grain would then be discarded or burned. These agricultural subsidies and food wastage led to vehement protests by many. Too, the obvious disparity between food surplus in the developed world and food shortage in much of the less developed world has often fueled tensions between these two parties.

This huge disparity in food supply has, in turn, affected global politics. Food shortages in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and other nations inimical to the United States led to American offers of food assistance, often with a political price tag attached. The United States also provided a great deal of food to the developing world, again for geopolitical and strategic advantage in many instances. To this must be added the frequent trade disputes in which the United States and many European nations are asked to reduce or remove governmental price supports, subsidies, protective tariffs, and other measures aimed at maintaining artificially high prices for domestic agricultural products.


Further Reading

Casson, Herbert. Cyrus Hall McCormick: His Life and Work. 1909. Reprint, 1971.

The Century of the Reaper, Cyrus McCormick. 1931. Reprint, 1972.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997.

Smith, Bruce. The Emergence of Agriculture. San Francisco: Scientific American Library, 1995.


A landmark in the history of technology and the epitome of the Victorian spectacle, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations took place in London in 1851. Held in the monumental Crystal Palace (designed for the event by Joseph Paxton), the exposition featured such sensational displays as a 2-ton steel ingot shown by Germany's Alfred Krupp alongside his 6-pounder cannon and cast steel cuirasses, Cyrus McCormick's Virginia grain reaper, Samuel Colt's revolvers, and Joseph Whitworth's exemplary lathes and assorted machine-tool equipment. The complete catalog of the 100,000 objects that formed the massive exhibition fills three volumes of 500 pages each.

Hundreds of exhibitors—showcasing everything from labor saving devices to textiles, industrial chemistry discoveries, exotic musical instruments, agricultural displays, pottery, and furniture—vied for the attention of over six million visitors, some who paid more than one visit. Queen Victoria herself visited 34 times in the five-and a-half months of the exhibition. By the time the doors closed on the Great Exhibition in October 1851, 6,063,986 had experienced the spectacle. Its wild success embodied the excess of the Victorian era as well as the hunger for invention and technology and the faith in commerce of the Industrial Revolution.