By Edward T. O’Donnell
One hundred sixty-eight years ago this week, on June 21, 1834, Cyrus McCormick received a letter from the U.S. Patent Office. To his delight, it stated that the patent he submitted for his invention — a device for mechanically harvesting wheat and other crops — had been granted. It was a welcome reward for years of toil and trouble, but as McCormick was to find out, his work was far from done. Years of labor lay ahead before the McCormick reaper was transformed from merely a good idea into a reality. When that eventually happened, McCormick became a rich man and America emerged as the world’s foremost agricultural producer.
Cyrus McCormick was born in 1809 in Rockbridge, County, Va. His Scots-Irish ancestor, Thomas McCormick, had emigrated from Ulster to Pennsylvania in the 1730s, while his mother’s family traced its lineage back to 1640s Armagh. In 1779, Cyrus’s grandfather moved to Virginia, where his father, Robert McCormick, was born in 1780.
Cyrus grew up on his father’s vast 532-acre farm, which included a sawmill, distillery, and two grain mills. His father liked to tinker with machinery and over the course of his life he patented several useful farming implements. One particular project in which he invested years of effort and thought was the development of a mechanical harvester, or reaper. So as young Cyrus grew up, he gained from his father a thorough knowledge of farming and a keen interest in inventing.
It was in July 1831 when Cyrus, still only 22 years old, achieved a breakthrough in the design of the reaper. Taking his father’s prototype, he added several new features and made a few design changes to produce a working model. In this effort, he may very well have been assisted by a slave named Joe Anderson who worked in the family blacksmith shop. As with later efforts by others to invent the telephone, light bulb, and radio, McCormick was not alone in his quest to invent the mechanical reaper. Several other inventors, most notably Obed Hussey, were busily working on their own models. When McCormick learned in 1833 of Hussey’s announcement that he too had produced a working reaper, he immediately filed for a patent and received it on June 21, 1834.
The reaper was a device on small wheels pulled by a horse. As it passed through a field, sharp blades moved back and forth severing stalks of wheat. The harvested grain was then collected in a cradle. It allowed for a much faster harvest — often crucial in times of bad weather — and eliminated the need to hire expensive (or out on the remote plains, non-existent) farm labor.
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Yet as many an inventor soon discovers, McCormick found that the mere act of invention did not guarantee success. He would need to convince the very skeptical American farmer to invest several hundred dollars in a what one of them derided as a “contraption seemingly a cross between a wheelbarrow, a chariot, and a flying machine.”
As a result, McCormick discovered a second talent — marketing — to go with his mechanical skills. At first, he tried to drum up interest by staging demonstrations at county fairs. Farmers were indeed impressed with the reaper, but they saw it mainly as a sideshow, rather than a vital piece of equipment they ought to buy.
But McCormick never lost hope and kept at it until his fortunes began to rise in the early 1840s. One big break came in 1843 as a result of a challenge issued by a rival reaper manufacturer. They would have a contest to see which reaper performed best. On the day of the contest, however, it rained and the challenger’s reaper jammed on the wet wheat. McCormick had long ago modified his machine to cut in wet weather and his reaper performed flawlessly.
From that day forward McCormick’s reaper was hailed as the best of the many competing designs. He sold 29 reapers that year and sales continued to rise. To overcome lingering doubts among farmers, McCormick also developed unique business practices, including letting farmers buy on lenient credit terms, offering written money-back guarantees, making replacement parts readily available, and educating farmers through advertising about the benefits of new technology. Sales soared from 75 reapers in 1846, to 1,500 in 1849 to more than 4,100 in 1859.
By then he’d left the family blacksmith shop in Virginia for a modern manufacturing facility built in Chicago in 1847. This allowed him to produce more machines and to be at the center of the reaper market — the American Midwest.
McCormick and his machine achieved international fame in 1851. He won the Gold Medal at the London Crystal Palace Exposition and then went on a demonstration tour of Hamburg, Vienna, Paris, and other major European capitals. His audiences were stunned and in France McCormick was elected to the French Academy of Sciences, “as having done more for agriculture than any other living man.”
In the decades that followed, McCormick worked tirelessly to build his company through developing new products and, not surprisingly, aggressively defending his patent rights from a steady stream of challenges. His entire factory was reduced to ashes in the great Chicago Fire of 1871, but the dauntless entrepreneur rebuilt and by the time of his death, in 1884, his company reigned. In 1902, now operated by his sons, the McCormick company took on the now more familiar name International Harvester.
The mechanical reaper is one of the least appreciated of the breakthrough inventions of the modern era. At some point American schoolchildren learn about the invention of the steam engine, telegraph, light bulb, automobile, and television, but perhaps only in farm states do they learn the story of the reaper. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that the mechanical reaper had as significant an impact on American society as any of these inventions. In a word, it revolutionized agriculture, transforming it from a small-scale, labor-intensive economy, to a large-scale, highly productive, and thoroughly commercial enterprise. Just consider the following statistics. In 1830, it took a man with a hand-held scythe three hours to harvest one bushel of wheat. By 1900 the mechanical reaper allowed him to do the job in just 10 minutes.
The wider impact of McCormick’s invention was not just efficient farming, but the industrial revolution itself. Mechanized farming freed up millions of workers to engage in non-agricultural work. Today the United States is the wealthiest and best fed nation on earth, yet only two percent of its people are farmers (vs. 90 percent when McCormick patented his reaper). Put another way, without Cyrus McCormick and his invention, we might never have heard of another famous Irish American by the name of Henry Ford.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
June 19, 1941: Nazi Germany’s government officially apologizes for bombing Dublin several days earlier.
June 20, 1867: Jerome Collins founds the revolutionary nationalist organization Clan na Gael in New York City.
June 21, 1877: Ten Irishmen known as the “Molly Maguires” are hanged in Pennsylvania for alleged vigilante murders committed against mining officials. Ten more would follow over the next 15 months.
June 19, 1881: James “Jimmy” Walker, mayor of New York (1925-1932), is born in New York.
June 20, 1763: United Irishman Theobald Wolfe Tone is born in Dublin.
June 25, 1870: Nationalist Erskine Childers is born in London.
Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnel