McCormick's Revolutionary Reaper
Who would have thought that Cyrus Hall McCormick would get the idea of inventing the revolutionary reaper by helping his father in the blacksmith shop? His father had worked on a reaper, but Cyrus wanted to make his own. He used some of his father's ideas, but he made many improvements.
In 1831 Cyrus demonstrated his reaper. It was noisy and awkward. It rattled and frightened the horses; still it cut the grain. It was revolutionary, for in a few hours the reaper harvested as much grain as two or three men could cut in a whole day.
In 1848 McCormick decided to move his reaper factory from Virginia to Chicago. He reasoned that the center of wheat production was moving westward every year, and he thought the factory should
be near the farms where the reaper was used. Although Chicago only had 17,000 people in 1847, many immigrants from Ireland and Germany were heading there, and he knew he would have a good supply of labor for the factory. McCormick was also impressed with Chicago leaders, such as William B. Ogden and Stephen A. Douglas, who had plans to make Chicago a transportation hub with a network of railroads and canals. McCormick strongly believed that the railroads, canals, and the ships on the Great Lakes would allow him to deliver his reapers to the farmers who needed them in both the east and west.
The year McCormick moved to Chicago, he started a factory situated on the near north side of Chicago; it eventually became one of the largest in the city. There he would concentrate on improving his reaper.
McCormick used seven fundamental principles in the reaper he invented. A divider separated the wheat so it could be cut. The reel pushed the wheat towards the knife and then pushed the cut wheat onto the platform. A straight reciprocating knife cut the wheat. Fingers held the wheat while it was cut. The platform held the cut wheat. The main wheel and gears drove all the moving parts of the reaper. The front-side draft traction provided the reaper a firm grip on the ground.
By 1849 the Chicago factory was housed in a brick building, three stories high and 40-by-190 feet in size. The factory had planing machines, saws, lathes, boring machines, and blacksmith furnaces. Much of the machinery was driven by a thirty-horsepower engine, one of the first in Chicago. By 1850 the factory employed about 120 men. A year later, the Chicago newspapers claimed that McCormick's factory was the largest of its kind in the world.
Before the opening of the Chicago factory, McCormick had manufactured about 1,300 reapers. Between 1848 and 1850 the factory manufactured and sold 4,000 reapers. By 1851 the factory was running efficiently with the help of his brothers, William and Leander. Quality was important, and all the arrangements he had with independent manufacturers, who had produced low-quality reapers for him in the east, were terminated. Although there were many competitors, McCormick's reaper was acknowledged as the best in the world.
Farmers felt confident harvesting their crops with the reaper, even though it was new. Their wheat could be cut in less time, with less cost, and with fewer laborers. Since the reapers could not operate well in rocky fields, farmers began to clear their lands and put them in better shape. The reaper made the settlement of the vacant lands in the west possible because one man could accomplish much more compared to what he could do before its invention. Laborers, no longer required in the fields, could now be used to run the factories being built in the cities.
In 1851 McCormick displayed his reaper at the first world's fair in London, England. He cut a field of wheat under unfavorable conditions before an international jury, and won the highest award given at the fair. The award made him world-famous overnight. In 1879 the French elected McCormick as a member of the French Academy of Sciences. He received that high honor because he had done so much for agriculture. He also sold reapers overseas to England and France. Several hundred reapers were sold in those countries.
McCormick was not only an inventor and manufacturer, he also pioneered many modern business techniques. He was the first to use field trials, testimonials, deferred payments for merchandise, and labor-saving machinery for mass production in his factory. He was a man who combined vision, energy, and practicality with results. His vision was to make a successful reaper. His energy allowed him to work the many long days and nights required. The result of his work was a reaper that revolutionized farming and helped turn Chicago into a hub of agricultural trade.
What made the reaper a success was the demonstrations and its good quality. Because McCormick was concerned with quality, he was an innovator. Even today, more than 160 years later, farming machinery for cutting wheat is similar to what he invented back in the 1830s.
Cyrus Hall McCormick's business continued to expand after his death; it became a worldwide company called International Harvester. It was an important manufacturer in Chicago for more than seventy years, with seven factories employing thousands of people. In the mid-1980s, International Harvester reorganized; its new name is Navistar International, and it no longer produces farm machinery.—[From William Thomas Hutchinson, Cyrus Hall McCormick: Seed-Time, 1809-1856; William Thomas Hutchinson, Cyrus Hall McCormick: Harvest 1856-1868; Carroll W. Pursell, Technology in America; Mitchell A. Wilson, American Science and Invention.]