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Cyrus Hall McCormick
Inventor and Industrialist

Katie G. Brenner
South Middle School, Arlington Heights

Cyrus Hall McCormick invented the reaper in 1831 and eventually founded a large business on it. The purpose of his invention was to harvest crops much faster than before. McCormick's father, Robert, had given up on the reaper, saying it was impossible to perfect.

Robert had been laughed at and made fun of by many of the townspeople. Robert gave up experimentation on the reaper because he had his hands full with the family's successful bellows business. Cyrus took up where his father left off on the reaper.

Cyrus's first reaper was a crude machine made out of cast iron. Both wheels had iron treads to cut the stalks of harvested crops. A flat plate six feet long—the cutting bar—prevented the stalks from sliding. It used triangle-shaped knives attached to a bar that slid back and forth in a groove in the guards. The knives moved rapidly in the guards.

When the reaper was ready for display, many people showed up to watch. His father, his siblings, and his mother, who always supported him, were at the grand opening. There also were some harvester men there, too. The harvesters thought that they had a better way and harvested crops like their ancestors. They never believed the reaper would do a good job.

The reaper harvested wheat and other grains. It could cut up to fifteen acres a day. Without it, only three acres could be cut. The harvester became popular immediately. The farmers liked it very much because it lowered labor costs and reduced the danger of the weather damaging crops. The reaper cut the stalks, which fell on a platform, and a worker pushed them on the ground with a rake. This required eight to ten workers.

In 1847 McCormick built a reaper factory in Chicago on Water Street next to the Chicago River. In 1848 the McCormick factory made seven hundred machines. By 1850 the number more than doubled. By 1868 ten thousand reapers were made annually. Many of these machines were sent to other countries. In 1857 the reaper won a grand prize at the London Exposition. Each year the reapers got heavier, stronger, and better. This made them among a favorite of farmers. The Chicago factory was said to be one of the greatest industrial establishments in the United States and made an impact as great as John Deere's plows and tractors.

McCormick's factory fell on hard times when the workers went on strike because they were being overworked. Cyrus called this "the harvester war." The workers believed their earnings were very low, and claimed it was hard to buy bread. After several days, however, Cyrus showed up at the factory, raised the workers' wages, and reopened the factory.

The reaper was improved over time. In the 1850s self-rake reapers came out. No worker needed to rake the platform where the stalks fell. In the 1870s a binder was added to bind sheaves and drop them on the ground. Beginning in the 1920s, tractors were used to pull reapers and binders.

McCormick's reaper had some competitors. Obed Hussey was one. Both McCormick and Hussey had a patent on their reaper and each thought his was best. Their competition started the "Great American Reaper War." McCormick and Hussey declared the superiority of their reaper in magazines such as The Southern Planter and Mechanic's Magazine. McCormick's reaper, however, won the competition because farmers said it worked better than Hussey's reaper. Later, another man, John Manny, made another reaper. Because

Cyrus Hall McCormick grew wealthy from his invention of the reaper.

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his reaper was very similar to McCormick's reaper, McCormick tried to sue him. Abraham Lincoln represented John Manny in court, and McCormick lost the case.

An important factor in McCormick's eventual triumph was that McCormick guaranteed quality. A farmer could call in, tell what year his reaper was manufactured, tell what part was needed, and a replacement part was sent. This was a very good policy that most factories did not embrace. Cyrus insisted on quality with his factory workers and made sure they complied. One advertisement declared that more crops were produced with less labor.

When Cyrus could no longer run the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, his son did. The reaper was not the only farming implement that Cyrus had patented. He improved various tools and patented them, too.

McCormick's reaper was said to be the best. It improved technology. Cyrus made a lot of money from his reapers. He was about to give up like his father when he decided to make a few changes. McCormick's reaper had a big impact on farming, making it faster and easier to harvest than before. Farmers trusted the McCormick reaper and relied on it. It saved farmers money by reducing work time. Cyrus McCormick was an important Illinois industrialist with a great impact on farming.— [From Robert Howard, Illinois; Cyrus McCormick, The Century of the Reaper; Ross Olney, The Farm Combine; David Fink, Cyrus Hall McCormick, http://www.invent.org/book/booktext/73.html.]

47ILLINOIS HISTORY/ APRIL 2000


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