Mechanical Reaper of Cyrus McCormick


Cyrus McCormick was born into a home where inventing was the family business. His father, Robert McCormick Jr., was an inventor who worked on making improvements to farming machines. Among those improvements was the mechanical reaper. Robert worked on this idea for most of his life, but he didn’t manage to finish it before he died. It was his son, Cyrus, that completed the project and improved our lives starting in the nineteenth century.

The mechanical reaper proved to be one of the essential inventions during the 19th century. The device was one of the first patented reapers and precursors to modern equipment developed later in the 19th and 20th centuries. The mechanical reaper, patented in 1834, changed the farming industry forever. It collected and cut crops more efficiently with little to no input required by the farmer. Compared to previous methods of work that were done by hand, this was a significant advancement towards the mechanization of farming.

The mechanical reaper was a milestone in the farming industry, but what about the man behind the invention? Or rather, we should talk about this invention concerning the McCormick family, not just Cyrus, who is now known as the official inventor of the mechanical reaper.

About Cyrus McCormick

If we want to analyze the invention and the lessons we can take from it, we must first take a look at Cyrus McCormick. He devoted his life to work and innovations. In addition to the mechanical reaper, we can credit Cyrus for several advancements to sales practices, development of modern companies, and more. Who was Cyrus McCormick?

Cyrus Hall McCormick (February 15, 1809 – May 13, 1884)

Son of an Inventor

Cyrus McCormick was born in 1809, on the 15th of February. His family owned a farm in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. It was a large family; Cyrus was the first of the eight children of Robert McCormick Jr. and Mary Ann Hall. Cyrus’ father, Robert, was an inventor, but he was also a farmer. Cyrus likely did some farming work, in spite of having many workers at his farm. He was very much interested in the machinery on his farm and always looked to improve things.

Robert’s work ethic was passed on to his oldest son, Cyrus. This mentality came primarily from the need to increase profits, but also out of sheer inventive curiosity. In his childhood, Cyrus received no formal education, but he did learn many things at home. He was partly taught by private tutors, and by his parents. Cyrus was a serious and somewhat reserved child. He was a curious kid who hung around his father’s workshop, where he would observe his father and his work.

It was in this workshop that Cyrus learned the most about farming equipment. His father was always working on improvements to mechanisms. That workshop would produce many practical implements for the farm. Robert McCormick Jr. likely started working on a reaper as early as 1810, shortly after Cyrus’ birth. It guaranteed that the eldest son of the McCormick family understood the concept very clearly. In his childhood, Cyrus gained many essential practical skills and knowledge required for the invention of the mechanical reaper.

The Mechanical Reaper

Cyrus’ father started working on the mechanical reaper very early, but he never managed to perfect it enough for it to become a tool to be used on his farm. The first versions of the reaper may have come in the 1820s. This version of the reaper was horse-drawn, but it was still deemed unreliable and not durable enough for mass use.

By 1831, Robert managed to produce the first acceptable version of the mechanical reaper. It was still not perfect, though, and not ready to be patented. Robert wanted to patent the reaper but was unsure he would be able to achieve that in his lifetime. Encouraged by his son’s skills, Robert decided to hand the project and all the rights to the patent to his son, Cyrus McCormick. 

Also, Robert had some other projects he was working on, like the hemp-break, a threshing machine, and a clover sheller of stone.

Cyrus’ Work on the Reaper

The mechanical reaper was handed over to Cyrus in 1831. The oldest son of the family was determined to create a perfected version of the machine that would allow him to reap the rewards. He knew that its reliability and durability needed to be improved, but he would be unable to do it alone. For his work on the reaper, One of his workers, Jo Anderson, would do the hard, physical work, which entailed procuring and carrying materials and so on.

Cyrus wanted to create a machine that would help his business, but also all other farmers around the country. He knew that doing this task at hand was not only time demanding, but it also took a lot of workers to achieve. His reaper would mechanize the farming industry. The need for more productivity increased, but the old methods proved insufficient to provide enough to cover the demand for food supply. The amount that could be cut by hand was holding back the growth of the country.

His father’s prototype was already quite advanced for the time but needed improvement. The first advancement Cyrus made was to design the reaper to be horse-drawn, which he achieved in 1831. For further developments, he possibly took some ideas from other reapers that were on the market but weren’t yet patented. One such reaper was the Bell reaper from Scotland. Like this design, McCormick’s reaper would be drawn by horses and cut the grain to the side of the harvester.

Mechanical Reaper Patent

Since 1831, McCormick started working towards a patent that his father so much desired. He wanted to achieve something that his father was unable to, something that would change the world. Cyrus started testing his new version of the reaper in 1831. He tested it on his farm and the farms of his neighbors. These tests were mostly successful, but there were still some issues that needed ironing out. The biggest problem was the noise that the device produced because it scared the horses.

Several improvements were made from 1831 to 1834. In 1834, McCormick felt that the invention was finally ready to be patented. He took out a patent in 1834. Unfortunately, the machine was initially not a significant success. They didn’t sell a single reaper in 1834 because it was still quite expensive, somewhat unreliable, and yet unable to work in various conditions. The Mechanical Reaper would take many years to become popular. Besides, the McCormicks were working on some other things, especially the iron foundry, which is where most of Cyrus’ focus at the time was.

The machine still required a couple of workers who would follow behind the Mechanical Reaper and horses. The workers would manually remove the grain that was cut from the device. It has a wheel frame, which was wooden on early models. At the side of the reaper was a bar that cut the grain. A reel that sat at the top would hold the grain. It made it easier for the cutter bar to cut the grain. At the start of the mechanical reaper was the divider. It separated the grains that were to be cut from those that weren’t. The design was simple, but it was also a vast improvement over other methods from that time.

Involvement in the Smelting Industry

After the patent, the McCormick family would focus on something entirely different. They saw much more potential in the metal smelting industry, and they owned an iron foundry. They invested a lot into it. From 1834 to 1837, the family invested most of its money into the smelting industry. Initially, the iron foundry brought them a good profit, but over time, it turned unprofitable and even started hurting the family’s economic situation.

Also, a financial crisis was looming, and with it, a national emergency. The monetary conditions of the family deteriorated very quickly. They lost almost all their money overnight. They liquidated the factory, and the smelting industry went bust. The silver lining in this was that McCormick had a gold vein ready at his home, but it was still not optimized. Cyrus decided to return to the reaper and improve it since this was the only choice that remained.

The Reaper’s Growing Popularity

His father managed to sell the first reaper to one of his acquaintances. It was a single sale made in 1839; in 1840, he would make no additional sales but managed to get an endorsement from the buyer. Cyrus always looked for improvements to the reaper. He listened to his buyer and also experimented a lot. Soon, the Mechanical Reaper was starting to gain some traction.

With the improvements to the reaper, it was becoming more and more feasible for farmers to use. In 1842, he sold seven of them, but that number went up every year. It was becoming more popular as the design improved over the years. The reapers were all built at the family’s workshop. This limited space made them unable to increase their production numbers. The Mechanical Reaper was still quite expensive at the time. The record for sales came in 1844 when they sold only fifty of mechanical reapers. The design has improved so much that Cyrus had to ask for a new patent, which he received in 1845.

Robert’s Death and Move to Chicago

His father’s death had significant implications on the business. Cyrus McCormick abandoned the farm and moved to Chicago. There, he would establish a company to mass-produce Mechanical Reapers. His brothers, Leander and William, traveled with him and stayed there to help him with financing as the demands for the reaper were growing. The company was very successful. It had a structure similar to what some companies employ nowadays. 

The demand for the reaper was still growing and continued to increase in 1851. In that year, McCormick went to London to promote his invention. It received the golden award at the Crystal Palace Exhibition, which was a great achievement at the time. This exhibition only increased the popularity of the machine. McCormick’s company amassed great wealth, and McCormick was able to repay all debts. They started to count their profits in thousands, and soon, hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Marriage to Nancy Fowler.

In 1858, Cyrus McCormick married Nancy Fowler, who was his secretary at the time. Together, they had seven children. Nettie, as Cyrus called Nancy, often helped him run the business and was an essential part of the company. Cyrus often turned to her for advice.

In 1871, during the Great Fire of Chicago, his factory was burned down. They rebuilt it in 1873, and the company returned to regular business. It did take a toll on Cyrus McCormick but was soon able to gain what he lost.

But his invention was not without problems. Some other inventors wanted to take claim a The Mechanical Reaper. Obed Hussey and William Manning both claimed to have invented something similar. McCormick was later credited since he could prove that he started the invention earlier.

The Implications and Lessons of the McCormick Invention

Cyrus McCormick died in 1884 in Chicago. For the rest of his life, he worked at his company, developing the Mechanical Reaper and improving his machine. The inventions had massive implications on agriculture within the USA and the whole world. It mechanized the reaping process. Since a large workforce was no longer needed, productivity went through the roof. It also was another innovation that enabled the Industrial Revolution. The Mechanical Reaper was also a significant part of the Agricultural Revolution during the 19th century. Additionally, Cyrus McCormick and his family had a substantial influence on modern companies and the way they are structured.

What can we learn from Cyrus’ life as an inventor, and what can we apply to our lives? For starters, it takes determination to have success and maintain confidence in your invention. The reaper was not very popular at the start, but Cyrus McCormick worked hard on it and made many improvements. It was his work ethic and determination that allowed him to make a fortune later in his life. 

Cyrus McCormick’s final words were: “Work, Work, Work.” An attitude we can apply to our own lives.

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Richard Haberkern

A professional inventor for over twenty years that has created many different electronic, audio and film industry related products. Richard is best known as the designer and inventor of the Trackstick and Soundlazer. He is also the creator of Invention Therapy and an expert on the subjects of product design, patents, inventing and marketing online. His knowledge will reveal all the secrets that those invention help companies don't want you to know.

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