Great Inventors and Their Inventions - Frank Bachman

Cyrus H. McCormick and the Invention of the Reaper

The chief occupation the world over is farming. This will always be true, because our food comes from the farm. The most important article of food is bread, and the best bread is made from wheat. The amount of wheat raised depends largely on the amount that can be harvested. The farmer, as a rule, has ample time to prepare the ground and sow the wheat, but the time within which he can harvest the golden grain is limited to from four to ten days. Very soon after the wheat is ripe, the stalks begin to break and fall down, and the grain begins to shatter. Unless cut very soon after it is ripe, the crop is lost. The harvesting wheat is, then, most important. Each improvement in methods of harvesting has increased the amount of wheat raised, and has decreased the amount of hunger in the world.

The Sickle and the Cradle

In the very earliest times, the harvester walked along and pulled the heads off by hand, leaving the stalks to stand in the field. The first improvement over this primitive method was the use of a long-bladed knife. By grasping a bunch of stalks with one hand, and using the knife with the other, a number of heads could be cut off at one stroke. A knife that was slightly curved answered better than one with a straight blade, and this led to the making of the sickle.

Harvesting with sickle


In the days when the sickle was king, the whole family turned out to help gather in the harvest. The women could reap quite as well as the men. It was a good day's work for one person to cut and bind into sheaves or bundles a half acre of wheat, which would yield anywhere from five to twenty bushels of grain.

The sickle gave way to the cradle, which first came into use about the time of the Revolutionary War. The cradle is merely a scythe furnished with wooden fingers running parallel with the blade. These wooden fingers hold the stalks of grain, after they have been cut off, in an upright position, and enable the cradler to lay the grain down in a neat row, with the stalks parallel, ready to be gathered into bunches and bound into sheaves.

Harvesting with cradle


A strong man could cut with a cradle from two to two and a half acres of wheat in a day, and a second man following along could gather it up and bind it into sheaves. The cradle was thus a great improvement over the sickle or reap hook, for it increased two to three times the amount of wheat one man could harvest. But cradling and binding grain was the very hardest work on the farm. In hot weather even the strongest men could keep at work only a part of the time. So long, then, as the cradle was the best means of harvesting, the amount of wheat that could be raised on a single farm was small. Still, the cradle continued to be the king of harvesters until almost the middle of the last century. Even to-day, wheat raised in stumpy ground, in small fields, and in orchards, is cut with a cradle.

The First Reaping Machines

The success of men like Watt with the steam engine, and Arkwright with the water frame, set many a man in England working on labor-saving machines. One of these, Patrick Bell of Scotland, came near making a practical reaper.

Bell's Reaper


The important point to be noticed about Bell's reaper is the cutting apparatus. It is made up of twelve pairs of shears or scissors. One side of each pair of shears is fastened to the cutter bar and stands still; the other side is fastened on a pivot and vibrates back and forth, and thus cuts the grain. The reel draws the grain against the blades of the scissors, and causes it to fall, when cut, upon a moving canvas. The moving canvas carries the grain to one side, out of the way of the horses which are hitched behind the machine. In workmanship, this machine was far ahead of any reaper made in America until at least 1847. Bell's reaper was first tried in the harvest of 1828, and a public exhibition of its work was given in that year.

"This reaper," said a writer in 1852, "soon worked its way to a considerable success. . . . In the harvest of 1834 I saw several of them at work, all giving satisfaction. They were manufactured in Dundee, and thence found their way throughout the country. Four of them went to the United States of America. This renders it highly probable that they became the models from which the many so-called inventions of the American reapers have since sprung. . . . In a few cases the Bell reaper has kept in operation up to the present time."

You wonder why this machine did not come into general use, and why Bell is not called the inventor of the reaper. The cutting part of Bell's machine, as in all the early reapers, was not satisfactory. If the grain was ripe, stood up well, and was free from grass and weeds, it went satisfactorily. But if the grain was down, and there was an abundance of weeds and grass, the machine choked, running over the wheat without cutting it. As a rule, only about four fifths of a field could be harvested with this machine; the remainder had to be cut with the cradle. Again, farmers were not accustomed at that time to machinery. Besides, the fields in England were small, and labor was plentiful. English farmers did not have much trouble in harvesting what grain they could raise. There was not, for these reasons, very much encouragement in England for an inventor to make the sacrifice to perfect a machine and to educate the people to buy and use it. Still, if Bell is not to be called the inventor of the reaper, it should be granted that he made the first reaping machine used to any considerable extent.

The Man Who Succeeded

Although Bell's reaper cut grain with some success, people went on harvesting their wheat with the sickle and cradle, almost as if his invention had not been made. But not long afterwards, a reaper was invented which, when perfected, was used in all parts of the world. This reaper took the place of the sickle and the cradle; it increased, many times, the amount of wheat raised, and it relieved the farmers of the back-breaking work of cutting and binding grain by hand. The man who took the chief part in the invention and improvement of this reaper was an American, Cyrus H. McCormick, born in 1809, near Midvale, Virginia.

Robert McCormick, the father of Cyrus, was a farmer, who, like many other farmers of the day, did other things besides farming. On his ample farm of 1800 acres, there stood a sawmill and a gristmill. There was also a blacksmith shop of goodly size, where the father not only made and repaired the tools used on the farm, but often tried his hand at invention. A reaping machine was his hobby. He was at work on this as early as 1816, and continued to busy himself with it until 1831. At the time it left his hands, the cutting part was made up of whirling saws eight to ten inches in diameter, which revolved like shears past the edge of stationary knives. A reel pressed the grain against the cutters, and pushed the cut grain upon a platform. When there was enough cut grain on the platform to make a sheaf, it was raked to the ground by a man who followed along beside the reaper. This machine was at last tested in the early harvest of 1831, but the cutter would not work.

Cyrus H. McCormick, the oldest of a family of eight children, grew up like many another country boy, familiar from childhood with farm life. He prided himself on knowing how to do every kind of farm work, and how to run and repair every bit of machinery in use. The winter months he spent in the near-by "Field School," studying reading, writing, and arithmetic, and the rest of the year was given to work, either on the farm, in the mills, or in the shop. By the time he was twenty-one, Cyrus was as big and strong as any man in all the region round about; he was a good farmer, and was skilled in the use of blacksmith tools. Like his father, he had a fondness for making things and for invention.

McCormick's First Reaper

When Robert McCormick, the father of Cyrus, drew his crude reaper out to a field of wheat in the early harvest of 1831, to make a trial of the invention on which he had spent fifteen years, Cyrus, you may be sure, was more than an onlooker. He had doubtless had a considerable part in the making of this machine. So when it choked down and would not cut, he was probably even more disappointed than his father. But when the disappointed father said, "I am through with it; it is impossible to make a practical reaping machine," not so with Cyrus. The surrender of the father was the call of the son to battle. Then and there Cyrus resolved to make a successful reaper. The machine was pulled back to the blacksmith shop, and Cyrus took up the work where his father left off.

To improve the cutting part of the machine, Cyrus made a sickle bar, to carry a moving sickle, with wire guards extending forward into the grain. The sickle was made of a thin bar of steel, on the edge of which were filed sharp, saw-like teeth. A divider was attached to the outer end of the sickle bar, and extended forward, to separate the grain to be cut from the grain to be left standing. These two changes were probably the only ones made on his father's machine in the summer of 1831. Cyrus was anxious to give the new kind of cutter a trial. So before the last oats were cut, the improved machine was taken back to the field. The new cutter worked so well that Cyrus felt he was on the right track.

By the harvest of 1832, the improved machine probably looked very much like the machine patented in 1834. At all events, Cyrus felt ready to take his machine out into the "wide, wide world." A public exhibition was given near Lexington, which was attended by the farmers and laborers for miles around. The field in which the trial was to be made was very rough. The machine did not work well, and it looked for a time as if it also were a failure.

"Here," shouted the owner of the field, "stop your horses. That won't do, you are ruining my wheat."

This delighted the laborers, who feared that the machine would take work away from them.

"It's a humbug," shouted one.

"Give me the old cradle yet," cried another.

All this, you may be sure, was discouraging enough to the farmer-inventor. But farmers like fair play.

McCormick's Machine


"I'll see that you have a fair chance, young man," said a farmer. "That field of wheat on the other side of the fence belongs to me. Pull down the fence and cross over."

Cyrus pulled down the fence and crossed over. The field was level, and before sundown he had laid low a full six acres of grain.

With this unheard-of feat accomplished, the machine was driven into Lexington and exhibited at the courthouse square. One spectator, after looking it over carefully, said, "This machine is worth a hundred thousand dollars."

Probably quite as agreeable to Cyrus were the words of his father: "It makes me feel proud, to have a son do what I could not do."

The general feeling of most of those who saw the machine on that day was, however, probably expressed by a certain lady, who said, "I thought it was a right smart curious sort of a thing, but that it wouldn't come to much."

Selling Reapers in the East

McCormick advertised in the local newspaper, reapers for sale, as early as 1833. But it was seven years before he sold his first machine. To be sure, between 1833 and 1839 he was engaged with his father in running an iron furnace, and gave little time to his invention. The iron business, however, proved a failure, McCormick losing everything. The reaper was all he had left. He now turned to it to help him out of his financial troubles, exhibiting it in the harvest of 1839. Though he cut as much as twelve acres of grain in a day, no one wanted to buy. To the farmers of that time the machine was not only costly,—the price was fifty dollars,—but it was also very complex. "It can be run," said the farmers, "right well, by one who knows all its cogs and levers, but we are running farms and not circuses."

Most persons would have been discouraged, would have given up. McCormick was not that kind of man; he worked even harder than before. He succeeded in selling seven machines in 1842, twenty-nine in 1843, and fifty in 1844. This was big business.

Best of all, seven reapers were ordered from the West. These seven orders gave great joy to the McCormick brothers, who were now all busy at the old blacksmith shop, turning out a reaper a week. But when the question how to get reapers out to Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin arose, Cyrus saw that the old "home farm" was no place to make reapers, if these were to be sent to the West.

About this time a friend remarked, "Cyrus, why don't you go West with your reaper, where the fields are large and level, and where labor is scarce?"

McCormick decided that this was the best thing for him to do.

In a few days he was on his way. He traveled by stage through Pennsylvania, by boat along the lake ports, and on horseback over the Middle Western States. It was the first time he had seen the prairies, so broad and level and fertile. They seemed made for his reaper, and in Illinois he realized how greatly the West needed it. The bounteous harvest was too much to be cut with the cradle, and hogs and cattle had been turned into great fields of over-ripe grain.

"With my reaper," thought McCormick, "millions of bushels of grain can be saved, which are now left to rot on the ground. Here and there in Virginia, a farmer can be persuaded by hard work to buy a reaper, but the West,—the West must have the reaper."


Returning home, McCormick brought together all the improvements he had made in his machine since his first patent, and took out a new one in 1845.

He was going West, but where should he locate? St. Louis, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Cleveland were cities of good size, and each offered some special advantage. But McCormick studied the maps, saw where the railroads were going, and observed where the people were settling. He finally chose Chicago. This was one of the most fortunate decisions in his long and successful career.

When McCormick voted for Chicago, he had neither money nor credit. To start in business, he must find a man to furnish him with the needed money. McCormick called on William Ogden, at that time Mayor of Chicago, and told him of his invention, of his success, and of his new plans. On hearing McCormick's story, Ogden said, "You are just the man we want. I will give you twenty-five thousand dollars for a half interest in this reaper business of yours, and we will build a factory at once." The factory was built, and five hundred reapers were manufactured for the harvest of 1848, and fifteen hundred for the harvest of the next year. The making of reapers on a large scale in the West was thus a success from the first.

At the end of the second year, McCormick said to Ogden, "For your share of the business, I will pay you back the twenty-five thousand dollars you invested, and will give you twenty-five thousand besides for interest and profit."

Ogden, having many other interests, gladly accepted this offer; he had doubled his money in two years. McCormick now had a factory of his own, and the commanding position of being the inventor and successful maker of the reaper. He was well on the way to a great fortune. From this time on, he had no partners except his brothers, who joined him in Chicago, to help in the growing business.

The Self-Rake Reaper

The reaper did away with the hard work of cutting grain with the sickle or cradle. Farmers soon began to ask, "Why cannot a device be invented to do away with the even harder work of the raker?" In answer, a self-rake was invented in 1852, by Jearum Atkins, an invalid. Atkins had a McCormick reaper placed outside of his window. Day after day he sat in his chair and worked on an attachment which would of itself rake from the platform the cut grain. Success finally crowned his efforts, and McCormick, always anxious to meet the demands of the farmer, bought this invention.

McCormick's Self-Rake Reaper


The farmers nicknamed the contrivance the "Iron Man." It was surely a spectacle to see its long rake fingered arm whirling up through the air, and then, descending to the platform, rake off the cut grain in great bunches ready to be bound. The self-rake saved the labor of from one to two men, and after 1860 farmers scarcely bought any other kind of machine.

The Marsh Harvester

The reaper by this time had taken away fully half the hard work of the harvest. There remained only the binding of the bunches of cut grain about the middle with a straw rope, so that the grain could be easily handled. This, to be sure, was back-breaking toil, but most of the farmers thought it would always have to be done by hand. "How can a machine ever gather the grain into bundles and tie bands about them?" they would ask.

An inventor by the name of Mann fitted a McCormick reaper, in 1849, with a canvas elevator, to carry the cut grain up into a wagon moving along beside the machine. Nine years later, two brothers by the name of Marsh were using a machine of this kind, when one asked the other, "Why should the grain be carried up to the wagon? Why can't we put a platform on the side of the machine to stand on, make a table all round to work on, and bind the grain as fast as it comes up?"

By the next harvest, the Marsh boys had their new rigging arranged. As they expected, they could bind grain nearly three times as fast as before. One of the brothers bound a whole acre by himself, in fifty-five minutes. They patented their device, and called it the Marsh harvester.

The Marsh harvester cut the cost of binding grain in two. The binders had no longer to walk from bundle to bundle, nor were they compelled to stoop over, each time they bound a sheaf. They could stand still and straight at their work. Two men could do what before it took five or six to do. Strange as it may seem, the Marsh harvester was not at first popular. The farmers called it a "man killer." The farm hands dubbed it the "Weary Willie." Like all good things, it soon won its way, and for more than ten years was the king of harvesters.

Besides reducing the cost and the drudgery of binding grain, the Marsh harvester was a long step towards what the farmers said could never be done. All that was now needed to do "the impossible" was to teach the Marsh harvester to twist a wire or to tie a knot.

The Wire Self-Binder

In the winter of 1874, Charles Withington, of Janesville, Wisconsin, carried to McCormick at Chicago a new invention. It was a remarkable device. Two steel arms caught a bundle of grain between them, put a wire tightly around the bundle, and fastened the two ends of the wire together by a twist. This was the long sought self-binder, the very thing the farmer said could never be made. A wire self-binder was built and tested in the following July. It cut fifty acres of wheat, and bound almost every bundle without a slip. Within the next five years, McCormick alone made and sold fifty thousand of these machines.

Wire Self-Binder


This was the end of harvest drudgery. Sickles, cradles, rakers, binders, each in turn were set free. From this time on, all that was needed was a man or a good-sized boy to drive the team and to manage the machine. The machine cut the grain, bound it into sheaves, collected these on a carrier, and dropped them to the ground, ready to be placed in shocks,—all without the aid of the human hand.

The Twine Self-Binder

There was one defect in the wire binder, which proved to be its undoing. The wire mixed with the straw got into the mouths of the cattle, and at times killed them. Pieces of wire mixed in the grain cut the hands of those handling it. So, while the farmers were delighted with the self-binder, they disliked the wire.

At the very time the wire binder seemed to be most secure in its position in the harvester world, John Appleby, of Wisconsin, took to William Deering, the chief maker of the Marsh harvester, an invention which he claimed could tie a knot more quickly and more securely than was ever done by sailor.

Deering knew the dislike of the farmers for wire.

"Here," he said to himself, "is the device to make the perfect binder, a binder that will use twine." And he forthwith accepted the new device without the slightest hesitation.

During the winter of 1880, word went about among the makers of binders that "Deering is crazy over a twine binder. Why, he is making three thousand of them."

Before the harvest of 1880 was over, the shoe was on the other foot, for Deering not only made, but he sold his three thousand twine binders, at a profit of one hundred thousand dollars.

By the next harvest almost every manufacturer was in the field with a twine binder, most of them paying a royalty to Appleby. The wire binder passed away almost as quickly as a summer shower. The twine binder took its place, and it is to-day the standard binder of the world.

With one of these machines, having almost human skill, a sixteen-year-old boy can harvest as much grain as a dozen strong men could harvest with the cradle, or even forty with the sickle.

The Complete Harvester

The final step in the improvement of the reaper was the invention of the complete harvester, which is really a harvester and thrasher in one machine. The complete harvesters are used, in our own country, chiefly on the Pacific Coast. They are great machines drawn by thirty to forty horses, or by an engine. They cut a swath from twenty to twenty-five feet wide, and a single machine will cut, thrash, clean, and sack from seventy-five to a hundred acres of grain in a day, all at a cost of not more than forty cents an acre.

The Worth of the Reaper

McCormick lived until 1884. He thus saw the reaper grow, from the time when he drove that crude machine back to the old blacksmith shop in July, 1831, until it reached its full maturity in the self-binder of to-day. With his own hand, he added the improvements which first made the reaper a success; in his own time, he was always the largest single maker of reapers, and he did more than anyone else to carry the reaper to Europe and the other countries of the world.

Modern Harvester


Chiefly because of the reaper, the amount of wheat produced in the world has increased by leaps and bounds, until it now amounts to about four billion bushels a year. To handle this enormous crop, great elevators are built along rairoads, at rairoad centers, and at seaports. A single elevator, like the "Jumbo" at Minneapolis, holds six million bushels. To grind this wheat, thousands of flour mills have been erected, some of which are so large that a single mill grinds seventeen thousand barrels of flour in twenty-four hours. Even the making of reapers has in itself become a great industry. One harvester company alone gives regular employment to an army of twenty-five thousand men and women.