"The reaper is to the North," he said, "what slavery is to the South. By taking the places of regiments of young men in the Western harvest fields, it releases them to do battle for the Union at the front, and at the same time keeps up the supply of bread for the nation and the nation's armies. Thus without McCormick 's invention I fear the North could not win, and the Union would be dismembered."
His invention of the first successful mechanical reaper allowed grain production to increase 2,900%, allowing the transition of farm labor to factory labor, and fueling the American industrial revolution.
Taken from, Thwaites, Reuben Gold. "Cyrus Hall McCormick and the Reaper." State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1908. Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
In all great economic movements, some man stands preeminent as the prophet and the pioneer. Cyrus Hall McCormick, a Scotch-Irishman, ranks in history as the leader who showed how peacefully to conquer the vast prairies of the American West, to uplift its farming class, and by cheapening the bread of the toiling millions to open to them the possibilities of a higher life.
Cyrus Hall McCormick, the eldest son in a family of eight children, was born at Walnut Grove, in Virginia, February 15, 1809. The boy was carefully reared to be a practical farmer; but it was evident that in his case, the carpenter and blacksmith shops were more attractive to him than the open fields.
When but fifteen years of age this ingenious lad made a distinct improvement in the grain cradle. In the same year he invented a hillside plow; a few seasons later supplanting it with a self-sharpening, horizontal plow, claimed to be the first of this character to be introduced.
But Cyrus McCormick 's greatest contribution to agricultural economics was yet to come. His imagination was early fired with a desire to conquer the great practical difficulties of mechanical reaping. In the summer of 1831, when but twenty-two years of age, young McCormick constructed a machine essentially unlike any mechanism proposed. He immediately demonstrated by practical tests, that the successful type had thus been created; and he never departed from that type, in conformity wherewith all success in this art has since proceeded.
The immense significance of this event may be realized when we remember that since man began to practice the arts of agriculture, the grain harvest has been one of his chiefest concerns. There is nearly always abundant time in which to plant and to cultivate; but from its having to be cut when in a certain stage of ripeness, at the risk of losing the crop, the harvesting of grain is confined to a few days — generally not to exceed ten. The amount of grain, therefore, which a husbandman may successfully raise, obviously is dependent on the quantity which he may garner with the means available during this brief season. Throughout the long centuries in which the primitive sickle was the only harvesting implement, it was possible for a man to cut half an acre per day; thus production was limited to about five acres for each harvester — enough for the immediate needs of the people of the district, but insufficient for considerable export to it non-agricultural communities.
The rigid limitation imposed by the use of the sickle, upon the supply of the most important food for man, had attracted the attention of men since the ancients, but the grain supply of the world was still being gathered by hand, with no better implements than the sickle and the cradle, when, in the harvest of 1831, young Cyrus Hall McCormick entered a field of rye on Walnut Grove Farm, and demonstrated to his delighted father that he had at last established the correct principle of cutting.
It will be helpful to consider some of the conflicting requirements of a mechanical reaper, that must needs be overcome by would-be inventors before the machine could be effective in the field. It must be capable of dealing with grain under the great variety of conditions commonly encountered in practical operations; of so separating, cutting, and depositing the flexible and illusive stalks as to avoid any material shelling of the kernels, prevent entanglement, and insure their being delivered and retained in such parallelism as to be properly handled for curing, preserving, and threshing; of cutting it substantially parallel with the surface of the ground, however irregular that surface; and of securing sufficient power without conflicting impulses or undue weight.
Having mastered the essential principles of a reaper, McCormick did not, like many inventors, immediately seek a patent. McCormick subjected his machine to repeated tests during three successive harvest seasons, under a variety of conditions and with different grain, and took out his patent (June 21, 1834) only after having fully vindicated and exhibited its practical value.
The problem of manufacturing and marketing the McCormick machine was at once seen to be a path beset by great practical difficulties. He had little capital; there were, of course, no railroads as yet penetrating the Valley of Virginia; and the nearest canal was many miles distant, over rough mountain roads, always difficult and sometimes impassable. All the material must be hauled overland. For example, the blades, six feet in length, were transported on horseback.
In this manner the work was carried on in the old blacksmith shop at Walnut Grove — the first two machines being sold in 1840; two others in 1841, seven in 1842, twenty-nine in 1843, and fifty in each of the years 1844 and 1845. Until 1843, the sales had wholly been in Virginia: but in that year he sold a county right in Michigan, and the following season sent machines to New York, Tennessee, Ohio. Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri.
In the spring of 1847, Mr. McCormick himself moved to Chicago, and in 1851 he estimated that in eleven years he had sold a thousand machines. By 1860, the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago were producing four thousand in a single year. The Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed not only all the buildings of the then thriving establishment, but the company's valuable patterns and the entire output of finished machines for the next year's harvest. With indomitable energy, however, the great inventor and equally great master of industry rebuilt on a far larger scale than before, his works having in 1875 a yearly output of twelve thousand reapers. The capacity of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, which was the largest concern of its kind in the world, prior to its absorption into the International Harvester Company (1902), was in 1901 fourteen hundred agricultural machines of various kinds for every working day of ten hours. At the busiest seasons seven thousand persons were employed at these works.
Under the law in vogue when his patent of 1834 was procured, an inventor was allowed a monopoly of his device for fourteen years; which term might be extended for another seven at the option of an extension board. Having entered the market only in 1840, Mr. McCormick had but enjoyed a business of eight years' duration when in 1848 he applied for an extension. Up to that time, he had sold 778 machines, chiefly on a royalty basis, at a profit of $20 each, aggregating $15,560. In addition to this, territorial rights had been disposed of for $7,083 — thus making his entire receipts from the invention but $22,643; from which, as shown by his sworn statement, were to be "deducted several thousand dollars" for traveling expenses and the employment of agents, not taking into account the value of his time.
The law provided that in considering extensions of patents, the board should "have due regard to the public interest therein:" thus leaving it open, that if an invention had come into extensive use and greatly interested the public, or if other manufacturers wished to escape paying royalty, opposition might be brought to bear through political and personal pressure. This is exactly what happened. A majority of the members of the board were keen politicians and sensitive to the widespread demand from the farmers for unrestricted use of this much-needed invention. Their verdict was against extension, but without giving reason.
Mr. McCormick thereupon appealed to Congress to grant a special act renewing the patent, and in that body the case became a cause celebre, occupying the attention of the members for four years. Again and again the McCormick bill was reported favorably by committees, but an immense array of political, social, and commercial influence was brought to bear against it by a combination of patent attorneys, rival manufacturers, and agricultural interests; and in the end it was defeated.
The basic principles of McCormick 's first patent had thus, in 1848, been thrown open to the public, and were at once adopted by all other manufacturers. A host of commercial competitors sprang up, crowding the market with machines in which his ideas had been incorporated. Valuable improvements, which he had patented in 1845 and 1847, still gave his machine an advantage over their competitors. His was, however, not a nature to rest content with this mere relative superiority, which in the presence of other keen minds at work along the same lines might be but transitory.
United with the determination and perseverance of an indefatigable inventor were his masterly methods of business organization — an unusual combination, for inventors are seldom commercially successful. More and more widely extended became the operations of the McCormick Works, and the fame of its master soon spread around the world. His notable display at the World's Fair of 1851, in. London, was Mr. McCormick 's introduction to Europe. The reaper astonished the Old World, and alone saved the credit of the otherwise inferior American exhibit.
In 1860, the inventor applied for an extension of his existing patents. However, he again was met by well-organized opposition. Rival reaper manufacturers, operating through the agency of a firm of patent lawyers, industriously worked up antagonistic sentiment among the farmers, and thus brought a powerful influence to bear upon senators and representatives. Letters and petitions from farmers and manufacturers poured into Washington from all parts of the country; and the state legislatures of New York, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois adopted resolutions remonstrating against manufacturers and farmers being longer "compelled to pay tribute to Cyrus H. McCormick." Commissioner of Patents D. P. Holloway yielded to this great pressure, and refused the desired extension on grounds of public policy.
However unfortunate for McCormick, the effect upon American agriculture was immediate and profound. The tide of New England and Middle West pioneers was now ready to invade the prairies, and their conquest was rendered possible only by labor-saving devices. In order profitably to use this ingenious machinery, many large farmers were leaving their timber lands and moving into the timberless levels, where roots, stumps, rocks, and steep hillsides did not interfere with mechanical mowers, reapers, and rakers. The period of hand labor was plainly seen to be passing. Horse power was now fast becoming the dominant factor upon the farm.
It would lead us far beyond the necessary limits of this sketch, fully to emphasize the immense economic influence which the reaping machine exercised upon the conduct of the War of Secession by the Northern States. In June, 1861, Edwin Stanton delivered an address eulogizing Cyrus H. McCormick. He held that the great inventor's services to mankind and civilization were much beyond those of discoverers and conquerors, for his were the beneficent and everlasting victories of peace, and the world owed to their author an adequate reward. "The reaper is to the North," he said, "what slavery is to the South. By taking the places of regiments of young men in the Western harvest fields, it releases them to do battle for the Union at the front, and at the same time keeps up the supply of bread for the nation and the nation's armies. Thus without McCormick 's invention I fear the North could not win, and the Union would be dismembered.' '
Upon the declaration of peace between the warring states, vast numbers of discharged Union soldiers went into the West, to take up homes under the military homestead law. Abundant land awaited settlement as late as 1880. The young man of the Central States found the prospect of acquiring a farm for himself more inviting than the return to the life of an agricultural renter or laborer. By the extensive use of agricultural machinery the center of cereal production has been kept well in advance of the center of our population. William H. Seward once claimed that the McCormick reaper had extended the American frontier at the rate of thirty miles each year — a sentiment practically identical with that uttered by Stanton, who in his previously-quoted address in 1861 showed upon a map how "McCormick 's invention in Virginia, thirty years before, had carried permanent civilization westward more than fifty miles a year." As each new region in the Middle West — or, in time, the trans- Mississippi — was opened to settlement, aggressive men promptly invaded the new area, engaging in cereal culture upon a cumulative scale which within the past three decades has become vast. Thus, while the trend in this country has been largely toward the development of the cities at the expense of the rural districts, the yield of our crops has kept pace with the urban growth.
Socially, economically, and politically, the effect has been far-reaching and revolutionary. The vast levels of the Northwest have become the chief seat of our agricultural production, and the center of political power in the United States. The new instruments of labor have everywhere reduced to a minimum the old-time drudgery of the farm; the storm and stress period of pioneer life has become a matter of history. By bringing to them this opportunity for larger prosperity and leisure, agricultural machinery doubtless saved the farmers of the West from sinking into a peasant class. With prosperity and leisure, came a taste for culture and the consequent development of academies, colleges, and universities.
The humblest urban wage-earner had in turn had his benefit: the supply of food has been maintained, scarcity has been prevented, and prices are lessened. The introduction of improved agricultural machinery has made possible, also, the great flouring industries of the Old Northwest; and has promoted the prosperity of great railway systems that gridiron the prairies and plains, and of monster fleets of vessels that ply the Great Lakes, all engaged in transporting to market the products of the farm.
McCormick’s inventions emancipated the farm laborer from his galling task, saved the Western farmer from degenerating into a drudge, and made possible a wonderful progress in agriculture throughout the world. His invention, taking the place of farm-hands drafted from the fields of the North, powerfully promoted the abolition of slavery in the South — thus counteracting the effects of the epoch-making cotton-gin of Eli Whitney, of Massachusetts, which had greatly extended the area of human bondage.
Cyrus McCormick was gifted with force, a high degree of organizing capacity, and power of marvelous perseverance. With patient, infinite toil, he perfected this mechanism year by year. Opposition met him in every form — in the courts of law, in Congress, in the business world, and in mechanical difficulties encountered upon the harvest field. But he recognized no enduring obstacles. He was not easily discouraged, although defeats hurt him; he was content with nothing less than conquering — and he did not always conquer.
He disliked ostentatious display, he was simple in his personal tastes, he dearly loved his wife and family, he was deeply religious, his philanthropy was ever active, and few will know the extent and variety of his charities. Upon the thirteenth of May, 1884, he passed from this life at his home in Chicago, sincerely mourned by those who had learned to love as well as to honor one of the world's greatest benefactors.