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Definition: McCORMICK, Cyrus Hall, 1809-1884 from A Biographical Dictionary of People in Engineering: From Earliest Records to 2000

American inventor and industrialist; hillside plow (1831), invented successful reaping machine at Walnut Grove Farm (VA) called Daisy (1831, pat. 1834), opened factory in Chicago (1847), formed and was president of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. (1879-1884), succeeded by son Cyrus Hall McCormick [1859-1936] who became president of the International Harvester Co. (IHC) (1902-1919) (AIE ANB ASAI CDOAB DAB EAI EOWB IAI IIA I&T16 LAI MEIA MWBD NC21 NYPL 1000Y PS Res14 SAI TBDOS TEIH TGS WA WWWIA WWWIS: see References.)

Summary Article: McCormick, Cyrus Hall
from The Industrial Revolution: Key Themes and Documents

Cyrus McCormick, an inventor, played a key role in promoting the revolution in agricultural production in the United States that accompanied the revolution in industrial manufacturing. He was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia, on February 15, 1809. His father, Robert McCormick—a farmer, a blacksmith, and a “tinkerer,” in McCormick's word—searched for more efficient ways of performing mechanical tasks. While the younger McCormick was growing up, his father worked diligently to develop a better way of harvesting grain. At the time, farmers reaped grain by hand, cutting the stalks down with a sickle. The work was labor intensive and limited the number of acres a farmer could work.

Robert McCormick worked unsuccessfully for years to come up with a mechanical reaper, and his son watched prototype after prototype fail. When his father gave up, Cyrus took up the crusade. Other inventors, such as Obed Hussey, were engaged in the same quest. In 1831, McCormick had a workable prototype. His reaper, a contraption on wheels that was pulled by horses, included a rotating reel that pushed the grain against a reciprocating cutting blade and a metal platform that caught and trapped the fallen grain. In 1834, McCormick filed for a patent on his reaper.

Cyrus McCormick invented the first practical grain reaper and went into large-scale production of the farm machines in the 1840s. His invention (shown here in 1878) enabled a huge increase in grain production. (Parsons, J. Russell, et al. Memorial of Robert McCormick, 1885)

McCormick worked at the family's iron-foundry business until its bankruptcy in the panic of 1837, when he began working on improving the reaper. By 1840, he was manufacturing reapers and selling them locally, even though most farmers found them hard to use. The heavy metal in the reaper easily tired the horses working to pull it through fields, and the contraption often clogged up, requiring farmers to stop and clean tangled plants from the metal teeth. Most farmers found it cheaper to reap by hand. Still, in 1842, McCormick was able to license others to manufacture and sell his invention.

In 1844, hoping to improve sales, McCormick traveled to Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, where he found the topography much more amenable to the reaper. The land was flat, not hilly like back east, and the reaper clogged up less frequently. Also, because labor was less available and more expensive out west, the reaper had a better market. He moved his manufacturing operation to Chicago in 1847.

McCormick also made dramatic improvements in the reaper. He replaced all of the cast-iron parts with wrought iron, which made the reaper lighter and easier for horses to haul. He sharpened and strengthened the cutting blade and made it so that operators could adjust the cutting height. He also added a seat for the raker, who no longer had to walk along with the reaper.

In addition to being a successful inventor, McCormick proved to be a highly successful businessman. He developed a modern factory that revolutionized industrial production. The factory employed standardized, machine-tooled parts, which increased productivity and permitted farmers to make some repairs in the field. McCormick's factory in Chicago during the 1850s and 1860s was considered the most modern in the world. He also employed modern marketing methods, advertising the reaper in farmer publications. By the time of the Civil War, McCormick was a millionaire. He lived until May 13, 1884. By that time, his son had taken over the business, which eventually evolved into the corporate giant International Harvester.

Copyright 2014 by James S. Olson with Shannon L. Kenny

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