Cyrus McCormick (1809–1884)
Agricultural Efficiency. In the opening decades of the nineteenth century the amount of acreage a family could cultivate often depended on how many people they could get into the fields. As a result most farmers who produced for the market faced continual labor shortages, especially in the harvest season; but this would soon change. New machines cut the time required for harvesting grains roughly in half between 1800 and 1840, and half again by 1880. Farm production and efficiency grew rapidly, a crucial development for the economy of the West.
John Deere Plows. Iron and steel plows soon replaced those made of wood. In 1837 John Deere constructed his first iron plow with a steel edge. He annually manufactured one thousand plows by the mid 1840s and ten thousand a year the following decade. These new plows allowed the settler to slice into mile after mile of otherwise resilient Midwestern prairie, but even Deere's plows could not overcome the problem of finding sufficient labor at harvest time. Farmers growing small grains such as wheat still needed laborers to harvest with sickles, scythes, or larger hand implements called cradles.
McCormick Reapers. Cyrus Hall McCormick was born in Virginia in 1809; his father, Robert, was something of a tinkerer himself. Early mechanical reapers appeared in England around 1800, and inventors in Europe and the United States continued to explore new possibilities. Robert McCormick experimented with a reaper and gave it to his son, Cyrus, in 1831. After making improvements, Page 112 | Top of Articlethe younger McCormick patented his new reaper in 1834. Although Cyrus McCormick left the farm machine business for a few years, his reaper, which would come to transform agriculture in the Trans-Appalachian West, hit the market in 1840. Between his own workshop in Virginia and some contractors in Cincinnati, Ohio, McCormick turned out 150 reapers in 1845. McCormick realized that a factory in the Midwest could significantly increase sales, so in 1847 he and a partner built a factory in Chicago. They manufactured 500 mechanical reapers there in 1848.
Competitors. It is important to realize that Cyrus McCormick was not the only inventor of the new reaper. In fact, Obed Hussey patented his first reaper a year before McCormick and remained his main competitor for years. There were other competitors as well, making McCormick's patents difficult to protect. McCormick repeatedly went to court to protect a variety of patents. Despite these legal obstacles, by 1850 McCormick had produced more than 1,600 reapers and had captured 50 percent of the American market. During the 1850s, while the number of reapers he produced increased as a result of continuous demand, his market share declined. By 1865 McCormick possessed only 5 percent of the reaper market. Indeed, new competitors were inventing and producing better machines more rapidly. Still, the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company continued to compete in the last half of the nineteenth century. When Cyrus died in 1884, his son Cyrus Jr. took charge of the business. In 1902 the McCormicks and other large producers of mechanical reapers merged to create a giant firm known as International Harvester.
Foreign Sales. Cyrus McCormick's success depended on a number of factors. As an early inventor he had a jump on the market, and he managed to obtain crucial patents. The cunning McCormick also employed ingenious methods for marketing his reapers. Early on, McCormick traveled to the countryside to see his machines at work during the harvest season. Later his agents and mechanics helped repair the reapers in the field. McCormick developed a warranty on his machines, and he sold them on credit. Like the competition, he also marketed his reapers at agricultural societies and fairs. In 1851 McCormick toured Europe to run trials on his reaper. He was so successful that he used his European praise for publicity back home. Soon his competitors went abroad to promote their own machines.
McCormick's Legacy. Vast changes in Western agriculture followed the development of the McCormick reaper and other new machines. Since the number of acres a farmer could harvest rose dramatically, farms in the West became increasingly larger. As with all technological change, some Americans were hurt by these developments. Poorer farming families often found they could not compete with wealthier commercial farmers. Less reliance on human hands pushed many agricultural laborers into the nation's urban factories. The ecological consequences eventually included soil erosion and the transformation of the American prairies into areas of comparatively little biodiversity. Before 1860 such concerns were not yet apparent to many Americans, and the nation instead celebrated the rise of seemingly efficient large-scale farming.
Willard W. Cochrane, The Development of American Agriculture: A Historical Analysis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993);
Esko Heikkonen, Reaping the Bounty: McCormick Harvesting Machine Company Turns Abroad, 1878–1902 (Helsinki: Finnish Historical Society, 1995).