McCormick Invents the Reaper Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Cyrus McCormick’s invention of the earliest commercially successful mechanical reaper dramatically reduced the need for labor and made large-scale wheat production possible.

Summary of Event

Wheat is a crop that historically presented a special challenge to farmers because of its short harvest period. After it ripens, its husks begin to open and begin rotting if they are not harvested within ten days. Before the development of mechanical harvesters, farmers had to be careful not to plant more wheat than they could harvest with the limited supply of labor available to them. Labor shortages on American farms made the development of mechanical reapers a pressing need during the early nineteenth century. McCormick, Cyrus Hall Reaper Inventions;reaper Agriculture;reapers Wheat;and reapers[Reapers] [kw]McCormick Invents the Reaper (Summer, 1831) [kw]Invents the Reaper, McCormick (Summer, 1831) [kw]Reaper, McCormick Invents the (Summer, 1831) McCormick, Cyrus Hall Reaper Inventions;reaper Agriculture;reapers Wheat;and reapers[Reapers] [g]United States;Summer, 1831: McCormick Invents the Reaper[1690] [c]Agriculture;Summer, 1831: McCormick Invents the Reaper[1690] [c]Inventions;Summer, 1831: McCormick Invents the Reaper[1690] [c]Manufacturing;Summer, 1831: McCormick Invents the Reaper[1690] [c]Government and politics;Summer, 1831: McCormick Invents the Reaper[1690] [c]Science and technology;Summer, 1831: McCormick Invents the Reaper[1690] Deere, John Hussey, Obed Manny, John H.

Cyrus Hall McCormick is generally credited with the invention of the first reaper containing the basic elements that are still used in modern reaping machines. Other inventors in the United States and Great Britain produced working models of mechanical reapers before McCormick did, but none of their inventions proved commercially successful. For example, in Great Britain, Thomas Brown Brown, Thomas manufactured and marketed a mechanical reaper before 1820, but its sales were slow because farm labor in Britain was more plentiful and cheaper than in the United States, and because British farms typically had small fields that made the use of mechanical reapers difficult.

McCormick developed his reaper on a twelve-hundred-acre family farm of Walnut Grove in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Shenandoah Valley The problem of a mechanical reaper had intrigued McCormick’s father, Robert McCormick, who had attempted to build one several times. Robert McCormick used tools and materials available in the farm’s blacksmith shop and did not succeed. During the summer of 1831, however, his son Cyrus built a reaper that performed successfully. The younger McCormick then set the invention aside for several years to pursue other business interests. It was not until 1834, after a failed attempt to market a hemp-breaking machine invented by his father, that Cyrus resumed work on the reaper and applied for a patent.

Painting by Bernarda Bryson (1903-2004) of Cyrus McCormick standing in front his reaper, while holding a newspaper with the headline “Boom in Wheat!”

(Library of Congress)

McCormick’s reaper revolutionized grain farming in the United States. Prior to its invention, the methods used in harvesting grain had not changed in thousands of years. Harvesting was done with hand-held scythes and cradles, with teams of rakers and binders following behind. As workers with scythes or sickles cut the grain, other workers raked the fallen stalks, and binders gathered the stalks into bundles known as sheaves. The sheaves then were stacked into piles (shocks) to await collection into wagons.

Harvesting was backbreaking work and resulted in much waste. According to technology historian Harold Livesay, in 1830 a crew of six laborers—one worker cutting the wheat with the others following behind, raking and binding—could harvest only two acres per day. During the 1840’s, the McCormick reaper could handle between ten and fifteen acres per day and required fewer binders following behind. The substantial savings in labor allowed a relatively small workforce to at least triple the acreage harvested.

By 1839, when McCormick started advertising his machine, other reapers already had entered the market. A former sailor from Maine, Obed Hussey Hussey, Obed , had patented a mechanical reaper in 1833 and had been selling reapers for several years. Hussey was McCormick’s first serious competitor. In 1840, McCormick sold only two reapers; both of them broke down, so he returned to his workshop to improve his reaper’s design. In 1842, he sold six machines; in 1843, twenty-nine.

During this initial period, most of the reapers in use were in the eastern states, although McCormick’s machines had been built in Ohio. McCormick had visited the prairie states, however, and knew that was where the reaper would be in highest demand, as farming, particularly the production of grain crops, was moving west. In 1848, McCormick moved to Chicago and built a factory to manufacture reapers. This location offered several advantages. Transportation from Chicago was already good and was getting better with the construction of new railroad lines in Illinois and west of the Mississippi River. Also, Illinois Illinois;agriculture and Wisconsin Wisconsin;agriculture were becoming the major grain-producing states, and the broad, level wheatlands of the West could employ mechanical reapers more efficiently than the smaller and often hilly and rocky wheatlands of the East.

McCormick’s reaper factory in Chicago helped make that city a center for the manufacture of agricultural machinery in the United States. During 1849, the first full year that McCormick manufactured machines in Chicago, his factory produced fifteen hundred reapers. By 1858, sales of his reaper had made McCormick a millionaire.

Mechanization of farming brought many changes to American agriculture. In 1830, the total wheat crop of the United States had amounted to approximately 40 million bushels. Within nine years, this figure doubled, and in 1860 it exceeded 170 million bushels. During the 1830’s, New York New York State;wheat , Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania;wheat and Wheat;in United States[United States] Virginia Virginia;wheat were major wheat-producing states, but the center of the wheat-growing area moved steadily westward. In 1839, the Old Northwest produced 31 percent of the nation’s crop; in 1849, 37 percent; and in 1859, 46 percent. A reason for the dramatic increase in wheat production was the introduction of the McCormick reaper.

As the domestic economy grew, stimulated by the immigration of large numbers of Europeans after the late 1840’s, the demand for wheat and other grains increased proportionately. From 1846 to 1860, prices were fairly high, and farmers throughout the states of Ohio, Ohio;wheat Indiana, Indiana;wheat Illinois, Illinois;agriculture and Wisconsin Wisconsin;agriculture expanded their acreage in wheat. Before the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), wheat was the most important cash crop in the northern agricultural economy, and by 1860 it was the most important cash crop in the United States. Its importance was largely the result of the growth of the domestic economy rather than of the entrance of American grain and flour into European markets. The development of a nationwide transportation system of canals and railroads allowed farmers in formerly isolated regions to participate in the market economy. Crops such as wheat that had been prohibitively expensive to transport by wagon were transported cheaply and easily by rail.


The reaper had a significant impact prior to and during the Civil War (1861-1865). Reapers sold by McCormick and his strongest competitor, John H. Manny Manny, John H. , were common in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin during the 1850’s. One authority estimated that more than seventy thousand reapers and mowers were in operation west of the Appalachians by 1858. By 1860, about 70 percent of the wheat harvested in that area was cut by machine. By 1864, about 250,000 reapers and mowers were in use in the North, enough to provide machines for 75 percent of all northern farms of more than a hundred acres. A significant number of these machines came from the growing production lines of Cyrus H. McCormick. His profits from sales in 1856 reached three hundred thousand dollars; between 1868 and 1870, annual sales were double what they had been during the war, and the factory on the Chicago River produced eight thousand reapers and mowers for harvest each year.

The mechanization of agriculture and the establishment of Chicago as a center of production came just in time to service the movement of the center of grain production into the trans-Mississippi country. The semiarid prairies of Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska demanded farming on a large scale. Machinery was necessary. Similarly, the movement of wheat into the bonanza farms of California required machinery. The inventive genius of McCormick, Hussey, Hussey, Obed Manny Manny, John H. , John Deere, Deere, John and others made it possible to prepare, seed, tend, and harvest thousand-acre wheat farms with relatively small workforces. McCormick did for wheat what Eli Whitney had done for cotton.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brands, H. W. Masters of Enterprise: Giants of American Business from John Jacob Astor and J. P. Morgan to Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey. New York: Free Press, 1999. Collection of brief biographies of twenty-five American entrepreneurs, including Cyrus McCormick.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Casson, Herbert Newton. Cyrus Hall McCormick: His Life and Work. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1971. Definitive biography of McCormick.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collins, Edward John T. Sickle to Combine: A Review of Harvesting Techniques from 1800 to the Present Day. Reading, England: Museum of English Rural Life, 1969. Brief but comprehensive discussion of the evolution of mechanization in agriculture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoseason, David. Harvesters and Harvesting, 1840-1900. London: Croom Helm, 1982. Agricultural history focusing on changes in the workforce as farming became more mechanized.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Isern, Thomas D. Bull Threshers and Bindlestiffs: Harvesting and Threshing on the North American Plains. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990. Includes a concise history of the development of harvesting equipment in North America. Highly accessible; clear illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Livesay, Harold C. American Made: Men Who Shaped the American Economy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979. Contains a concise, lively account of the life of Cyrus McCormick and the company he founded.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCormick, Cyrus. The Century of the Reaper: An Account of Cyrus Hall McCormick, the Inventor of the Reaper . . . Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931. Uncritical biography of the inventor of the McCormick reaper by his grandson of the same name. Written to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the invention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wendel, Charles H. One Hundred Fifty Years of International Harvester. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1993. History of the company that McCormick founded, containing descriptions of the various pieces of farm machinery the firm manufactured and sold.

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