Cyrus McCormick

Cyrus McCormick

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Cyrus McCormick's father invented the first horse-drawn crop reaper and was experimenting with a design for a mechanical reaper when he turned the experiment over to his son. Cyrus took a look at his design and made a few changes to make the mechanical reaper fully functional and obtained a patent in 1834.After numerous attempts to sell the product in his local area, he went to Chicago in 1847 to form the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. During the Chicago Fire of 1871, his building was burned down, but he constructed a larger building with the idea of overseas shipping in mind.Cyrus Hall McCormick died on May 13, 1884. The business was nearly equal in assets with the Deering Harvesting Company; the decision was made to merge and form the International Harvester Company.Throughout his life, McCormick contributed to the evangelical efforts of the Presbyterian Church, including large donations to the Union Theological Seminary in Virginia.McCormick was strongly pro-Southern in his views and through two newspapers that he owned, supported Southern views to such an extent that he eventually became unpopular in the pro-Lincoln city of Chicago where he lived. He spent much of the period from 1862 to 1864 in England and on the continent, returning in 1864 to run for Congress on a "stop the war" platform. Believing strongly that the South could not be defeated, he ironically contributed to its defeat through his reapers, which allowed the North to produce food while freeing men to fight in its armies.

Cyrus McCormick - History

Agricultural Machinery Industry

Schuttler and Hotz Advertisement, n.d.
In 1847, Cyrus McCormick decided to consolidate manufacture of his reaper in Chicago. Since developing the first successful reaper in 1831, McCormick had tried selling it through regional licensees who also manufactured the machine. This approach had worked poorly, often producing inferior machines and always producing inferior financial results. McCormick also recognized that the future of American agriculture lay to the West and that Chicago, with the railroad to Galena nearly complete, the Illinois & Michigan Canal soon to open, and a telegraph link to the East about to be in place, offered the best location from which to build his business.

On August 30, 1847, McCormick, in partnership with Charles M. Gray (later mayor of Chicago), bought three lots on the north bank of the Chicago River. The two immediately began construction of a factory to build the McCormick reaper. By 1850, with the McCormick factory in full operation, the U.S. census reported 646 people working in the agricultural implement industry in Chicago.

Chicago soon attracted other machinery producers, including George Easterly of Heart Prairie, Wisconsin, who built a Chicago factory to produce his grain header, and John S. Wright, who made a self-rake reaper developed by Jearum Atkins. But the sharp financial panic of October 1857 destroyed or crippled many of McCormick&aposs competitors. In 1860, his factory occupied 110,000 square feet of floor space and, with more than 300 workers, employed nearly a fifth of all wage earners in Chicago&aposs agricultural implement sector.

During the next decade employment in the sector grew quickly—the 1870 Census found nearly 4,000 working in agricultural machinery establishments—but the McCormick Company, though still the largest single employer in the Chicago implement industry, had stagnated. Its products were ill-suited to a shift among many farmers to combined machines that could efficiently harvest both grain and hay, the latter much in demand to feed the livestock in America&aposs burgeoning cities. McCormick harvesters also technically lagged behind specialized self-rakes used for harvesting small grains. As a result, McCormick had shrunk to a regional firm, selling principally in upper Midwest states.

McCormick Works, c.1910
On January 25, 1871, Cyrus McCormick bought 130 acres on the South Branch of the Chicago River, where he hoped to build a new factory. But the Great Fire of 1871 put the whole future of the company into question when, on October 9, it destroyed the entire old factory. Within days Nettie Fowler McCormick, the young wife of 62-year-old Cyrus, was on the new site, where she ordered the resumption of full production. Within two years the new McCormick Works replaced the old factory. At the same time the company management, much influenced by Nettie McCormick, refocused on building the business, and the company began to regain ground. By 1880, with McCormick the largest agricultural machinery producer in Chicago, area employment reached nearly 7,000, a fifth of the national total.

A few years earlier, William Deering, a retired merchant from Maine, had come to Plano, Illinois, to superintend another reaper factory his old friend William Gammon had purchased. Deering settled in Evanston the following year and, after buying control of the company in 1878, moved it to Chicago in 1880. The William Deering Company soon rivaled the leading McCormick Company, and the Deering factory on the North Branch of the Chicago River employed nearly as many workers as the McCormick plant on the South Branch. A second reaper company was organized to take over the old factory in Plano, but it too relocated to the Chicago area. In 1893, the Plano Company built a new factory in West Pullman.

In the mid-1880s, as McCormick management tried both to gain closer control over the production processes and to wrestle with the impact of a severe national recession, labor unrest grew rapidly. As a result, the McCormick Works faced several major strikes. During one, police used brutal tactics to defend nonunion workers from attacks by strikers as they left the plant on May 3, 1886, leading directly to the protest meeting the next night at Haymarket Square, a meeting at which a bomb killed seven policemen. Only a few years later, however, McCormick proudly went through the tumult surrounding the Pullman Strike with no troubles at all by then the company paid among the highest factory wages in Chicago and enjoyed high worker loyalty.

In 1902, these three companies—McCormick, Deering, and Plano—together with two others, came together to form the International Harvester Company (Navistar after 1986). The new company controlled more than 80 percent of world production in grain harvesting equipment. International Harvester quickly expanded its Chicago-area facilities. At its peak, in the 1920s and 1930s, the company had six major manufacturing facilities in the Chicago area (plus a steel mill in South Chicago ), covering 440 acres, and accounting for a large share of the nearly 23,000 workers in Chicago&aposs agricultural machinery sector in the 1930 census. This accounted for more than half the national total of 41,662.

This was the high-point of the industry in the Chicago area. The Great Depression took a heavy toll, and after World War II both International Harvester and the broader industry undertook all of its expansion outside the Chicago area. As a result, the Chicago-area plants were increasingly outdated and uneconomical. In the 1950s, the McCormick Works was progressively closed down, and the agricultural machinery industry no longer held a significant place in the Chicago-area economy.

Cyrus McCormick - History

Cyrus McCormick, Jr., had a famous father. His father (with his grandfather's help) had invented the mechanical reaper and built a large corporation. Cyrus, Jr., took over the company. He built the company into a huge firm, the International Harvester Company. He had a good head for business—with one exception. Even though his company made record profits, he cut the workers' pay. How do you think the workers felt? It started a chain of events that eventually led to chaos and the deaths of many people.

The workers went on strike. Cyrus McCormick, Jr., just hired other workers—called strikebreakers or scabs—to take their place. Strikers attacked the strikebreakers, so McCormick hired armed guards. After more demonstrations and protests by workers and their unions, McCormick agreed to restore workers' pay.

But McCormick wasn't happy about that. He didn't like unions, or workers demanding better pay or shorter hours. So he brought in machinery to take the place of some of the workers. When his workers demanded higher pay, McCormick bribed the mayor and police, and closed the plant. Then he hired strikebreakers (who worked an eight-hour day—the very thing the striking workers had demanded! Don't you think that made the strikers mad?) There were more protests and demonstrations, and then finally a big rally at Haymarket Square. Do you know what happened there?

Cyrus McCormick - History


Cyrus Hall McCormick was born on February 15, 1809, in Rockbridge County, Virginia. Although he had little formal education, he was strongly influenced by his father who fruitlessly tried to perfect a mechanical reaper. In 1831, the son succeeded in building such a device.

However, it was only in 1834 that he obtained a patent, when faced with the threat of competing inventors. Understandably, McCormick kept his reaper off the market for several more years, in order to make improvements in the mechanism and even when he did introduce it to the market, he concentrated production in only one plant in Chicago.

When the patent finally expired in 1848, he was again faced with many rivals. Nevertheless, he managed to improve, and then maintain, his market position.

Traveling around the world, he vigorously promoted and demonstrated his product. A showing at the Crystal Palace exhibition in London (1851) proved to be especially helpful in raising sales.

In addition to his many business interests throughout the country, he was especially active in the Democratic party in Illinois. He also was very interested in the Presbyterian church throughout the rest of his life, and made many contributions to it. McCormick died in Chicago on May 13, 1884.

This illustration on the back side of the coin represents the first reaper test and is based on a painting by N.C. Wyeth. View the original source document: WHI 64502

International Harvester contracted with the Medallic Art Company of New York to produce the coins in batches of 250,000. International Harvester eventually distributed more than a million coins in a few different sizes.

The company distributed the coins as souvenirs through its worldwide network of dealerships. Local dealerships distributed them in several ways. For example, coins may have been thrown from floats in local parades or handed out to customers visiting show rooms.

The silver-dollar-size coins are the most common coins found in personal collections. International Harvester also distributed coins in larger sizes. These are rarer and much more difficult to find. Some collectors have inquired about the monetary value of the coins. The archival code of ethics prohibits the Society from estimating monetary value.

To learn more about the 1931 Reaper Centennial, search the McCormick-International Harvester Collection. There you'll find press clippings, films, photographs, advertising literature, company correspondence, display materials, commemorative coins, and reaper models documenting the celebration.

The McCormick Harvesting Machine Company was one of the partners in a merger that formed International Harvester in 1902.

The Reaper King

Though oldest son Cyrus became the face of the revolutionary reaper, the wheat harvesting machine represents a family affair.

“The McCormicks were a very inventive family. They made all sorts of blacksmith tools and farming contraptions at their bucolic farm, Walnut Grove, under the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,” says Sargent McCormick, who shares their family tree. “Really, it was the father – Robert Hall McCormick – who originally built the reaper in 1832, and Cyrus took it to the next level in collaboration with his brothers.”

Assisted by Joe Anderson, one of the family’s slaves, Cyrus perfected a practical horse-drawn model that promised to end centuries of harvesting by hand.

The McCormicks’ remarkable reaper performed the backbreaking work of three men in a fraction of the time. Still, slave labor and uneven terrain squashed sales of the clever contraption in the breadbasket of the South.

Drawn by the Midwest’s abundance and easy access to river and rail transportation, Cyrus left Virginia for Chicago in 1847. Setting up shop on Pine Street (better known today as Michigan Avenue), the McCormick brothers began mass production in 1848 with Cyrus at the helm.

A marketing genius, Cyrus McCormick pioneered innovative business practices that became modern-day standards – from payment plans to field trials and product guarantees.

“Cyrus was such the business leader. Brother William was very much the operations guy and Leander the leading engineer,” says McCormick, who likens the brothers to the Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of their day. “Cyrus’ brothers were instrumental, but they don’t get as much credit. It really was a family affair.”

Before long, McCormick Reaper Works ranked among the country’s largest manufacturing operations, producing nearly one-half of the world’s farm machinery.

The arrival of the reaper allowed farm workers to migrate from farm to factory and paved the way for western expansion.

“The reaper helped people get off farms and into cities and gave them disposable income to buy things at Sears or Montgomery Ward,” McCormick says.

While creating a new generation of consumers, machines like the reaper helped establish Chicago as a bustling center of agriculture.

“The reaper was the base for the 19th-century revolution in cereal production that led to a complete change in the techniques of moving, storing and trading grain,” McCormick says. “Chicago was at the center of this transformation, developing a grain elevator system that was the most important advancement in the history of the world’s grain trade.”

In 1902, thanks to J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, along with other Harvester Trusts, merged together to become the International Harvester Company, which remained a key player in Chicago manufacturing for more than 70 years.

As a testament to the practical design of the McCormick reaper, today’s wheat cutting equipment remains similar to the original machine that changed the world.

Cyrus McCormick: Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

Blacksmith shop and Grist Mill at the McCormick Farm. Source.

A row of sweating men toiled in the hot sun, reaping their wheat. With one hand they grasped a handful of grain, and with the other hand they cut the grain with a sickle. This was one of the most common scenes in the history of humanity. The scene would be the same whether the men reaping were Egyptian slaves on the banks of the Nile River in 2000 B. C., Israelite tribesmen in the hills around Bethlehem in 1100 B. C., Babylonian farmers on the banks of the Euphrates River in 700 B. C., Frankish peasants in the valley of the Marne in A. D. 800, Ukrainian serfs in the valleys of the Ural Mountains in A. D. 1400, or American farmers in Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in 1816. Over the thousands of years that man has been cultivating grain, the costumes have changed significantly, the languages have come and gone, Empires have risen and fallen and been forgotten, but the methods of reaping grain had remained largely the same.

It was a warm day in June in the mountains of Virginia. In 1816, grain was still reaped by hand, and sickles were still the main instrument of the harvest. Men and boys labored from sunup to sundown cutting the standing grain with their sickles and scythes. Others came behind them to rake the grain into piles, bind it into sheaves, and load wagons to carry it to the place where the grain would be threshed before milling. But this year, by God’s grace, it would be different.

A strong and muscular farmer of Scots Irish ancestry had determined that he would try something new. Robert McCormick was not necessarily intending to change the course of history or to feed the world. He was only trying to save the valuable labor of his men for other worthwhile endeavors. He had invented a “reaping machine” that would cut the grain automatically. A row of short sickles stood waiting for the grain. Revolving rods in front of these sharp sickles were set to grab the wheat and pull it against the blades. The entire machine was pushed through the field by two horses from behind.

A small crowd of interested neighbors had gathered to watch the experiment. The farmer’s wife and children had also gathered to see the performance. A young boy named Cyrus watched his father with admiring eyes. He loved and admired his father with all his heart. Even at the age of seven, he loved to be in his father’s workshop. In addition to farming his land, Robert McCormick operated two gristmills, two sawmills, a smelting-furnace, and a blacksmith shop. In this busy shop, Robert had been working on his machine on and off for years. He was now ready to make his great experiment. Several farmers from the surrounding area had come to observe their neighbor’s attempt. Robert brought his horses to his contraption and brought them to their pushing positions. This novel arrangement was new to the horses, but they pushed with goodwill and sent the machine forward.

Cyrus McCormick

Cyrus watched in awe as the machine went forward. The gathering arms pulled the grain toward the sickles and some of the grain was cut. But alas, the contraption did not work as hoped. The tough stalks bunched up against the sickles, and the machine eventually jammed. The farmers standing by the fence shook their heads. The reaper that could not reap was dragged off the field, the lathered horses were sent back to their stalls, and the event became one of the tales of the neighborhood. The farmers by the fence went back to their age-old method of reaping grain by hand, and whenever the name McCormick was mentioned, they smiled at the idea that a machine could replace them. But Cyrus did not doubt. His admiration for his father fueled his desire to see his father succeed. In their workshop, the McCormick family continued to tinker with new ideas. The father had inspired the son with a desire to see a great thing done and done well. Flexibility is the willingness to change plans or ideas to best accommodate those who we serve. Young Cyrus McCormick realized that his father had a good idea, and that a modification of the mechanism of this machine might achieve his father’s goals.

Fifteen harvests came and went with no real improvement. The McCormick machine could cut grain if all conditions were perfect, but it could not do so effectively if the wheat was wet, laying down, or mixed with weeds. Also, the machine left the cut grain lying in heaps. By this time, Cyrus was a young man of twenty-two years. He still worked alongside his father, but he had taken his father’s place as chief inventor. The father allowed the son to experiment with his own ideas. At last, he had one he thought would work. The son gave full credit to the father, but the father also gave full credit to the son for his brilliant improvements.

Cyrus had replaced his father’s fixed sickles with an idea of his own devising, straight blades that were arranged by gears to move in a reciprocating motion, cutting the grain as it came into the reach of the reciprocating blades. Cyrus had replaced the revolving fingers with fixed fingers of wood that held the grain upright as it was fed into the blades. To fix the problem of grain that was lying low, he had devised a reel to pick up the grain that was low and pull it upward to feed it into the fingers and the knives. Cyrus had also added a platform to catch the cut grain as it came from the knives. He also had rigged up a system for hitching the horses to the side of the machine, so that it could be pulled rather than pushed.

One July day in 1831, Cyrus pulled his machine out of the workshop and into the bright light of the summer sun. Most of the fields around had already been harvested by the old-fashioned method of sickle. But Cyrus had requested that his father leave a patch of wheat standing. He had a new invention to try out on this wheat. He had worked hard to have his “reaper” finished in time for the harvest of 1831, but the time of harvest had come and most of the fields were already cut by the old method.

Under the hot sun, the young man’s mother and father had come out of the farmhouse to witness their son’s attempt to make a reaping machine. A few excited brothers and sisters made up the entire audience. No newspapermen were there, and nobody in distant places like Chicago or New York would have cared anything for the scene. The neighbors would have scoffed to see the son trying the same thing his father had tried before him. No man knew that the destiny of worldwide agriculture and the hope for hungry humanity was being hooked to a team of horses on the McCormick farm.

The young inventor hitched his team to a curious mechanism consisting of wooden forks, metal blades, and various gears and wheels. Most farm horses would have shied away, but the McCormick horses were used to things like this. They leaned forward into the harness. The eyes of the young inventor shone with the thrill of success as his machine moved forward. The blades glided back and forth in a reciprocating motion that cut the grain and left it in yellow piles on the platform. The young man looked at his parents and they smiled quietly as only parents can.

McCormick reaper and twine binder in 1884

By the time that Cyrus McCormick died in 1884, five hundred thousand McCormick reapers were being used on every continent of the globe. At every hour of every day of every month, somewhere in the world it was the time of the wheat harvest, and a McCormick reaper was busy in the field. Old Robert McCormick would have been astonished to see the vast factory in Chicago, Illinois that stretched over more acres than he had farmed in old Virginia. The McCormick reaper had fed the world, fueled an economy, and launched the United States of America to world prominence as an agricultural and industrial giant. In the year he died, the wheat fields of the world produced 2,240,000 bushels. The prayer taught by our Lord above the wheat fields of the Plain of Gennesaret had been answered in a billion homes across the world, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

The thing that made Cyrus McCormick successful was his ability and willingness to adjust his plans to meet new problems. He overwhelmed all his competitors, survived dozens of challenges to his patent, modified his machine at the request of the farmers of the world, and built his plant to match the new demands of a glowing horizon. Cyrus McCormick was a firm Christian who raised a fine family to carry on the family heritage. He was a rugged and dedicated businessman who sought to serve his fellow man. His plan of work was expressed in his own words, “Do one thing at a time, and the hardest thing first.”

Cyrus McCormick - History

Cyrus McCormick was a passionate advertiser. "Trying to do business without advertising is like winking at a pretty girl through a pair of green goggles," he said. "You may know what you are doing, but no one else does."

A Virginia farmer invented a mechanical reaper, then harvested profits in the Midwest's exploding grain belt, innovating credit, service, and sales practices that became essential parts of American big business.

Family Project
In 1831, twenty-two-year-old Cyrus McCormick took over his father's project of designing a mechanical reaper. Working on his family's Virginia farm, McCormick implemented features of the machine that remain in use today: a divider, a reel, a straight reciprocating knife, a finger, a platform to catch the cut stalks, a main wheel and gearing, and a draft traction on the front. In 1834, in the face of competition from other inventors, McCormick took out a patent and soon after, began manufacturing the reaper himself.

Midwestern Gamble
The mechanical reaper was an important step in the mechanization of agriculture during the nineteenth century. Before the reaper, the amount of grain that could be cut by hand during the short harvest season limited both food supply and farm sizes. McCormick's reaper would win international acclaim at the first world's fair in London's Crystal Palace, in 1851. It would also free farm laborers to work in factories in the expanding industrial revolution. In the late 1840s, McCormick made a fateful business decision, moving to the young town of Chicago in America's western frontier and gambling that America's agricultural future was in the nation's prairie states: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, and the territories that would become Nebraska, Kansas, and Minnesota. His venture would repay him with a fortune.

"Work, Work, Work"
McCormick single-mindedly devoted himself to work. In 1848 his factory made 500 reapers in 1851 it produced a thousand by 1857 it was turning out 23,000. Continuously introducing improvements, McCormick launched new models every year, as car dealers do today. He bought other agricultural patents and companies, expanding his empire to sell mowers, harvesters, and more. He offered money-back guarantees and credit to struggling farmers, saying, "It is better that I should wait for the money than that you should wait for the machine that you need." He established an extensive service organization, staffed with local agents who could befriend farmers, show them how to use the machines, and assess their credit-worthiness. McCormick died in 1884, hard-driving to the end his final words were, "Work, work, work." His company would combine with others to become the International Harvester Company two decades after his death.

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Cyrus McCormick - History

Cyrus McCormick (SIGH rus - mac COR mik) grew up on a farm in Virginia. His goal was to earn a million dollars. In 1833 that was a lot of money. The average worker only earned a nickel an hour. Twenty-six years later, he had earned a million dollars. He had also changed the way people farmed, with his wheat harvester called the reaper. Cyrus and his wife were very generous, sharing their money with people who needed help.

Before his invention, a farmer could harvest only one to three acres a day using a scythe * (SIGHTH). With the invention, a farmer and a helper could harvest 12 acres a day!

He had invented the reaper when he was only 22 years old. His father had tried for 15 years to invent a harvester, but had not been able to build one successfully. He had made a lot of mistakes, but young Cyrus learned from his father's mistakes. If a strand of wheat got tangled in the machine, he would get down on his hands and knees to look, until he found out exactly why it had tangled. He asked his father if he could take over working on the invention. His father gave his permission, but thought it was hopeless.

In just 2 months he was able to make a harvester. Some said it looked like a combination of a flying machine, a wheelbarrow, and a carriage. * When he tested it, he could harvest an acre an hour . (Remember, the old by-hand speed was one to three acres a day .)

He invited farmers to come and watch him work. They thought it was just entertainment. * They would watch him harvest, and then they would go home and use their old hand scythes. They would say things like, "I'm running a farm, not a circus."

Cyrus decided he would get some of the successful farmers to test his reaper. Maybe they would talk the other farmers into buying a reaper of their own. He just could not interest them, so he decided to work on it some more so it would work even better. He put a blade on it which would chop the wheat off cleanly.

In 1843, another man, who was also making a reaper, challenged him to a contest. They would see who could cut the most wheat. On the day of the contest, it rained. The other man's reaper jammed and wouldn't cut, but McCormick had designed his to cut in damp weather.

That year he sold 29 reapers and each year after that he sold more and more. By 1850, he was selling 5,000 reapers a year.

His company became the International Harvester Company in 1902.

At the time of his death in 1884, enough grain was shipped from Chicago to bake 10 billion loaves of bread a year, thanks to McCormick's invention.

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