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Cyrus McCormick’s mechanical reaper, 1831 (Moments that Made America)
The harvest had nearly ended in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia when a young man conducted an experiment. Cyrus McCormick had spent much of his twenty-two years on earth watching his father try to develop a mechanical reaper—a device that could harness the power of horses or mules to harvest wheat and other grains. Robert McCormick, the older man, had finally grown so frustrated that he tossed aside the latest version of his machine with a vow to have nothing more to do with the project.
Cyrus had had some ideas of his own for improvement, yet daunted by his father, a hard-driving son of a Scots-Irish immigrant, he had kept them to himself. But with the machine simply rusting behind the blacksmith shop on the McCormick farm, Cyrus started tinkering with it. And in the summer of 1831, when the harvest was almost complete, he tested his improved version on some of the last of the grain still standing. To his pleasure, and to the amazement of the few onlookers, the machine cut through the grain at a rate many times what a man could do with the human-powered cradle scythe then in common use.
It wasn’t perfect, by any means. The grain sometimes clogged the cutter; rocks and other obstructions halted the machine in its tracks; and any slopes but the tamest presented a stern challenge.
But Cyrus McCormick was sure he was onto something, and he returned to the blacksmith shop with a head filled with thoughts for improvement. His head was also filled with dollar signs. Cyrus McCormick was an entrepreneur as well as an inventor, and he saw in a mechanical reaper the answer to the problem that had long vexed American agriculture. In America, the age-old equation between land and labor was reversed from what it had been in Europe. In Europe, land was scarce and labor plenty, which meant that there was little profit incentive for would-be inventors of labor-saving devices. In America, land was plenty and labor scarce.
This was why Robert McCormick, the father, had worked on his reaper for so long. Through diligence and canny dealing, he had acquired twelve hundred acres of land, but every year he struggled to find workers to help with the plowing, planting and harvesting. The pinch was particularly acute at the harvest time for wheat. The wheat ripened all at once, and when it did, it had to be harvested within ten days or two weeks, lest the heads open and scatter the seeds, or rain wet and ruin them.
Cyrus McCormick realized that a reliable mechanical harvester would solve the labor problem and unlock the millions of acres that lay beyond the Shenandoah Valley, on the prairies of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and farther west. Encouraged by the performance of his first model, he built a newer version, which he patented to prevent others from stealing the profits he sought for himself. The new model was a brilliant success. A government observer declared, “The cutting was rapid and extremely clean, scarcely a stalk of grain being left, and little, if any, being lost by shattering from the work of the machine.”
At first McCormick built his reapers in his own shop. Orders grew rapidly, but from a small base. He sold two machines the first year, then six, then twenty-nine. He concluded that he needed a bigger operation. In the 1840s he relocated to Chicago, the new city that was coming to command the prairies of the Midwest. He built a factory on the Chicago River and employed the principle of interchangeable parts pioneered by Eli Whitney in the manufacture of guns. A visitor to the McCormick works described the place and the production process:
“An angry whirr, a dronish hum, a prolonged whistle, a shrill buzz and a panting breath—such is the music of the place. You enter—little wheels of steel attached to horizontal, upright and oblique shafts are on every hand. They seem motionless. Rude pieces of wood without form or comeliness are hourly approaching them upon little railways, as if drawn thither by some mysterious attraction. They touch them, and presto—grooved, scalloped, rounded, on they go, with a little help from an attendant, who seems to have an easy time of it; and, transferred to another railway, when down comes a guillotine-like contrivance, they are morticed, bored and whirled away.”
The efficiencies of McCormick’s factory let him set his prices where ordinary farmers could afford his reapers. And the profits from the business let him invest in research to improve his machines the more, and continue to drive down production costs.
McCormick’s success inspired imitators and competitors. He was nimble and determined enough to stay ahead of the pack, but together he and the others effected a profound transformation in the American economy. Much would be made of the industrial revolution in changing the way Americans lived, and rightly so. Yet a prerequisite to the industrial revolution was an agricultural revolution. The industrial revolution took workers who would have labored on farms, and put them in steel mills and railroads yards; but those industrial workers, and their families, still had to eat. And the only way they could eat was for the workers left on the farms to become more efficient.
Which was precisely what Cyrus McCormick’s mechanical reaper let them do. His machines, and those of his rivals and imitators, made American agriculture the wonder of the world. At the time McCormick was born, a large majority of the American workforce had to labor on farms to keep the nation fed and clothed. During the course of his life, and in no small part because of his efforts, the balance shifted dramatically, with fewer and fewer people needed to feed the rest. Eventually, American farmers would become so efficient that each farmer could feed hundreds of people.
McCormick himself benefited; at his death in 1884 he was one of the wealthiest men in the United States. But the country benefited more, in terms of a rising standard of living and greater freedom of choice. Young people who would have been farmers—for lack of alternatives—could now become doctors and lawyers and scientists and teachers and any number of other things.
In the twenty-first century, farmers are as necessary as ever to the well-being of America, but there don’t have to be very many of them, because they’ve become so efficient. Thank Cyrus McCormick for making this possible.