Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Cyrus H. Mccormick,
the Benefactor of the Farmer

At Walnut Grove, Virginia, on February 15, 1809, was born a boy who lived to become one of the greatest benefactors of the farmer ever born in any land. This was Cyrus Hall McCormick, the inventor of the reaping machine. Such a machine had long been needed. Reaping by hand was slow and back-breaking work, and something was wanted that would cut and gather grain swiftly and economically. While young McCormick was a schoolboy, his father was trying to invent such a machine, but was making a very poor job of it. The boy spent much of his time on the plantation, helping in the fields or occupying himself in the saw and grist mills, the carpenter and black-smith shops, which were on the plantation. All this interested him, for the spirit of invention was in his blood.

He showed this when only fifteen years old by making a light, easily-handled grain cradle, much better fitted to his weight than the heavy cradles then in use. Two years after this he produced a hill-side plough with the special feature that it was self-sharpening, a new feature in a plough. The boy's inventive powers were developing. He watched his father working upon the reaper, and when the latter gave it up in disgust, he asked permission to try his hand on it. "You would only waste your time," said the father. "The thing has been tried a hundred times, and no one has brought out anything worth talking about. A reaper is an impossibility."

Young McCormick did not think so. He was almost a man then, and his ideas were ripening. "All right," said his father at length. "There is my old failure. Take hold of it and see what you can do with it. Let us see if you are smarter than your father."

The boy took hold of the machine, studied it, investigated it, considered its difficulties, and found that, as his father had said, that particular reaper was impossible. But a different one might be made. Gradually he worked out in his active brain a new plan. There were several things to be done. The standing grain was to be held in a body and cut, and there must be a platform upon which it could fall and be taken care of.

He decided that the cutting must be done with a sort of shears, arranged in a series and acting right and left with what is called a reciprocating motion as the machine moved forward. There must be a reel to gather and hold the grain, the sharp-edged blades to cut it, and a platform upon which it could fall and be gathered into bundles or sheaves. These were the ideas; how they were to be applied was the problem.

The inventor went to work, experimenting, devising, thinking out point after point. Every part of the machine was made by his own hands, the cranks, the gears, the cutting blades, the gathering reels, the various other devices; he fitting them, putting them together, and finally sending his machine into the field to see what it could do. It did not work badly for a beginning. A man rode on the horse that drew the machine through the grain. Another man walked beside it to draw the swaths from the platform. No doubt the elder McCormick looked on with curious interest, but we do not know what he said.

In 1831—the inventor was then twenty-two years old—the first public trial of the machine was made. A number of experienced farmers looked on while it cut its way with considerable speed through several acres of oats. The next year it was tried in a wheat field, and harvested seventy-five acres. So far it was a success, but the farmers did not approve of it sufficiently to buy it, and McCormick set it aside for the time being, going into the iron-smelting business, in which he saw better promise of quick returns.

The panic of 1837 and the hard times that followed wrecked this enterprise, and the best he could do was to get out of the affair without money but free from debt. Then he turned back to the reaper, saw at once where it could be improved, tinkered with it for a time, then moved west with it, first to Cincinnati and afterwards to Chicago. Here he set up factories for the manufacture of the machine.

It was about 1840 that he got the reaper in what he thought satisfactory working order, and began to push it on the market. Buyers were found, the farmers saw the advantage of the new machine, and after he had gained a good business in this country he went abroad with the purpose of introducing his reapers into the fields of Europe. In 1851 he showed it at the World's Fair at London, where it was looked upon as the queer production of a Yankee crank. The newspapers and visitors made no end of fun of the odd-looking machine, which the London Times said seemed like a cross between an Astley chariot, a wheelbarrow, and a flying machine.

A few weeks later the laugh was on the other side. The reaper was tested in a number of English grain fields, in competition with some other machines, and left them all so far in the rear that there was an utter change of front, the McCormick reaper being voted the most important thing in the whole fair. The Times made atonement for its former ridicule by saying that the reaper was equal in value to the whole exhibition. Among all the agricultural implements shown, this alone received the great medal, and the lately ridiculed man was rewarded with the highest honors, as having done more for agriculture than any other man of the century. France matched England by honoring him with the Cross of the Legion of Honor. Some years later it bestowed the greater honor of making him an officer of the Legion of Honor and a member of the French Academy of Science.

McCormick was more than an inventor. He was a business man, which many inventors are not. While manufacturing and selling his reaper he kept on improving it till it become the wonderful machine of to-day, cutting grass and grain alike, gathering the grain into sheaves, binding them with twine, and laying them on the ground. And all this it does itself, without stopping, and with only one man to manage it, the man who drives the horses.

Before McCormick went to Europe he had gained a large business in America. In 1848 he took the great risk, for a man of moderate capital, of building seven hundred machines for the coming harvest. But they were all sold, and he could well smile at the comments of the London press in 1851. In 1880, after the business had been in operation more than thirty years, it was made into a joint-stock company, with Mr. McCormick as president, and his brother, who had long been his partner, as vice-president.

Four years later, on May 13, 1884, Mr. McCormick died. At that time the company had a capital of three million dollars, and was turning out nearly fifty-five thousand machines a year, these being sold in all parts of the world. It is largely due to this great machine that the United States outstrips the world as a grain producer, and that the hay-harvest has grown to be one of the most valuable of our farm crops. Cyrus McCormick ranks among the greatest benefactors of mankind.