McCormick’s reaper revolutionized farming

historical image of a reaper

Many Americans, who look back from the 20th and 21st centuries to praise the gifted poets and distinguished novelists of the fourth and fifth decades of the 19th century, have failed to see the mechanical geniuses of those 20 years.

These American inventors were more productive than inventors in Europe. The patents they obtained in Washington soared in numbers, averaging 646 per annum in the 1840s. Among these skilled creators was Cyrus H. McCormick.

Expanding wheat crop

In the 1830s, the total wheat crop in the United States amounted to approximately 40 million bushels. Within nine years this figure had doubled and by the Civil War (1861-1865), it exceeded 170 million bushels.

In the 1830s, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia were major wheat producing states, but the center of the wheat-growing area moved steadily westward. In 1839, the old northwest produced 31% of the nation’s crop; in 1849, 37%; and in 1859, 46%.

Wheat during the antebellum period 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 due largely to the growth of the domestic economy rather than to the entrance of American grain and flour into European markets.

The two factors which contributed most to the growing importance of wheat and commercial agriculture, in general, were the development of a nationwide transportation system and the growth of urban cities.

As the domestic economy grew, stimulated by the immigration of a large number of foreigners after the 1840s, the demand for wheat and other grains increased proportionately. But, with the harvest period short and farm labor scarce, farmers were unable to produce as much as they wished. The reaper went far toward overcoming this bottleneck in production.

McCormick’s beginnings

Cyrus H. McCormick is generally credited with the invention of the first reaper containing those essential elements which are still apparent in today’s combine. He was born Feb. 15, 1809, in Virginia.

As a youth, he collaborated with his father in the construction of a hemp-break and a plow designed for the plowing of hills. He constructed his first prototype reaper in the summer of 1831 and spent the next decade perfecting the machine.

During the same time, other inventors were also at work, especially Obed Hussey who invented similar equipment and was McCormick’s first serious competition. During this initial period, most of the reapers in use were confined to the Eastern states.

Chicago factoryhistorical image of a reaper

In 1848, McCormick moved to Chicago and built a factory to manufacture reapers and other agriculture implements. Chicago offered several advantages: transportation was good and getting better with the construction of the railroads, the mid-west had become the major grain-producing states by 1860, and the larger and more level fields of the mid-west could utilize the machine better.

The McCormick establishment contributed to making Chicago a center of manufacturing agricultural equipment in the United States. The reaper revolutionized grain farming.

Increased production

Prior to its invention, the harvest had been accomplished with sickles and cradles with a team of rakers and binders following behind. It was back-breaking work. A man with a cradle could cut about two acres a day. The reaper could handle from 12-15 acres per day and fewer stackers following behind.

By the 1860s about 70% of the wheat harvested was by machinery. A significant portion of these machines came from the production line of McCormick’s factory. His profits from sales made him a millionaire by 1860.

Between 1868-1878, annual sales doubled what they had been during war, despite an agriculture depression decade. 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 to the Trans-Mississippi Country. This prairie land demanded farming on a large scale. Machinery was needed.

The inventive genius of McCormick, Hussey, William Massey, and John Deere made it possible to prepare, seed, tend, and harvest 1,000-acre wheat farms in the United States and Canada. McCormick did for wheat what Eli Whitney had done for cotton.

In 1903, Cyrus McCormick Jr. combined with several smaller implement manufacturers to form the successful International Harvester Company of the 20th century. That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to:



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