At the age of 22, Cyrus McCormick created the first grain-harvesting machine in the United States: the horse-drawn mechanical reaper, which made it possible to harvest large fields faster and therefore increase crop yields. He had done what his father, an inventor, could not after almost two decades of trying and failing. In the process, he revolutionized agriculture production, here in the U.S. and around the world.
A Farming Life
Cyrus McCormick was born on February 15, 1809, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the eldest of eight children born to Robert McCormick Jr. (1780–1846) and Mary Ann “Polly” Hall (1780–1853). Robert McCormick owned huge farms as well as two grist mills, two sawmills, a smelting furnace, a blacksmith shop, and a distillery. And, he was an inventor and tinkerer of tools. With a first-hand understanding of the problems facing farmers, he used his skills and resources to invent several practical farm implements, yet building a successful reaping machine was out of his reach. Robert saw the potential of the design for a mechanical reaper and even applied for a patent to claim it as his own invention, but after 28 years he was unable to reproduce a reliable and commercially viable version.
Growing up, Cyrus’ formal education was limited. Reserved, determined, and serious-minded, he spent most of his time in his father’s workshop. Like his father, Cyrus understood the concept and benefits of a mechanical reaper, and in 1831 at the age of 22 decided to try his hand at building his own version, aided by Jo Anderson, an enslaved African-American on the McCormick plantation.
Cyrus’ first successful reaper resembled a two-wheeled, horse-drawn chariot. The machine consisted of a vibrating cutting blade, a reel to bring the grain within its reach, and a platform to receive the falling grain. The reaper embodied the principles essential to all subsequent grain-cutting machines.
For farmers in the early 19th century, harvesting required a large labor pool, especially during planting and harvesting seasons. If a farm had insufficient hired or enslaved workers for a harvest, the farmer faced crop losses or the high cost of new laborers during peak demand. When tested on a neighbor’s farm in 1832, McCormick’s reaper demonstrated it could cut six acres of oats in one afternoon, the equivalent work of 12 men with scythes.
McCormick’s reaper demonstrated that the yield of a farmer’s fields did not have to be limited to the amount of labor available. He offered it to farmers for $50 (or $1,360 today) but had no takers. “It’s a contraption that is seemingly a cross between a wheelbarrow, a chariot, and a flying machine,” observed one.
Hand cutting had worked well enough for 4,000 years, skeptics reasoned, and who knew what the unintended consequences of this newfangled machine might be? The machine had defects, not the least of which was a clatter so loud that enslaved people were required to walk alongside it to calm the frightened horses, but it showed promise and possibility. McCormick was granted a patent for his reaper on June 21, 1834.
McCormick was not the first to apply for a patent for a commercially viable reaper, but his mechanical approach to thrashing wheat was a new take on the idea. A few machines based on a design of Patrick Bell of Scotland (which had not been patented) were available in the United States at this time but the Bell machine was pushed by horses. The McCormick design was pulled by horses and cut the grain to one side of the team.
Off to a promising start but with no commercial take-up, McCormick put the reaper aside and focused on his chief interest at that time, the family’s iron foundry. When the foundry failed in the wake of the bank panic of 1837 that left the family deep in debt, McCormick went back to work on his still-unexploited reaper to work out the kinks.
“In this hour of debt and defeat, Cyrus showed that indomitable spirit which was, more than any other one thing, the secret of his success,” wrote Herbert Casson in Cyrus Hall McCormick: His Life and Work. “Without money, without credit, without customers, he founded the first of the world’s reaper factories in the little log workshop near his father’s house and continued to give exhibitions.”
He sold his first two commercially viable reapers in 1841 with the promise of more orders to come. His new business venture was off to a promising start.
Moving to the American West
McCormick saw that the American West (which today we call the Midwest) as a magnet for his mechanical reaper, with its abundance of farmland and farmers but a scarcity of workers. He reasoned that the best way to reach them was to locate his business near that market rather than stay in Virginia. If not, he’d have to ship his product, first by boat from Virginia to New Orleans, then up the Mississippi, with final delivery by wagon.
In 1847, McCormick and his brother Leland left the McCormick family farm to set up a factory in Chicago. The city had no paved streets but it was on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, the second-largest of the Great Lakes (by volume) and fifth-largest lake in the world, connecting to major rivers and a hub for railroad connections to the West. It was clear to McCormick that Chicago was the perfect place to turn the making of his mechanical reaper into a successful business.
William Ogden, Chicago’s first mayor, agreed to give McCormick part of his own money, $25,000 ($700,000 today), for a half-interest in what turned into McCormick, Ogden & Co. The venture was so profitable, McCormick bought out Ogden two years later for $50,000 and promptly changed the name to McCormick Harvesting Machine Co.
It did not take long for dozens of new competitors to flood the market with their version of patented and unpatented mechanical reapers. When McCormick’s patent expired in 1848, he sought to extend it to 1865 so he could continue to collect a royalty on each machine sold. The application was rejected after competitors, armed with lawyers such as Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, lobbied the government.
The Commission of Patents explained the rationale for its decision: “He is an inventor whose fame, while he is yet living, has spread throughout the world … but the reaper is of too great value to the public to be controlled by any individual, and the extension of his patent is refused.”
Except for improvements on the reaper patented after 1831, the basic machine then passed into the public domain, launching a slew of competitive companies.
Sales and Marketing were King
Peter Reid Dickson, professor of marketing at Florida International University, wrote in Cyrus McCormick: A Legitimate Marketing Genius: “Cyrus had by then recognized that his success would not come from patent protection, but from his mass
manufacturing and marketing methods.”
As it turns out, McCormick was not only a born inventor but a born marketer and showman. To expand his market, McCormick employed local merchants throughout the region, and later the country, to act as sub-agents to sell, service, and
collect debt on the Company’s behalf. During its peak, The McCormick Harvesting Company had around 5,000 “third-party” sales agents in the field. These salesmen were trained to demonstrate the operation of the machines in the field, as well as to get parts quickly and repair machines in the field if necessary, during crucial times in the farm year.
To expedite sales orders, he used his strategic Midwest location and the new American rail system to quickly and inexpensively deliver partially assembled machines to customers, complete with written instructions for the final assembly that were simple and aided by numbers painted on parts.
McCormick set his price high and didn’t haggle, but unlike his competitors, he accepted term payments – a novel idea in the early 1850s when the reaper cost $125 ($3,800, today). The farmer could deposit $35 plus the cost of freight, with the balance due after the next harvest was paid. McCormick’s credit loss turned out to be less than 5%. He also offered absolute satisfaction or a return of the money, which was an unheard-of guarantee for any product, let alone the most expensive farm implement you could buy. To ensure complete satisfaction, he offered fast after-sale service from his sales agents and trained farmers to take care of their machines properly so they would operate well for a long time.
Knowing that a satisfied customer was his best sales tool, he liberally used word-of-mouth testimonials in his marketing to help prospects understand the cost-benefit analysis inherent in the investment, and stayed connected to his customers after the sale by publishing his own magazine that shared the latest advice on farming.
As a marketer and showman, McCormick also understood the power of publicity and sought out participation in contests against competitors’ products in front of large crowds. By 1851, McCormick was immortalized worldwide when his reaper successfully harvested a field of green wheat while the Hussey machine (a rival, patented invention of Obed Hussey, an American inventor of another reaper) failed, and won a Gold Medal at the landmark Great Exposition in London’s Crystal Palace. That same year, the French government named McCormick an Officier de la Légion d’honneur. In 1855, McCormick’s invention won the Grand Medal of Honor at the Paris International Exposition.
Soon, the McCormick-brand reaper was known to farmers throughout the world.
In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire gutted McCormick’s factory. According to a Chicago Tribune article published a year later on October 9, 1872, “Scarcely any other name stood out so prominently in the list of losers by the fire as that of McCormick, and scarcely any is so extensively identified with its restoration. The McCormick losses were not far short of $2,000,000; their expenditures in rebuilding will be even greater than this amount.”
Then—at more than 60 years old and his fortune long since made—he rebuilt. As noted in the same Chicago Tribune article, “They have now, however, in process of construction, a new factory, or rather a new set of factories, which will enable them [to] manufacture 25,000 machines per annum, more easily than they could turn out 1,500 only thirteen years ago.” The works covered an area of 21 acres, and the buildings contained six acres of floor-room just for production. The company also built a 3-story boarding house with fifty cottages for his workers, along with several other “first-class buildings” within the city. A testament to McCormick’s determination to create and improve.
In 1878, McCormick was elected a corresponding member of the French Academy of Sciences “as having done more for the cause of agriculture than any other living man.” It was high praise for this reserved and serious-minded boy from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
By the time of his death in 1884, there were a half-million McCormick harvesters in operation. In 1902, J.P. Morgan joined The McCormick Harvesting Machine Company with five other companies to form International Harvester (IH). McCormick’s son, Cyrus, Jr., served as its first president. The new company dominated the field until the 1950s when poor management led to a decline that ended with IH selling off its farm equipment unit in 1985. When he died in 2006, then-CEO Brooks McCormick became the last of Cyrus’ descendants to manage the business.
The Cyrus McCormick Farm, operated by other family members after Cyrus and Leander moved to Chicago, was ultimately donated to Virginia Tech, which operates the core of the property as a free museum, and other sections as an experimental farm. A marker memorializing Cyrus McCormick’s contribution to agriculture had been erected near the main house in 1928.