Agriculture

The mechanical reaper: the impact of an important invention in agriculture

The reaper offered farmers the ability to harvest more crops in less time with less work. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

GREENWICH, N.Y. – With fall comes harvest. Farmers are actively chopping and hauling or will soon begin to do so in the next few weeks. As we enter this important time of the farming year, let’s take a look back at the history of an invention that changed crops and agriculture in America: the mechanical reaper.

The mechanical reaper was invented by Cyrus McCormick in 1831 in Rockbridge County, Virginia. For nearly 30 years, McCormick’s father, Robert, tried unsuccessfully to invent a mechanical sweeper. It was his son Cyrus who was able to “crack the code” and develop a suitable device after spending six weeks of intensive work in the family blacksmith shop in the summer of 1831. He later demonstrated the machine to local farmers, who were initially confused by the contraption, but were eventually impressed by what it had achieved. McCormick was able to use it successfully during that year’s harvest as well.[1]

Cyrus McCormick (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The reaper was a wheeled chariot pulled by a team of horses. As it moved, the vibrating blade moved back and forth, cutting through the grain in its path. The chopper separated the mown and standing grain. The cut grain was then fed into a reel that carried it to a platform where it was pushed to the ground. The farmer then raked the mown grain into a pile for binding.[2] Later models eventually added features that also threshed and bagged the grain.[3]

The harvester radically changed the way of harvesting cereals. Before his advent, harvesting was a process that required many people to use hand tools such as sickles and scythes. With this method, the farm could harvest about two hectares per day. If the farmer did not get enough help, he faced the possibility of losing his crop, or had the additional cost of hiring help to harvest the crop. The reaper offered farmers the ability to harvest more crops in less time with less work.[4]

McCormick wasn’t the first to reap. Another inventor named Abed Hassi had made the device and patented it a few years earlier, but McCormick had several advantages that made it better, namely the separator. (Hussey became McCormick’s chief business rival for many years, and the two clashed several times in the business and legal spheres.) McCormick continued to make adjustments to the harvester and received a patent for his invention in 1834. For several years, however, his attention was more focused on other pursuits, principally the iron foundry on his family farm, and the invention lay dormant. The financial panic of 1837 changed this as it led to the collapse of the foundry and left the family in debt. To get out of debt, McCormick turned to his reaper, which he began manufacturing and selling in the 1840s.[5]

In 1844, McCormick made a trip to the Midwest and left the area convinced that it was an ideal place to sell his reapers because of the abundance of wheat and other grains grown there and the increasing number of farmers. It turned out to be a wise hunch. In 1847, he opened a factory in Chicago with the help of Mayor William Ogden. In the first year, 800 harvesters were sold.[6]

A shrewd businessman and advertising expert, McCormick traveled the Midwest selling the reapers that were popular throughout most of the country in 1850. The reaper became world famous in 1851 after it was exhibited and won awards at the Great Exhibition in London. By the late 1850s, McCormick’s company was producing thousands of reapers a year, each year producing new models similar to modern automobiles.[7]

McCormick Harvesting Machine Company continued to develop, including other types of agricultural machinery in its production. The company remained strong even after the factory was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In 1902, the business merged with other companies to form the International Harvester Company, a well-known name in agricultural machinery that still exists today.[8]

The reaper impacted American agriculture and American life in several ways. Being able to harvest larger crops forced farmers to start growing more and reduced the likelihood of food shortages. The opportunity to grow more acres of crops further attracted people moving west in the second half of the 19thousand century. The reaper contributed to the industrial revolution. The reaper limited the number of people needed for agriculture, freeing up people to work in factories and other industries.

Some historians also believe that it also affected the outcome of the Civil War. Most harvesters were sold and used in the North by the time of the Civil War, which lessened the impact on Northern agricultural production of men leaving to fight for the Union. The South was still heavily dependent on manual labor for its agriculture, so the men who were going to fight for the Confederacy dealt a greater blow to the South’s agricultural production.[9] The north generally had a larger population, and the reaper may have further strengthened this advantage.

Although it may seem mysterious compared to today’s GPS-controlled combines and other high-tech agricultural machinery, the mechanical reaper was an important advance that helped change American agriculture.

[1] Robert McNamara, The Invention of the McCormick Reaper, last modified June 21, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/mccormick-reaper-1773393.

[2] Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, “the reaper”, Britannica, accessed 22 September 2022. https://www.britannica.com/topic/reaper-agriculture.

[3] Robert McNamara, The Invention of the McCormick Reaper, last modified June 21, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/mccormick-reaper-1773393.

[4] Mitchell Wilson, “Cyrus McCormick”, Britannica, accessed 22 September 2022. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cyrus-McCormick.

[5] There.

[6] There.

[7] Cyrus McCormick, PBS, accessed September 22, 2022. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/theymadeamerica/whomade/mccormick_hi.html.

[8] Mitchell Wilson, “Cyrus McCormick”, Britannica, accessed 22 September 2022. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cyrus-McCormick.

[9] Robert McNamara, The Invention of the McCormick Reaper, last modified June 21, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/mccormick-reaper-1773393.

— Chandler Hansen, Morning Ag Clips

https://www.morningagclips.com/the-mechanical-reaper-the-impact-of-an-important-farming-invention/ The mechanical reaper: the impact of an important invention in agriculture

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