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Cyrus Hall McCormickCyrus McCormick

inventor of the first commercially successful mechanical reaper

Cyrus Hall McCormick was born on a farm in Rockbridge County, Virginia, on February 15, 1809. His father, Robert, was a successful farmer of 532 acres. The family estate was almost completely self-sufficient -- flax, hemp and sheep's wool produced on the farm provided thread for cloth and cattle and hogs supplied fresh and preserved meat, tallow for candles and oil for soap. The estate had its own tannery, grist mill, distillery, and blacksmith shop, so almost everything the family needed could be produced from products grown on the farm.

In addition to being a successful farmer, Robert McCormick was also an accomplished inventor who held several patents for improved farming implements. His inventiveness rubbed off on his son, who at the age of 15 invented a lightweight cradle for harvesting grain. One invention eluded Robert McCormick, however, a mechanical harvester. Early in 1831, after working on it for several years he turned the problem over to Cyrus. By the time that year's harvest came around Cyrus had built a small experimental harvester that successfully cut six acres of oats in a public demonstration. An improved model harvested fifty acres of wheat in 1832, and a further improved model cut 10 to 12 acres a day in 1833. Although area farmers were impressed with McCormick's reaper they were reluctant to buy, since at the time it was actually cheaper to pay laborers than to invest in machinery.

McCormick initially refrained from patenting his reaper because he wanted to wait until he was ready to manufacture it for sale. But in the spring of 1834 he read about a reaper invented by Obed Hussey, so on June 21 he obtained a 14-year patent to protect his design. He withheld his machine from the market place for four years, however, while he worked to further perfect the machine. By 1839 McCormick was ready to manufacture and sell his machine. Hussey had beat him to the market by four years, but many of his customers were dissatisfied with the quality of Hussey's machine. One of McCormick's first customers, farmer James Hite, cut 175 acres in under eight days and provided McCormick with his favorite sales slogan: "My reaper has more than paid for itself in one harvest." McCormick sold sales rights to his reaper to Hite and several other farmers, and thus formed the core of his sales force. By 1844 he was selling 50 reapers a year, all made in the family's blacksmith shop.

In 1844, McCormick travelled to Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Missouri to demonstrate his reaper. Knowing that he could no longer supply the demand from his family blacksmith shop, he contracted with several manufacturers to produce the machines he needed and pay him a royalty. Unfortunately, none of the initial agreements worked out well -- one Wisconsin sub-contractor failed to fulfill the contract, and one in Missouri sold only a few machines and failed to pay McCormick. Many machines were abandoned in fields because farmers did not know how to use them, while others went unsold because they arrived too late for the harvest. By quickly extracting himself from the bad agreements and cultivating the good ones, however, McCormick persevered, and by the harvest of 1847 over 500 reapers had been sold and McCormick had made almost $9,000 in profits.

In 1848 McCormick moved all of his manufacturing operations into a factory he had built in Chicago. At the same time he established a marketing system that was truly unique for the day. He set up a system of company agents with machines on hand, offered his machines at a fixed price with a written guarantee, and allowed farmers to put $30 down and pay the balance of $90 only if the machine lived up to McCormick's claims. By 1855 he was producing 2,500 reapers a year; production jumped to 4,000 the next year, and by 1858 McCormick was the largest farm equipment manufacturer in the United States.

In January, 1858, McCormick married Nettie Fowler.

In 1859 Cyrus and his two brothers, William and Leander, formed C.H. McCormick & Brothers. William handled the company's finances, Leander oversaw manufacturing, and Cyrus took care of everything else. By 1879 Cyrus McCormick, Jr., had completed his studies at Princeton and he joined his father and uncles in the business. Disagreements between Cyrus and Leander led to the latter's departure in 1880, and Cyrus, Jr. took over most of the day-to-day operations.

Cyrus McCormick died on May 13, 1884, and Cyrus, Jr. became president of the McCormick Harvesting Machinery Company. In 1902, McCormick combined with four smaller harvesting machine manufacturers -- Deering Harvester Company, Plano Manufacturing Company, Milwaukee Harvester Company, and Warder, Bushnell and Glessner -- to form the International Harvester Company, which was presided over by Cyrus, Jr. and brother Harold Fowler for the next 40 years.

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This page was last updated on June 21, 2017.