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Continuing with our tour of long-dead Chicago and the people who built America.

You remember the name Cyrus Hall McCormick right? Cyrus McCormick, the guy who invented the….? C’mon, think back to grade school.

You can get it. Here’s a picture.

Cyrus Hall McCormick

Cyrus McCormick, born in 1809, invented the first commercially successful reaper, a horse-drawn machine to harvest grain.

The tale of the McCormick Reaper is a century long tale. An American tale of ingenuity, ruthlessness and ultimately great wealth. Robert McCormick emigrated from Ireland to Virginia in 1778. During his life, Robert McCormick attempted to design a mechanical grain reaper. Although he ultimately failed, his son Cyrus Hall McCormick followed in his footsteps.

In 1834 Cyrus McCormick patented the McCormick Reaper based upon his father’s failed designs. By 1847 McCormick had moved from Virginia to Chicago where he opened a reaper factory. McCormick Harvesting Machine Company eventually became the large part of International Harvester Company.

Set forth below is an excerpt from McCormick’s In Memoriam describing the struggles he faced in developing the McCormick Reaper. Through it you can see that the adage of the persevering American overcoming all odds to invent a better way to do something was alive as far back as the 1880’s.

Cyrus Mccormick grave marker

Of course, his biography omits that he was hated enough as an employer that his servants had to guard his grave to keep vandals away…

Guarding a Millionaire’s Grave.

Chicago, May 4 1885–A story is current to the effect that for the past year the grave of Cyrus H. McCormick, the deceased millionaire has been carefully guarded for fear that a repetition of the Stewart grave robbery case might occur. It is alleged that an old family servant stood guard for some time until death relieved him, and that now another watches the place. During the late strike, it is averred, the guard was doubled. The mausoleum will soon be put in position, and the necessity for the watch will be removed.

Or that the McCormick factories were the site of labor strikes that led to the Haymarket Square riot a year later.

Fun Fact:

The McCormick Tract wilderness area is a Federally protected wilderness area comprising about 17,000 acres of rugged wilderness in northern Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Originally owned by the McCormick family of Chicago as a vacation hid-a-way, this tract is rich in history and today offers the wilderness adventurer a rare backpacking or hiking opportunity.

From In Memoriam, Cyrus Hall McCormick: born February 15th, 1809. Died May 13th, 1884 (1884)

Mr. McCormick inherited from his father genius for invention; from his mother, genius for practical business affairs. This rare combination enabled him to bring to a successful issue the invention which has given him world-wide fame and honor. His father, Robert McCormick, who possessed much genius in the construction of hydraulic, threshing, and hemp-breaking machines, had devised a reaper in 1816, but, like all previous attempts by others, it was a failure.

Time rolled on, but this old reaper, as it lay abandoned near the workshop, was continually under the eye of the young Cyrus, as a reminder of something attempted but not accomplished. He was convinced that the principles upon which his father had experimented, in using upright revolving cylinders provided at their base with knives like sickles, were radically defective, and he proceeded upon a wholly different plan of construction, by operating upon the grain in a mass, with a horizontal reciprocating blade….The idea that grain could be cut by machinery possessed him fully, and he believed there was a way to do it. He continued to think over and work out his idea in that old homestead. He had never been far from home. He had never heard of any experiments in machinery for harvesting grain except his father’s. The pursuit of this idea was opposed by his father, who believed his years would be wasted.

There are turning-points in every life, and usually the point which fixes itself in the memory is some minor incident; though, in fact, that which is called the turning point is not usually a change of direction, but an awakening of consciousness to the possibilities of the future.

Once, when a young man, he was riding on horseback from his Virginia home to a distant foundry in the mountains, with a pattern of the mould-board of the plough he had invented, and which he wished cast in iron, resting on his horse’s neck, and, as usual, was absorbed with his unsolved problem of the reaper. On the way he crossed a considerable stream, and midway in it his horse paused to drink. Just then, as he looked up, his eye fell on a fertile tract of land brightened by the sunshine, and the blended thought of the vast future of the country in agriculture, and the possibilities of his invention for reaping grain, struck him. For a moment there filled his mind a dream of success that seemed like a fable, and which in an instant he brushed aside for the hard realities of the present; but in that instant his resolution took more solid form. Who can tell how much of the inspiration of his work sprang from that moment? The fundamental principles of his invention gradually matured in his mind. Then began the work of transferring these primal ideas into wood and iron. Here his training in the use of tools came into service, and in a few months, after repeated effort in combining the relation of the various parts with unfailing ingenuity and patience, he finally produced a machine, fashioning with his own hands every part of it, both in wood and iron, in his father’s workshops. It consisted of, first, a vibrating blade to cut; and, second, a platform to receive the falling grain ; and, third, a reel to bring the grain within reach of the blade.

This machine, drawn by horses placed at the stubble side of the swath, was tested during the latter part of harvest in 1831, in a field of six acres of oats, belonging to John Steele, situated within a mile of Walnut Grove. It proved to be a success. Its work astonished all who witnessed it. Neither the young inventor nor any of those present seemed to have even an idea of the true value of the work that day begun, — a work destined to revolutionize the whole method of farming, and to open up a limitless domain in this land for cereal productions ; making possible the bountiful harvests that have since that day taxed the powers of transportation, and stimulating the construction of a network of railroads equal to that of all the world beside; as well as wonderfully enlarging the cultivation of wheat elsewhere throughout the world.

A short time after the first trial of the reaper, Mr. McCormick entered into a partnership for the smelting of iron ore. But the panic of 1837, by reducing the price of iron, brought financial ruin to the enterprise. With dauntless courage and unflinching fidelity to creditors, by the united and mutual effort and industry of all his family, they paid all the debts of the firm, though greatly taxing the resources of the family ; and he, losing the farm his father gave him, sacrificed everything but integrity.

Disappointed but not discouraged, he turned his thoughts to the reaper, and resolved to devote himself to its improvement and introduction into general use. With very restricted facilities on the farm in Virginia for the manufacture and sale of the reapers, he still worked on there, im- proving his invention during the brief period of harvest. Soon he realized that the young West was the field on which he might hope for the accomplishment of greater results, and so in 1846 he removed to Cincinnati, Ohio, then a western town, and prepared to build the reapers; for by that time it was well understood that a successful machine had been invented for cutting grain by horse-power. During all these years, while battling with the discouragements always accompanying the efforts to introduce any new machine, Mr. McCormick managed to add improvement to improvement, a work which he kept up during his whole life.

In 1845-47 Mr. McCormick secured additional patents for improvements, which greatly added to the value of the machine, and quickened the demand for it.

The superior advantages of Chicago, as the natural metropolis of an unlimited grain-producing country, soon attracted Mr. McCormick’s observation, and thither he removed in 1847. During the following year he there erected substantial reaper works, and built seven hundred machines, increasing the number in 1849 to fifteen hundred. This was an enormous undertaking for those days. In the absence of the improved iron and wood-working machinery of the present day, and with the primitive means of transportation existing throughout the west, where there were scarcely any railroads, more ability was required then to found and foster this industry than now to carry it on in its vastly extended proportions. But Mr. McCormick was a thorough business man, and in addition possessed a spirit of resistless energy and enterprise that faced every obstacle and yielded to no antagonism.

After the success of the reaper was assured at home, Mr. McCormick spent some time abroad, bringing his machine to the notice of European agriculturists. In 185 1 he attended the World’s Fair in London, where his machine was first brought before the British public. During the early weeks of the exhibition, the reaper was the subject of some ridicule on the part of those who knew nothing of its character and capabilities. Even the ” London Times ” called it ” a cross between an Astley chariot, a wheelbarrow, and a flying machine.” A few weeks later, however, when the American reaper was practically tested in the English harvest fields, ridicule was turned to admiration, and indifference to widespread enthusiasm.

After prolonged tests, and when the Great Council medal was awarded its inventor on the ground ” of the originality and value of the reaper,” this same journal made honorable haste to correct its error, and frankly admitted that the McCormick reaper was equal in value to the entire cost of the exhibition. Then, indeed, favors were showered on the inventor. He was prominently recognized, and his acquaintance was sought. From this point his fame grew rapidly, and yet he was as one who knew it not. With his changed status in the world, his heart did not change. His opportunities were enlarged, and he was quick to enlarge his knowledge, and improve by contact with the world of educated men. But his modest, unostentatious nature was not made proud by elevation nor hardened by success.

At the Universal Exposition at Paris of 1855 Mr. McCormick was awarded the Grand Prize for the invention of the reaper, which was “the type and pattern of all other reaping machines of the present day.” In 1867 he exhibited his machine at the exposition held at Paris, for which he again received the Grand Prize, and was then decorated by the Emperor with the Cross of the Legion of Honor for his valuable and successful invention.

It is not surprising that a life of such persistent and successful effort as Mr. McCormick’s should have been one of continued battle. In this it resembled that of every man who endeavors to supersede the old methods. In establishing his enterprise he found himself surrounded with obstacles well nigh insurmountable, – isolation from centres of communication and trade, insufficient capital, ignorant prejudices of the laboring classes, refusal of Congress to grant him a just and deserved patent protection, and the combined opposition of all other interests similar to his own. Had he not been gifted with indomitable will, invincible courage, and unfaltering confidence in the value of his invention, he must have succumbed to the pressure of adverse circumstances. Instead of this, year by year found him advanced upon the path of progress, and the world bestowed upon him honors and grateful testimonials.

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