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Cyrus Hall McCormick

Cyrus Hall McCormick
Born February 15, 1809
Rockbridge County, Virginia
Died May 13, 1884(1884-05-13) (aged 75)
Chicago, IL
Known for International Harvester
Net worth USD $11 million at the time of his death (approximately 1/1072nd of US GNP)[1]
Spouse(s) Nancy Fowler (m. 1835–1923)
Children Cyrus Hall McCormick Jr.
Harold Fowler McCormick
(4 others)
Parents Robert McCormick, Jr.
Marry Ann Hall
Relatives Leander James McCormick (brother)
William Sanderson McCormick (brother)

Cyrus Hall McCormick (1809–1884) was an American inventor and founder of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, which became part of International Harvester Company in 1902.[2] From the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, he and many members of his family became prominent residents of Chicago.

Although McCormick is credited as the "inventor" of the mechanical reaper, he based his work on that of many others, including Roman, Scottish and American men, more than two decades of work by his father, and the aid of Jo Anderson, a slave held by his family. Cyrus McCormick filed patents for the invention, and his achievements were chiefly in the development of a company, marketing and sales force to market his products.

Life story

Cyrus McCormick was born February 15, 1809 in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. He was the eldest of eight children born to Robert McCormick, Jr. and Mary Ann "Polly" Hall. As the elder McCormick saw the potential of the design for a mechanical reaper, he applied for a patent to claim it as his own invention. He worked for 28 years on a horse-drawn mechanical reaper to harvest grain; however, he was never able to reproduce a reliable version.

Cyrus took up the project.[3] He was aided by Jo Anderson (slave), an enslaved African American on the McCormick plantation at the time.[4] A few machines based on a design of Patrick Bell of Scotland (which had not been patented) were available in the United States in these years. The Bell machine was pulled by horses. The McCormick design was pulled by horses and cut the grain to one side of the team.

Cyrus McCormick held one of his first demonstrations of mechanical reaping at the nearby village of Steeles Tavern, Virginia in 1831. He claimed to have developed a final version of the reaper in 18 months. The young McCormick was granted a patent on the reaper on June 21, 1834.[5]

Because the machine could not handle varying conditions, none were sold. The McCormick family worked together on starting a metal smelting business. The panic of 1837 almost caused the family to go into bankruptcy when a partner pulled out. In 1839 McCormick started doing more public demonstrations of the reaper, but local farmers still thought the machine was unreliable. He did sell one in 1840, but none for 1841.

Using the endorsement of his father's first customer for a machine built by McPhetrich, the younger McCormick continuously attempted to improve the design. He finally sold seven reapers in 1842, 29 in 1843, and 50 in 1844. They were all built manually in the family farm shop. He received a second patent for reaper improvements on January 31, 1845.[5]

Move to Chicago

As word spread about the reaper, McCormick noticed orders arriving from farther west, where farms tended to be larger. While he was in Washington, DC to get his 1845 patent, he heard about a factory in Brockport, New York, where he contracted to have the machines mass-produced.

In 1847 he and his brother Leander J. McCormick moved to Chicago, where they established a factory to build their machines. At the time, other cities in the midwestern United States, such as Cleveland, Ohio, St. Louis, Missouri, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, were more prosperous. Chicago had no paved streets at the time, but the city had the best water transportation from the east over the Great Lakes for his raw materials, as well as railroad connections to the farther west where his customers would be.[6]

When McCormick tried to renew his patent in 1848, the US Patent Office noted that a similar machine had already been patented by Obed Hussey a few months earlier. McCormick claimed he had really invented his machine in 1831, but the renewal was denied.[7] William Manning of Plainfield, New Jersey had received a patent for his reaper in May 1831, but at the time, Manning was evidently not defending his patent.[5]

His brother William Sanderson McCormick moved to Chicago in 1849, and joined the company to take care of financial affairs. The McCormick reaper sold well, partially as a result of savvy and innovative business practices.[3] Their products came onto the market just as the development of railroads offered wide distribution to distant markets. McCormick developed marketing and sales techniques, developing a wide network of salesmen trained to demonstrate operation of the machines in the field.

William H. Seward said of McCormick's invention that owing to it, "the line of civilization moves westward thirty miles each year." A company advertisement was a take-off of the Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way mural by Emanuel Leutze; it added to the title: “with McCormick Reapers in the Van."[8]

In 1851, McCormick traveled to London to display a reaper at the Crystal Palace Exhibition. He won a gold medal, but his celebration was short-lived after he learned that he had lost a court challenge to Hussey's patent.[9]

McCormick–Manny Case

Another McCormick Company competitor was that of John Henry Manny of Rockford, Illinois. After the Manny Reaper beat the McCormick version at the Paris Exposition of 1855, McCormick filed a lawsuit against Manny for patent infringement.[10]

McCormick demanded that Manny stop producing reapers, and pay McCormick $400,000. The trial, originally scheduled for Chicago in September 1855, featured prominent lawyers on both sides. McCormick hired the former US Attorney General Reverdy Johnson and New York patent attorney Edward Nicholl Dickerson. Manny hired George Harding and Edwin M. Stanton. Because the trial was set to take place in Illinois, Harding hired the local Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln.

But, the trial was moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Manny won the case, with an opinion by the State Supreme Court Judge John McLean.[11] Lincoln did not contribute to the defense. Stanton had objected to Lincoln's presence, referring to him as "that damned long armed ape."[12] After later being elected President, Lincoln chose Stanton as his Secretary of War.[12] See Abraham Lincoln's patent.

More controversy and success

In 1861, Hussey's patent was extended but McCormick's was not. He decided to seek help from the US Congress to protect his patent.[13]

In 1879, his brother Leander changed the name of the company from "Cyrus H. McCormick and Brothers" to "McCormick Harvesting Machine Company".[14] He wanted to acknowledge the contributions of others in the family to the reaper "invention" and company, especially their father.[4]

McCormick was a benefactor and member of the board of trustees at Washington and Lee University in his native Virginia for the last 20 years of his life.[15]


McCormick died in Chicago on May 13, 1884; he had been handicapped for the last four years of his life due to a stroke causing paralysis of the legs.[16] He was buried in Graceland Cemetery.[17]

The official leadership of the company passed to his son Cyrus Hall McCormick Jr. The company factories were the site of urban labor strikes that contributed to the Haymarket Square riot in 1886.

Legacy and honors

Cyrus McCormick's papers are held by the Wisconsin Historical Society.[2] Numerous prizes and medals were awarded for his reaper, and he 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." The invention of the reaper reduced human labor on farms while increasing productivity. It contributed to the industrialization of agriculture and migration of labor to cities in numerous countries.

  • The city of Plano, Illinois has regarded itself as the "Birthplace of the Harvester", with the local High School having the mascot of the Reapers, and the school using an image of the McCormick Harvester Reaper for its logo. Cyrus McCormick actually tested his harvesters in Plano, as well as having a small manufacturing facility in Plano, leading to the city's eventual industrial beginnings.
  • 3 Cent US Postage Stamps were issued in 1940 to commemorate Cyrus Hall McCormick. See Famous Americans Series of 1940.
  • The government of France named him an Officier de la Légion d'honneur in 1851.

Family tree

On January 26, 1858 he married Nancy Fowler (1835–1923), better known as "Nettie".[20] They had seven children:

  1. Cyrus Hall McCormick Jr. was born May 16, 1859.
  2. Mary Virginia McCormick was born May 5, 1861.[20]
  3. Anita McCormick was born July 4, 1866, married Emmons Blaine on September 26, 1889, and died February 12, 1954. Her husband was the oldest son of the US Secretary of State James G. Blaine.[21]
  4. Alice McCormick was born March 15, 1870 and died less than a year later on January 25, 1871.[20]
  5. Harold Fowler McCormick was born May 2, 1872, married Edith Rockefeller, and died in 1941.
  6. Stanley Robert McCormick was born November 2, 1874, married Katharine Dexter (1875–1967), and died January 19, 1947.

Mary Virginia and Stanley Robert both suffered from schizophrenia.[22] Stanley McCormick's life inspired the 1998 novel Riven Rock by T. Coraghessan Boyle.[23]

Cyrus McCormick was the uncle of Robert Sanderson McCormick (son-in-law of Joseph Medill); granduncle of Joseph Medill McCormick and Robert Rutherford McCormick; and great-granduncle of William McCormick Blair, Jr.[20]


Further reading

  • Casson, Herbert Newton, Cyrus Hall McCormick, his life and work, Chicago, A. C. McClurg & co., 1909.
  • Aldrich, Lisa A.,Cyrus McCormick and the Mechanical Reaper, Morgan Reynolds Publishing, 2002. ISBN 978-1883846916.
  • Welch, Catherine A., Farmland Innovator: A Story About Cyrus McCormick, 21st Century, 2007. ISBN 978-0822568339.
  • Alef, Daniel, Cyrus McCormick: Bread for the Masses, Titans of Fortune Publishing, 2009.

External links

  • U.S. Patent X8,277 Improvement in Machines for Reaping Small Grain: Cyrus H. McCormick, June 21, 1834
  • Farm Equipment on Antique Farming web site
  • Encyclopædia Britannica
  • Find a Grave
  • Newberry Library

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