The Great Reaper War
Cyrus McCormick won it—his famed Virginia reaper came to dominate America’s harvests—but he didn’t win by building the first reaper or, initially, the best
It was “curious to see,” reported a Yorkshire newspaper in 1851, “two implements of agriculture lying side by side in rivalry, respectively marked, ‘McCormick, inventor, Chicago, Illinois,’ and ‘Hussey, inventor, Baltimore, Maryland’—America competing with America, on English soil.”
The two inventors presented a study in opposites. The Maine-born, Quaker-reared Hussey had sailed on a Nantucket whaler and wore a black patch over one eye, the result of an accident, but the piratical look was entirely deceiving: He was the mildest of men, kindhearted, fond of children, and self-effacing. The tall, handsome Cyrus McCormick, born in Virginia, was a pioneer Chicagoan, self-confident, bold, and intensely combative.
Hussey’s machine had first seen daylight in 1831, when its modest inventor wheeled a model for it (possibly full-scale) out of a room he had borrowed in a farm-implement factory in Baltimore. Sarah Chenoweth, the seven-year-old daughter of the factory owner, watched him in fascination and remembered him later as “so very gentle in speech and manner that I never knew fear or awe of him.” To simulate a wheat field, Hussey had drilled holes in a large board, which Sarah helped him cover with straws. When he pushed his strange-looking contraption across the board, it succeeded in clipping nearly every straw. He retired to his room to conceal tears of joy.
At almost the same time, Cyrus McCormick was creating his reaping machine in the blacksmith shop of his family’s twelve-hundred-acre farm, Walnut Grove, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. His father, Robert McCormick, an incurable tinkerer with several inventions to his credit, had struggled with the reaper problem on and off since Cyrus’s birth. He was about ready to give up in frustration when Cyrus, then twentytwo, took over, in May of 1831. By July Cyrus had succeeded in cutting a patch of oats standing in a neighbor’s field.
Hussey and McCormick were ignorant not only of each other’s work but of that of many others. Hussey is said to have replied when a friend first suggested that he try to make a mechanical reaper, “Why, isn’t there such a thing?” The earliest known version was recorded by Pliny in Gaul in the first century A.D. Recent attempts had sought both to speed the harvest (to avoid weather catastrophes) and to lighten the burden of labor involved.
The classic long line of crouching men swinging sickles or scythes, followed by stooping women and children gleaning the residue, had changed little since Neolithic times. It meant not only backbreaking toil but, to increasingly businesslike farm entrepreneurs, excessive labor costs. In 1783 Britain’s Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce offered a gold medal for a practical reaper. The idea seemed simple: to use traction, via suitable gearing, to provide power to move some form of cutting mechanism. By 1831 several techniques had been explored, using a revolving reel of blades, as in a hand lawn mower; a rotating knifeedged disk, as in a modern power mower; and mechanical scissors. Robert McCormick had tried using revolving beaters to press the stalks against stationary knives.
Cyrus McCormick and Obed Hussey both chose a toothed sickle bar that moved back and forth horizontally. Hussey’s machine was supported on two wheels, McCormick’s on a single broad main wheel, whose rotation imparted motion to the cutter bar. Wire fingers or guards in front of the blade helped hold the brittle stalks upright. McCormick added a large reel, also turned by the main wheel, to press the stalks against the cutter. Since horses propelling the machine would need to walk in the clear, they would have to either push from behind or pull from the side. McCormick first tried the push principle, then switched to offsetting the machine. Hussey’s machine was likewise offset, resting on two wheels plus a roller that supported the platform on which the cut grain fell. His design omitted a reel to press the grain up against the cutter, but his cutter, composed of twenty-one lancetlike teeth riveted to a flat iron rod, proved more efficient than McCormick’s. Hussey’s platform included a small seat, or prop, for the person who would push the cut grain off the platform in bunches to be made up into sheaves. McCormick’s raker walked alongside the reaper.
Modest though the differences in the two machines were, Obed Hussey had created a viable reaper while Cyrus McCormick’s was still marginal. “I found in practice innumerable difficulties,” McCormick confessed. So had others before him. Simple in principle, the reaper was maddening in practice, especially if the grain was wet or drooping. Even experimentation was difficult, restricted by the brevity of the harvest season. Slowly, over the next two years, McCormick effected improvements and adjustments, and in 1833 he succeeded in cutting all the grain at Walnut Grove and that of several neighbors. In early 1834 he was ready to apply for a patent. Then he discovered in Mechanics Magazine a picture of Hussey’s reaper, patented on the last day of 1833 and already being manufactured in New York and Ohio.
Hussey’s precedence did not prevent McCormick from getting a patent—the Patent Office was not yet empowered to refuse one on such grounds—but it did provoke the young McCormick to fire the first salvo of the reaper war. He wrote to the editor of Mechanics Magazine: “Dear Sir: Having seen in the April number … a cut and description of a reaping machine … I would ask the favor of you to inform Mr. Hussey, and the public … that the principle, viz., cutting grain by means of a toothed instrument, receiving a rotatory motion from a crank … is a part of the principle of my machine, and was invented by me. Consequently, I would warn all persons against… an infringement of my right. …”
Despite McCormick’s truculence, he was not yet ready to back his fighting words with deeds. In 1835 his father made him a present of a fivehundred-acre farm; the next year he got him involved in an iron-manufacturing scheme that terminated in disaster, thanks in part to the Panic of 1837. Cyrus was said to have emerged with “his honor, one slave, a horse and saddle, and $300.” He also gained invaluable business experience.
Both inventors licensed a number of manufacturers in New York, Virginia, Ohio, and neighboring wheat-growing states, and the machines competed for honors at numerous local fairs. Hussey’s reaper was generally conceded to have the edge in performance, but not by enough to settle the question. Similarly, the priority of invention remained obscure. Misleading advice from the patent commissioner caused Hussey to apply too late for renewal of his patent in 1847; this forced him to petition Congress. McCormick aggressively counterpetitioned against the renewal, but it was granted anyway.
When McCormick’s own patent came up the next year, Hussey petitioned against it. The old sailor said he would not have taken the step had McCormick not tried to deny him his own patent rights, and indeed, McCormick was probably guilty of a tactical blunder along with bad sportsmanship. Hussey succeeded in enlisting support among farmers, editors, and licensed reaper manufacturers protesting the McCormick extension, which in the end was denied. The patent board in effect declared the mechanical reaper too valuable an invention to be monopolized, throwing open the door to any manufacturer who wanted to join the competition. By 1850 there were at least thirty.
The war now reverted to the field, where geography became a major factor. After several years of canvassing the Midwest, Hussey had returned East to find the market there more receptive. As a result he virtually abandoned the West, whither McCormick was at the same moment moving most of his production. This division of the market had a chance but felicitous relationship to the actual merits of the two machines. Eastern grain farmers, having trouble competing with the West, were turning to hay production, and though both machines were advertised as dualpurpose, the Hussey happened to be superior in grass.
On the other hand, it was no longer superior in grain. McCormick had added several technical improvements, beginning with a cutter that resisted clogging better. The job of raking the cut grain off the platform had proved a man-killer in a tenhour or twelve-hour harvest day; McCormick copied Hussey in moving his raker onto the platform. The reaper’s weight had increased and been redistributed; this demanded a completely new design, which in the end included a seat for the driver. The virtually all-new Virginia Reaper, as McCormick christened it, received a patent in 1847. Its defense against the troop of new competitors escalated the reaper war.
McCormick did not allow himself to be distracted from the main battlefield. Studying wheat farming America with the eye of a Napoleon surveying Italy, he was struck above all by the unmistakable movement of wheat westward. He chose his headquarters accordingly. Chicago in 1848 was as unprepossessing a metropolis as America could exhibit. Its population of seventeen thousand lived and worked in a warren of muddy streets, flimsy hovels, noisome slaughterhouses, and jerry-built factories—and made money hand over fist. Grain and cattle from the huge farms on the prairie flowed in a torrent into the toddling town via the canal that Father Jacques Marquette had envisioned linking the Great Lakes with the Mississippi and via the railroad now booming across the land. Unlimited arable land and cheap transportation promised a new American empire with Chicago as its capital.
McCormick first commissioned a Chicago farm implement maker to manufacture reapers for the harvest of 1847; he struck a partnership deal with two entrepreneurs in 1848, and the next year the imperious McCormick bought out his partners and plunged ahead alone, having summoned from Virginia his brothers Leander and William to oversee the business. Acquiring a piece of land near the north end of the present Michigan Avenue bridge, he built a factory complex whose powerful steam engine was one of the wonders of Chicago. When most of the factory burned down in 1851, McCormick rebuilt it into what the newspapers hailed as the largest factory of its kind in the world.
The Chicago Daily Journal described its operation: “An angry whirr, a dronish hum, a prolonged whistle, a shrill buzz and a panting breath—such is the music of the place. You enter—little wheels of steel attached to horizontal, upright and oblique shafts, are on every hand. … Rude pieces of wood [arrive] upon little railways, as if drawn thither by some mysterious attraction. [The lathes] touch them and presto, grooved, scalloped, rounded, on they go. … The saw and the cylinder are the genii of the establishment. They work its wonders, and accomplish its drudgery. … Below, glistering like a knight in armor, the engine of forty-horse power works … silently … shafts plunge, cylinders revolve, bellows heave, iron is twisted into screws like wax, and saws dash off at the rate of forty rounds a second.”
It was the world’s largest reaper factory and probably the most modern factory of any kind. McCormick was thoroughly familiar with Oliver Evans’s revolutionary automatic flour mill of 1786—his own father had invented an automatic stopping device for it—and in his Chicago reaper factory he introduced to industrial production a degree of automation that was still startling. The plant’s advantages over the smaller, less efficient, more labor-intensive plants of competitors went beyond mere production costs. Its capacity permitted cancellation of all licensing agreements in favor of the manufacture of every McCormick reaper under the same roof, by the same machines, with a consequent gain in uniformity, quality control, and dependability. And it allowed a farmer who broke a reaper part to write to the factory and have it promptly supplied. Replacements did not even need to be stockpiled; they could be quickly fabricated from the casting patterns.
That same year, 1851, the reaper war spread to foreign soil, mainly Great Britain, which was the country most interested in mechanical harvesting after the United States. Of many British attempts to devise a reaper, the best was that of a Scottish clergyman named Patrick Bell, whose 1828 machine had never performed satisfactorily and had fallen into disuse. Bell’s cutter, composed of a series of scissorlike blades, clearly distinguished his machine from both the Hussey and McCormick designs, but not enough to prevent the British press, viewing the American reapers at the Great Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, from picturing them as descendants or even plagiarisms of the Bell. Actually neither Hussey nor McCormick had ever seen a Bell machine, a solitary model of which had been imported to the United States in 1835. The myth of Bell’s inventive priority was strengthened by the successful resurrection of his reaper with a McCormick cutter replacing the old scissors action, and indeed, Bell still gets credit in some reference works to this day.
McCormick landed in England in August in time to be present at the final trial, in fair weather, of the rival machines. Hussey had arrived before him but was absent in France, and his reaper once more failed while McCormick’s brilliantly succeeded. The Grand Council Medal was awarded to the Virginia Reaper, and the London Times now hailed the machine as “the most valuable contribution from abroad… that we have yet discovered.” The victorious reaper made a journey through the English countryside, everywhere winning adherents and publicity. Hussey, back from France, made a similar tour with his own machine, which under his guidance also operated effectively. He even managed to turn the tables on McCormick. After McCormick returned to the States, Hussey challenged the British agency caring for the Virginia Reaper to yet another match, and this time the Hussey machine clearly had the advantage. That was the “curious” match reported by the Yorkshire newspaper.
Both manufacturers established sales offices in England and on the Continent (where in 1855 McCormick won a grand medal of honor at the Paris Exhibition), and both rang up sales, but Britain and Europe were not destined to compete with North America as markets. Smaller farms, cheaper labor, and certain technical problems stood in the way. In the long term the very success of the reaper in America and the productivity it spawned helped encourage Europe’s farmers to emigrate to these shores.
At home McCormick’s competitors ganged up to fight him to a standstill in the courts. John H. Manny of Illinois had the cheek to brag about winning a field competition at Geneva, New York, with a reaper whose main features were copied from McCormick’s. McCormick opened fire with his legal corps, headed by William H. Seward, future Secretary of State, but in vain; Manny’s defense was ably conducted by Edwin M. Stanton, future Secretary of War, with Abraham Lincoln himself standing by. Lincoln, in fact, may have been the chief winner in the case. His thousanddollar fee helped underwrite his senatorial campaign against Stephen A. Douglas, which produced the famous debates between the two and spotlighted Lincoln as a presidential candidate.
McCormick appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case in 1858. Having tardily married at age forty-eight, he took as his honeymoon a trip to Washington to attend the hearing, but his presence did not prevent another defeat. The following year brought still another, in a suit initiated against him by Hussey. But the Patent Office, Congress, and Supreme Court notwithstanding, McCormick was winning the reaper war on the battlefield where the grain ripened. He overwhelmed his rivals not merely by the prowess of his Chicago factory but by the genius of his merchandising, which amounted virtually to the invention of modern business methods.
He recruited an army of Midwestern locals as salesmen and commanded them with state agents who received commissions for every reaper sold. The whole force was tracked from headquarters on wall maps kept up-to-date via regular weekly or monthly reports. Some salesmen, like D. L. Burt, of Waterloo, Iowa, described their sales experiences in colorful detail: “I found in the neighborhood … quite early in the season one of Manny’s agents with a fancyfully painted machine cutting the old prairie grass to the no small delight of the witnesses, making sweeping and bold declarations about what his machine could do and how it could beat yours, etc. etc. Well, he had the start of me, I must head him somehow. I began by breaking down on his fancy machine, pointed out every objection that I could see and all that 1 learned about last year … all of which I could prove. [I then said] Now gentlemen I am an old settler, have shared all the hardships of this new country with you, have taken it rough and Smooth … have often been imposed on in the way 1 almost know you would be by purchasing the machine offered you today. I would say to you, try your machine before you [pay] one half or any except the freight. I can offer you one on such terms, warrant it against this machine or any other you can produce, and if after a fair trial … any other proves superior and you prefer it to mine, keep [it]. 1 will take mine back, say not a word, refund the freight, all is right again. No gentlemen this man dare not do this. The Result you have seen. He sold not one. I sold 20.”
McCormick’s own letters were dictated to a clerk who took them down in the new Pitman shorthand, made a copy for the files, and signed them with a rubber stamp. McCormick’s experience as a farmer taught him that his customers could pay for their reapers only after the harvest—that is, after the machine had in effect paid for itself. Therefore, he asked for only $35 down on a price of $125, with the balance due on December 1 and with further credit available. Complaints were given prompt attention. Cyrus and his brothers William and Leander traveled during the harvest to get firsthand information on the competition and other problems. McCormick had been famous since the Crystal Palace triumph, and customers were flattered by his visits.
Advertising, by handbill and periodical, was exploited to the utmost, including its power to corrupt; editors habitually eulogized advertised products in their editorial columns. McCormick bullied and threatened reluctant editors and sometimes bribed them by hiring them as agents. His ads, however, were not limited to puffery. Along with testimonials from satisfied users, who spoke a suspiciously uniform language, the copy provided pictures of the reaper and detailed explanations of its working parts. Salesmen were trained to take pains in demonstrating the machine to make sure the customer knew how to operate and maintain it properly. McCormick hit on the device of printed instructions, pioneering another lasting innovation in mass product marketing.
Customers were instructed in the regular sharpening of the cutter and oiling of moving parts. Raking, even with the aid of the seat, was an acquired skill, and the driver had to know how to avoid stumps and stones. The American farmer was forced to learn a new way of life, which over the next generation turned him from a handimplement cultivator, little different from his medieval peasant forebear, into a modern farmermechanic.
In 1858 Obed Hussey, no longer McCormick’s chief competitor, gave up his long, losing struggle and sold his business. In a letter to a friend, the ex-sailor voiced a pathetic protest against fate: “I made no money during the existence of my patent. … I would have been better off at the end of fourteen years if I had filled exactly such status as my foreman holds, and got his pay, and would not have had half the hard work. … I never experienced half the fatigue in rowing after a whale in the Pacific Ocean. … Now I do not believe that there is a reaper in the country … at so low a price as mine, and not one on which so little profit is made.”
Two years later this talented but ill-starred inventor was riding on a train from Boston to Portland when a little girl asked for a drink of water; the old Quaker descended to the station to get her one and, in reboarding the train as it started up, fell under the wheels and was killed.
By the outbreak of the Civil War the mechanical reaper produced in McCormick’s expanding Chicago plant ruled the harvest across the vast Midwest prairie. The reaper’s triumph came just in time. For the harvest of 1862, according to Prairie Farmer , a total of 33,000 reapers were sold; for 1863, 40,000, and for 1864, some 85,000. By then a grand total of 250,000 reapers had been manufactured. The machines normally lasted “close to ten years,” and most of those made since 1854 were still in use. The U.S. commissioner of agriculture asserted that it would have been impossible to harvest the wheat crop of 1862 without the reapers of the West, for each one released five men for military service. Scientific American said that without “horse-racks, mowers and reaping machines, one half the crop would have been left standing in the fields.” Secretary of War Stanton, Cyrus McCormick’s old courtroom adversary, perceptively declared that “the reaper is to the North what slavery is to the South. … Without McCormick’s invention I fear the North could not win and the Union would be dismembered.”
By the war’s end McCormick was so dominant that even major innovations by competitors merely aided his business. The self-raker, invented in the 1850s and adopted by McCormick in 1862, did away with the grueling raker task, saving still more labor. The March Harvester, invented by two Illinois farmer brothers, added binding, at first by hand but soon as a full mechanized final operation of the reaper. McCormick’s original binder, using wire, brought complaints that bits of wire were getting into the grain and thence into loaves of bread, as well as into the stomachs of grazing cows. The timely emergence of cheap twine solved that problem. A burgeoning patent war was nipped in the bud by a patent pool, a congenial monopolistic device already pioneered in the sewing-machine industry, by which rival manufacturers shared technological innovations.
The great Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed both McCormick’s plant and his house, but it failed to daunt the graying magnate. When Mrs. McCormick hastened back from vacation, she met a sleepless husband with one arm of his coat burned off; he drove her straight to the future site not of their new house but of his new factory.
A rugged individualist, he was also renowned as a pincher of pennies, and expertly terse, he underlined superfluous words in telegrams from his agents and brought them to the senders’ attention. When some of his luggage was destroyed in a railroad fire, he sued all the way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately awarded eighteen thousand dollars to his heirs. His dying words in 1884, according to one account, were “Life is a battle.”
Did Cyrus McCormick invent the reaper? Many people, including Obed Hussey and Cyrus’s brother Leander, who quarreled with him and wrote a book ascribing the credit entirely to their father, denied it. Like so many inventions, the reaper had several direct contributors and a host of indirect ones, and when it finally achieved maturity, it distributed its rewards very unevenly. Cyrus McCormick, who got the lion’s share, was at least a genuine lion.
In its time the reaper was saluted, above all for making bread cheap. It was also credited with rescuing farm women from harvest drudgery and with replacing drunken harvest hands. It opened all eyes to the potential of agricultural mechanization and encouraged the continuing farm revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Finally, through Cyrus McCormick’s innovative production and sale techniques, it helped American business vault t a position of world leadership, with all the trai of effects that have followed.