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Cyrus McCormick


Cyrus McCormick

Cyrus McCormick
Born Cyrus Hall McCormick
February 15, 1809
Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, U.S.
Died May 13, 1884(1884-05-13) (aged 75)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Resting place Graceland Cemetery
Known for International Harvester
Net worth Increase US $11 million at the time of his death ($288.73 million today; approximately 1/1072nd of United States' gross national product at that time)[1]
Spouse(s) Nancy Fowler
(m. 1858–1884; his death)
Parent(s) Robert McCormick, Jr.
Mary Ann Hall
Relatives See McCormick family
Cyrus Hall McCormick portrait, held by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Cyrus Hall McCormick (February 15, 1809 – May 13, 1884) was an 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.[3] 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.


  • Early Life and Career 1
  • Move to Chicago 2
  • Legal Controversies and Success 3
  • Family relationships 4
  • Religious, Political and Philanthropic Activism 5
  • Later Life and Death 6
  • Legacy and honors 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10

Early Life and Career

Cyrus McCormick was born February 15, 1809 in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. He was the eldest of eight children born to inventor Robert McCormick, Jr. (1780–1846) and Mary Ann "Polly" Hall (1780–1853). As Cyrus' father 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.[4] He was aided by Jo Anderson, an enslaved African American on the McCormick plantation at the time.[5] 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,[6] two years after having been granted a patent for a self-sharpening plow.[7] However, none were sold, because the machine could not handle varying conditions.

The McCormick family also worked together in a blacksmith/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, Cyrus 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.[6]

Sketch of 1845 model reaper

As word spread about the reaper, McCormick noticed orders arriving from farther west, where farms tended to be larger and the land flatter. 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. He also licensed several others across the country to build the reaper, but their quality often proved poor, which hurt the product's reputation.[7]

Move to Chicago

In 1847, after their father's death, Cyrus and his brother Leander (1819–1900) 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 established and 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.[8]

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.[9] William Manning of Plainfield, New Jersey had also received a patent for his reaper in May 1831, but at the time, Manning was evidently not defending his patent.[6]

McCormick's brother William (1815–1865) 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.[4] 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, as well as to get parts quickly and repair machines in the field if necessary during crucial times in the farm 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."[10]

In 1851, McCormick traveled to London to display a reaper at the Crystal Palace Exhibition. After his machine successfully harvested a field of green wheat while the Hussey machine failed, he won a gold medal and was admitted to the Legion of Honor. His celebration was short-lived after he learned that he had lost a court challenge to Hussey's patent.[11]

Legal Controversies and Success

Another McCormick Company competitor was 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.[12] 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 Edwin M. Stanton. Because the trial was set to take place in Illinois, Harding hired the local Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln. However, the trial was moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Manny won the case, with an opinion by the State Supreme Court Judge John McLean.[13] Lincoln did not contribute to the defense. Stanton had objected to Lincoln's presence, referring to him as "that damned long armed ape."[14] After later being elected President, Lincoln chose Stanton as his Secretary of War.[14] See Abraham Lincoln's patent.

McCormick reaper and twine binder in 1884

In 1856, McCormick's factory was producing more than 4000 reapers each year, mostly sold in the Midwest and West. However, in 1861, Hussey's patent was extended but McCormick's was not. McCormick's outspoken opposition to Lincoln and the anti-slavery Republican party may not have helped his cause. McCormick decided to seek help from the US Congress to protect his patent.[15]

In 1871, the factory burned down in the Great Chicago Fire, but McCormick heeded his wife's advice to rebuild, and it reopened in 1873 even as McCormick's health declined, so she took a greater role in the family's business as well as philanthropic affairs. In 1879, brother Leander changed the company's name from "Cyrus H. McCormick and Brothers" to "McCormick Harvesting Machine Company".[16] He wanted to acknowledge the contributions of others in the family to the reaper "invention" and company, especially their father.[5] By this time, the reaper had been improved into a self-propelled combine, a machine able to harvest, and thresh grain from the vast flat fields of the far west.

Family relationships

On January 26, 1858, forty nine year old Cyrus McCormick married his secretary [17] She was an orphan from New York who had graduated from the Troy Female Seminary and moved to Chicago. They had met two years earlier and shared views about business, religion and Democratic party politics.[18] They had seven children (many of whom ironically became active in Republican party politics):

  1. Cyrus Hall McCormick Jr. was born May 16, 1859.
  2. Mary Virginia McCormick was born May 5, 1861.
  3. Robert McCormick III was born October 5, 1863 and died January 6, 1865.
  4. Anita McCormick was born July 4, 1866, married Emmons Blaine on September 26, 1889, and died February 12, 1954. Emmons was a son of the US Secretary of State James G. Blaine.[19]
  5. Alice McCormick was born March 15, 1870 and died less than a year later on January 25, 1871.
  6. Harold Fowler McCormick was born May 2, 1872, married Edith Rockefeller, and died in 1941. Edith was the youngest daughter of Standard Oil co-founder John Davison Rockefeller and schoolteacher Laura Celestia "Cettie" Spelman.
  7. Stanley Robert McCormick was born November 2, 1874, married Katharine Dexter (1875–1967), and died January 19, 1947.[20]

Mary and Stanley both suffered from schizophrenia.[21] Stanley McCormick's life inspired the 1998 novel Riven Rock by T. Coraghessan Boyle.[22]

Cyrus McCormick was an 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]

Religious, Political and Philanthropic Activism

McCormick had always been a devout Presbyterian, as well as advocate of Christian unity. He also valued and demonstrated in his life the Calvinist traits of self-denial, sobriety, thriftiness, efficiency, and morality. He believed feeding the world, made easier by the reaper, was part of his religious mission in life.

A lifelong Democrat, before the [17] McCormick later proposed an international mechanism to control food production and distribution.

McCormick also became the principal benefactor and a trustee of what had been the Theological Seminary of the Northwest, which moved to Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood in 1859, a year in which he endowed four professorships. The institution was renamed McCormick Theological Seminary in 1886, after his death, although it moved to Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood in 1975 and began sharing facilities with the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

In 1869, McCormick donated $10,000 to help Dwight L. Moody start the Young Mens Christian Association, and his son Cyrus Jr. would become the first president of the Moody Bible Institute.[18]

McCormick and later his widow, Nettie Day McCormick, also donated significant sums to [17]

For the last 20 years of his life, McCormick was a benefactor and member of the board of trustees at Washington and Lee University in his native Virginia.[23] His brother Leander also donated funds to build an observatory on Mount Jefferson, operated by the University of Virginia and named the McCormick Observatory.

Later Life and Death

During the last four years of his life, McCormick became an invalid, after a stroke paralyzed his legs; he was able to walk during his final two years. He died at home in Chicago on May 13, 1884.[24] He was buried in Graceland Cemetery.[25] He was survived by his widow, Nettie, who continued his Christian and charitable activities, within the United States and abroad, between 1890 and her death in 1923, donating $8 million (over $160 million in modern equivalents) to hospitals, disaster and relief agencies, churches, youth activities and educational institutions, and becoming the leading benefactress of Presbyterian Church activities in that era.[18]

Official leadership of the company passed to his eldest son Harold Fowler McCormick ran International Harvester. Various members of the McCormick family continued involvement with the corporation until Brooks McCormick, who died in 2007.

Legacy and honors

Numerous prizes and medals were awarded McCormick for his reaper, which reduced human labor on farms while increasing productivity. Thus, it contributed to the industrialization of agriculture as well as migration of labor to cities in numerous wheat-growing countries (36 by McCormick's death). The French government named McCormick an Officier de la Légion d'honneur in 1851, and he was elected a corresponding member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1878 "as having done more for the cause of agriculture than any other living man."[7]

The Wisconsin Historical Society holds Cyrus McCormick's papers.[2]


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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.
  • Norbert Lyons, The McCormick Reaper Legend: The True Story of a Great Invention (1955)(attributing reaper creation to father_
  • 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
  • Cyrus McCormick at Encyclopædia Britannica
  • Cyrus Hall McCormick at Find a Grave
  • McCormick Family Financial Records at Newberry Library
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