Skip to main content

1834 One Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

July 2024
1min read

Cyrus Hall McCormick, the son of Robert McCormick, who was himself an inventor, began to go about his father’s business at an early age. Robert had tried, and failed, to invent a mechanical reaper; his son succeeded. At the age of twenty-two Cyrus devised and patented a hillside plow and was already thinking about the machine that would change the nature of agriculture the world over, the reaper. His early models were imperfect- thev clogged up, or the horses would become tired pulling them; nevertheless he took out “a patent on his reaper on June 21, 1834, because he had read in the April issue of Mechanics’ Magazine of a very similar type of machine being developed by one Obed Hussey. Cyrus wanted to ensure that he got there first.

Commercial manufacture of the reaper began in 1840, but the device was not very successful until a series of improvements, made mostly in the decade from 1845 to 1855, smoothed out the kinks. McCormick’s first factory, in Chicago, was built in 1847. By the end of the 185Os the reaper was everywhere in use, and the inventor was a millionaire.

But all was not yet clear sailing. Trouble began in 1848 when McCormick’s patent expired and the basic principles of the machine became public property. From this year on, an endless series of legal battles took up much of his time, as more than a hundred competitors came into the field and McCormick fought to show that imitators were infringing on what still remained under patent. Abraham Lincoln was one of the lawyers who appeared against him, on behalf of a manufacturer named John Manny.

The showdown with Obed Hussey, his first rival, occurred in London at the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. On a wet July day the two machines were put to the test on a field of wheat, and McCormick’s reaper won. The generally anti-American London Times wrote that the “reaping machine from the United States is the most valuable contribution from abroad, to the stock of our previous knowledge, that we have yet discovered.”

A grander tribute came from the French Academy of Sciences when McCormick was elected to membership in 1878. McCormick, they said, had “done more for the cause of agriculture than any other living man.” 193

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.