Cyrus McCormick

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Cyrus McCormick
Cyrus McCormick engraving.png
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 (approximately 1/1072nd of US GNP)[1] (equivalent to approximately $215.9 million in 2007 dollars)[2]
Spouse(s) Nancy Fowler
(m. 1858–1884; his death)
Parent(s) Robert McCormick, Jr.
Mary Ann Hall
Signature Cyrus McCormick signature.svg
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.[3] 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.[4] 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 beginnings[edit]

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.[5] He was aided by Jo Anderson, an enslaved African American on the McCormick plantation at the time.[6] 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.[7]

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, 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.[7]

Sketch of 1845 model reaper

Move to Chicago[edit]

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, 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 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 received a patent for his reaper in May 1831, but at the time, Manning was evidently not defending his patent.[7]

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.[5] 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.

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. 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.[11]

McCormick–Manny Case[edit]

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.[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 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.[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.

More controversy and success[edit]

McCormick reaper and twine binder in 1884

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.[15]

In 1879, brother Leander changed the name of the company 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.[6]

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.[17]


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.[18] He was buried in Graceland Cemetery.[19]

The official leadership of the company passed to his eldest son Cyrus Hall McCormick, Jr. The

Legacy and honors[edit]

Cyrus McCormick's papers are held by the Wisconsin Historical Society.[3] 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."[citation needed] 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.

Personal life[edit]

On January 26, 1858 he married Nancy "Nettie" Fowler (1835–1923). They had seven children:

  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.[22]
  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.[23]

Mary and Stanley both suffered from schizophrenia.[24] Stanley McCormick's life inspired the 1998 novel Riven Rock by T. Coraghessan Boyle.[25]

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.[23]


  1. ^ Klepper, Michael; Gunther, Michael (1996), The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates—A Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present, Secaucus, New Jersey: Carol Publishing Group, p. xiii, ISBN 978-0-8065-1800-8, OCLC 33818143 
  2. ^ Rodkin, Dennis (August 16, 2007). "The Richest Chicagoans of All Time". Chicago. Retrieved April 22, 2014. 
  3. ^ a b "Cyrus Hall McCormick". Wisconsin Historical Society. Retrieved 2007-08-26. Cyrus H. McCormick (1808-1883) was an industrialist and inventor of the first commercially successful raper, a horse-drawn machine to harvest wheat. He was born at the family farm (Walnut Grove) in Rockbridge County, Virginia on February 15, 1809. His father experimented with a design for a mechanical reaper from around the time of Cyrus' birth. 
  4. ^ "Jo Anderson". Richmond Times-Dispatch. 5 February 2013. Retrieved 22 April 2015. 
  5. ^ a b Daniel Gross; Forbes Magazine Staff (August 1997). Greatest Business Stories of All Time (First ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons. pp. 24–32. ISBN 0-471-19653-3. 
  6. ^ a b Patricia Carter Sluby (2004). The Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 282. ISBN 978-0-275-96674-4. 
  7. ^ a b c George Iles (1912). "Cyrus H. McCormick". Leading American Inventors (2nd ed.). New York: Henry Holt and Company. pp. 276–314. 
  8. ^ Herbert Newton Casson (2009) [1909]. Cyrus Hall Mccormick: His Life and Work. BiblioBazaar, LLC. ISBN 1-110-23294-2. 
  9. ^ Follet L. Green, ed. (1912). Obed Hussey: Who, of All Inventors, Made Bread Cheap. The Rochester Herald publishing Company. 
  10. ^ Michael Adas (2006). Dominance by design: technological imperatives and America's civilizing mission. Harvard University Press. p. 79. ISBN 978-0-674-01867-9. 
  11. ^ "England: Closing of the Great Exhibition—The Ballon Hoax—Egyptian Railroad—Mr. McCormick's Reaping Machine" (PDF). New York Times. November 5, 1851. Retrieved January 18, 2011. 
  12. ^ Sarah-Eva Carlson (February 1995). "Lincoln and the McCormick-Manny Case". Illinois History Magazine. Retrieved December 26, 2010. 
  13. ^ John McLean (1856). "Cyrus H. McCormick v. John H. Manny and Others". Reports of cases argued and decided in the circuit court, Volume 6. H. W. Derby & Company. pp. 539–557.  U.S. District Court of Ohio record
  14. ^ a b Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005). Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Simon and Schuster. pp. 173–175. ISBN 978-0-684-82490-1. 
  15. ^ "The McCormick Reaper Patent". New York Times. July 6, 1861. Retrieved January 18, 2011. 
  16. ^ "The McCormick Family and their Mechanical Reaper". Leander McCormick Observatory Museum. Retrieved December 28, 2010. 
  17. ^ "Historical Benefactions Support Washington and Lee University". Washington and Lee University. Retrieved December 31, 2012. 
  18. ^ "Cyrus H. McCormick Dead" (PDF). New York Times. May 14, 1884. Retrieved 2007-08-21. The Hon. Cyrus Hall McCormick died at his home in Chicago at 7 o'clock A.M. yesterday. He had been an invalid for the past three or four years, his troubles being caused by paralysis of the lower limbs. For two years he has not been able to walk..... 
  19. ^ William Thomas Hutchinson (1935). Cyrus Hall McCormick: Harvest, 1856-1884 2. New York: D. Appleton, The Century Company. 
  20. ^ "History of Education in McCormick County". McCormick County School District. Retrieved December 26, 2010. 
  21. ^ "Cyrus H. McCormick". U.S. Business Hall of Fame Induction year 1975. Junior Achievement. Retrieved December 26, 2010. 
  22. ^ "Emmons Blaine Married; His Wedding with Miss Anita M'Cormick; Many Distinguished Guests Witnessed the Ceremony at Richfield Springs Yesterday" (PDF). New York Times. September 27, 1889. Retrieved January 5, 2011. 
  23. ^ a b Leander J. McCormick (1896). Family record and biography. pp. 303–304. 
  24. ^ Miriam Kleiman (Summer 2007). "Rich, famous, and questionably sane: when a wealthy heir's family sought help from a hospital for the insane". Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration 39 (2): 38–47. 
  25. ^ T. Coraghessan Boyle. "Riven Rock". author's web page. Retrieved December 29, 2010. 

Further reading[edit]

  • 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[edit]