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Reaper madness June 21st, 2015 by

An invention often has no Eureka moment, but slowly evolves in the minds of several people. The McCormick Farm of Walnut Grove, in Virginia, honors the creativity of young Cyrus H. McCormick, the son of a prosperous farmer who, in 1831, invented the McCormick reaper, a wheeled contraption, pulled by a horse that cut ripe grain ten times faster than workers with scythes.

Timing was crucial for the reaper’s success. In the early 1800s, white and black Americans were settling beyond the first range of mountains, which for two centuries had marked a boundary between them and the Native Americans. By the 1830s, settlers were flooding North America, harassing and dislodging the Native people. The reaper was crucial for working this sudden windfall of land.

As a pilgrim to Walnut Grove, I hesitated in the empty, gravel parking lot, admiring two handsome stone buildings on a rolling, tree-studded lawn. This educational shrine to invention is maintained by the Agricultural College of Virginia Tech, a state university. One of the two buildings is a large, restored and fully functional flour mill, powered by a water wheel. In its day the mill was state of the art.

Next door, in a simple shop with a forge and an anvil, Cyrus McCormick invented his reaper that revolutionized agriculture. And he did it on a remote farm, on the far side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

People love stories of the lone genius, maybe because it feeds a heroic image of ourselves. So the stories often bend the facts.

On the second floor, above the McCormick family blacksmith shop, today’s pilgrims find a wooden box which hides a loudspeaker. A sign invites visitors to push a wooden button and listen to a recorded lecture. There was no guide and the site was empty, on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in June. Agriculture is not very sexy anymore.

The recorded talk told an orthodox tale of how Cyrus invented the reaper in 1831, when he was only 22 years old, after just 6 weeks of work. Cyrus’s father, Robert, had spent his lifetime trying to invent a reaper, but had just abandoned the project.  Cyrus had help from a master blacksmith, an enslaved African American named Jo Anderson, but the invention was all Cyrus’s. That was the story.

There was something missing from this gospel. What was the fresh insight that sparked Cyrus into bringing his father’s design to life? How was Cyrus’s design better than his father’s?

Later I read up, and found that other key people had been completely written out of the story. A Scotsman named Patrick Bell had invented a reaper in 1828, but never patented it, and some of his hand-crafted reapers were exported to America. Obed Hussey of Ohio patented a reaper in 1833, which was similar to the McCormick design. Cyrus didn’t patent his reaper until the following year, 1834, although he claimed to have invented it in 1831. Later, the US patent office would come down on the side of Hussey, and refuse to renew McCormick’s patent, even though Cyrus did have the young Abraham Lincoln on his legal team.

Inventions often come from several people who are linked together, in collaboration or competition. Or as the Spanish proverb says: “success has many parents” (El éxito tiene muchos padres).

The reaper did have many inventors: Bell, Hussey, Anderson and both of the McCormicks, at the very least. But that does not diminish the reaper’s significance as an innovation. The functioning reaper would flood European markets with American grain, depress grain prices and spark mass migration of peasants to the New World. The reaper also allowed an individual to produce enough grain to sell most of it and make serious money. Wealth could now be earned through cereals and other food crops, not just tobacco or cotton. Later, other inventors followed the example of the reaper, and created more handy farm machinery.

Cyrus was a poorly educated farm boy who exaggerated his own accomplishments. His real genius, though, was as a salesman and self-promoter. After “inventing” the reaper, McCormick dedicated several years to the family’s foundry business before coming back to the reaper, making one copy at a time with his younger brothers and the family’s slaves in the farm’s blacksmith shop.

At first, sales were hard-won. Cyrus sold 2 reapers in 1841, seven in 1842, 29 in 1843, but 50 in 1844, when he went to what is now the Midwest of the USA, and saw its vast potential for agriculture. In 1847 McCormick moved to the newborn village of Chicago, built a factory, and in 1848 sold 800 reapers. He was soon selling them by the thousands.

Cyrus was not a mechanical genius, but he showed real ingenuity in business.  Cyrus travelled the plains with blank order forms for reapers, offering live demonstrations. He sold the reaper on credit.  He used mass production in his factory, published illustrated newspaper advertising to sell the reapers, and offered warranties for the reapers. He sent out travelling salesmen and shipped spare parts to customers on the newly emerging railroads.

Cyrus was ruthless, and dragged many an opponent into court, often all the way to the Supreme Court. He was a loudmouthed supporter of slavery. When his underpaid factory workers demonstrated, a dozen police and protesters were killed at the Haymarket Riots in Chicago on 3 and 4 May 1886. These murders are commemorated every May 1, as International Labor day, in most countries of the world, although not in the United States. Even Joseph Stalin, hypocritically mourned McCormick’s victims.

Cyrus McCormick, ever willing to elbow competitors out of his way, amassed a great fortune, transformed world agriculture and founded a company that eventually became International Harvester.

This story has two morals. Good inventions come not from a lone genius, but from the minds of several people, who may collaborate by stealing each other’s ideas and then viciously driving the other out of business. Secondly, social innovation, finding new ways to organize people, may be as important as new hardware.

Further reading

Boorstin, Daniel J. 1965 The Americans: The National Experience. New York: Vintage Books. 517 pp.

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