Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, March 3

Gapers Block

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A popular adage observes that nobody ever says on their deathbed, "Gee if I'd only spent more time at the office."

The saying is supposed to remind us that our lives are more than just our jobs, and the overtime we put in at work is less important than the time we spend with friends and family.

Cyrus Hall McCormick would have disagreed. On his deathbed, the inventor's final words were, "Work, work, work."

This was a man who was devoted to his business.

McCormick was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia, on Feb. 15, 1809, the oldest son of Robert McCormick and Mary Ann Hall. He grew up on the family farm at Walnut Grove, assisting his father, an inventor who had patented several farm implements, though none of them were commercially successful. Cyrus McCormick received little formal education as a young man, but he inherited his father's gift for tinkering with machines.

He constructed the first mechanical reaper, a project begun by his father, in 1831 when he was 22 years old. And, although the design has been improved and updated many times, that original reaper employed features that present day reapers still retain.

In 1834, McCormick got his first patent for the reaper. But he only applied for the patent when he discovered another man, Obediah Hussey, had taken out a patent on his own reaper design a year before McCormick. Because history doesn't like losers, McCormick is credited as the inventor of the mechanical reaper. Hussey, however, was a serious rival in the early market.

In the late 1830s, McCormick finally gave serious consideration to the commercial manufacture of his reaper. At first, he sold the rights to manufacture to firms across the country. But poor quality control at these firms led to inferior products that threatened to give McCormick reapers a bad name.

As a result, Cyrus McCormick consolidated his manufacturing efforts in Chicago in 1847 because he saw the potential of the young city by the lake. Within a year of settling in Chicago, the Illinois and Michigan Canal was completed, and the telegraph reached the city. The railroads followed soon thereafter. And McCormick stood poised in the center, ready to open the West to cultivation thanks to his reaper.

His basic patent expired in 1848, and passed into public domain despite many lengthy legal battles. In 1850 McCormick commanded 50 percent of the reaper market in the United States, but his share of the reaper market declined over later decades as more and more competitors entered the field (so to speak).

McCormick, however, still bested the competition through his innovations in marketing and advertising. He traveled extensively, demonstrating his reaper at fairs across the country. He was also one of the first manufacturers to offer warranties on his products and to allow his reapers to be sold on credit installment plans. And McCormick was among the first to employ traveling salesmen, who not only sold reapers but were also trained to repair and replace parts.

His reaper earned McCormick the Council Medal at London Exhibition of 1851, the highest honor awarded at the show, and he went on to win additional prizes at other major fairs throughout Europe in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1879, he was elected to the French Academy of Sciences for doing "more for the cause of agriculture than any other living man." When his factory was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire, he simply built a bigger one.

Development of the reaper is McCormick's major claim to fame. Thanks to his innovation, the wheat crop could be harvested faster, with less labor and cost, and with a greater yield. Farmers could harvest at least 10 acres a day using the mechanical reaper, compared to just two acres a day without it. This efficiency facilitated the settlement and cultivation of the American West.

McCormick was a devout Presbyterian, and gave substantial donations to church. As a result, his tenaciousness in business is often attributed to a Protestant work ethic. He married late in life, when he was 48 years old, but fathered five children. And he ran his company up until his death in 1884, at age 75. Cyrus McCormick died in Chicago and is buried at Graceland Cemetery (where else?).

His son, Cyrus Jr., assumed control of the company after his father's death, and, in 1902, the company merged with Plano, Deering and two other farm equipment companies to form International Harvester. The McCormick trademark still survives today in some form or another, but it has come a long way from the farm at Walnut Grove.

Now get back to work.


Join the Gapers Block Book Club! Just sign up for the email list for news, announcements and more. This month we are reading Crossing California by Adam Langer. We will be meeting to discuss the book on Monday, July 11, at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. The meeting will begin at 7:30pm.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian. She welcomes questions and topic suggestions for her column at . Due to the volume of email received, she may not reply to every query, but you may be contacted if your question is selected for the column.

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