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Chicago: City of the Century | Article

Cyrus McCormick (1809-1884)

Cyrus McCormick, PD

The tool that preceded Cyrus McCormick's horse-drawn reaper was a hand-held scythe, a device that had remained basically unchanged for 5000 years. Planting was easier than reaping, and the amount of grain a farmer could reap during the short time it was ripe, before it began to decay, determined how much he could reasonably plant in the first place. It also determined his profit.

For this reason, Virginia farmer Robert McCormick had worked on inventing a reaping machine for two decades. After Robert gave up, his son, 22-year-old Cyrus McCormick, reconfigured his father's experiments and had a working reaper ready in 1831. The machine was patented in 1834 and Cyrus made and sold copies from the Virginia plantation where he was born, but business was not good. By 1846, less than 100 had been sold. A meeting with Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas and a visit to the vast grain fields of the Midwest convinced McCormick to relocate his operation to Chicago in 1847. His first investor was William Ogden. 

McCormick was an inventor of business practices, as well. Sales improved as he guaranteed performance ("15 acres a day" or your money back), allowed farmers to buy on credit and pay over time, educated his customer base with demonstrations, and advertised with satisfied customer testimonials. He set a fixed price of $120 ("take it or leave it!") and removed the hassle of dickering over more money. He developed interchangeable replacement parts and had them readily available. He trained men on the mechanics of his machine and on his business and then sent them out as the first traveling salesmen. McCormick's motto was "One Price to All and Satisfaction Guaranteed."

In 1851, McCormick's machine won him the Gold Medal at London's World's Fair in the Crystal Palace. A tour of the European continent ended with his election to the French Academy of Sciences for "having done more for agriculture than any other living man."

By 1860, he was selling over 4000 reapers a year. McCormick's success in Chicago raised the fortunes of the Midwestern farmer. They in turn, helped make Chicago the greatest grain port in the world.

The year of the Great Fire, McCormick and his wife were living in New York. Upon hearing of the destruction of his factory, Cyrus discussed the situation with her and they agreed to sell their house in New York, return to Chicago and rebuild the factory, even larger than before.

McCormick did not smoke, drink or curse. He was a man obsessed with his business whose last words were "work, work!" After McCormick's death in 1884, his son took control of the company. A strike at the reaper works and the involvement of Chicago's anarchist movement resulted in the shocking Haymarket affair, the nineteenth century's most sensational labor incident.

McCormick Harvesting Machine Company eventually merged with a rival to become International Harvester Company, and is today known as Navistar.

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