OT: The Century of the Reaper

“The Century of the Reaper,” by Cyrus McCormick, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1931. This 307-page hardback tells the story of International Harvester, the invention of McCormick’s reaper, and the development of mechanized farming. The author is the grandson of Cyrus Hall McCormick, who invented the Virginia Reaper in Virginia in 1831.

The reaper greatly improved the harvesting of grains like wheat. Previously grain had been cut by scythe or by a cradle. The reaper was pulled by horses and driven by a wheel. It had a reciprocating knife and a reel that pushed wheat into the knife. It fell on a platform and was raked to form a row in the stubble. Later improvements added seats, mechanisms to rake the grain, and tie it into bundles. It was patented in 1834 but when the patent expired efforts to renew the patent were unsuccessful.

McCormick was Scotch-Irish, Presbyterian, a Democrat and noted for his hard work and sound business sense. He set up demonstrations to show farmers its benefits. He licensed two companies to make additional reapers (in Brockport, NY on the Erie Canal and in Cincinnati). He realized the prairie grass regions of Ohio, Illinois and the west were ideal for his reaper. He moved to Chicago arriving before the railroads when it was mostly a lake port with plans for a canal. He worked constantly to improve his reaper.

His reaper helped address the labor shortage in the prairies. The California gold rush increased the labor shortage. As did the Civil War. After expiration of the patent he had many copycat competitors, but good salesmanship and solid manufacturing gave him a competitive advantage. He insisted on a quality product. He learned to standardize parts and to make replacement parts available through an extensive dealer network. He advertized widely in farm papers. Local agents were required to maintain a sample machine, canvass their territory, instruct users, stock spare parts, provide repairs, collect money, and distribute advertizing. He expanded into Europe in the 1850s.

The original was not well suited to mowing hay, but a mower was soon developed. A young Lincoln worked for McCormick as an attorney. John Deere invented his plow in 1837. Harvesters that tied the cut wheat into sheafs arrived in 1864. Wire binders in 1877. Twine binders in 1880. After the Chicago fire McCormick continued to expand. He died in 1884; his son Cyrus H. then led the company with strong support from his wife, Nettie.

Corn binders were added at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1895. The company was noted for its aggressive salesmanship. Competition became intense in the 1890s. Product was sometimes sold below cost. Wrecking crews were known to tamper with rival machines in competitions. With assistance from JP Morgan, International Harvester was created from McCormick, Deering and Co., and Milwaukee Harvester in 1902. To avoid anti-trust International Harvester owned the manufacturing facilities and was controlled by a voting trust. The companies remained independent and had separate product lines.

Products now included cream separators, stationary gasoline engines, cultivators, manure spreaders, and disk harrows. The company added coal mines and a steel mill. An attempt to make twine from flax failed; twine was made from hard fiber supplied by a cartel in Yucatan. The stationary thresher first appeared in 1918. Steam engines were used for threshing but were not adapted to plowing until the 1890s. IH began production of its harvester-thresher combine in 1914. Early units were pulled by a tractor and had a crew of two. By 1927 they were widely used in plains states.

Production of the first tractors began in 1906. The initial ones were heavy and not very practical. They were used in the large fields in western Canada. In a trial in Winnipeg in 1908, gas powered tractors out performed steam tractors. The first one from IH had 60-hp and weighed 11 tons. In 1913, IH came up with its first light tractor, the Mogul 8-16 (8-hp at the drawbar; 16 at the belt pulley). It was followed by the Titan 10-20. The Mogul was kerosene burning, one cylinder, planetary transmission and single chain drive. The Titan was two cylinder, standard transmission, and double chain drive. Numerous tractor shows followed and war time demand helped. IH was the leader followed by Case, Avery, and Moline.

Henry Ford became interested in tractors. He had developed the assembly line for efficient production of automobiles. He planned to sell the Fordson tractor at the low price of $200, and competitors worried. They became available in the US in 1918. Ford was the leading supplier of tractors for a few years. It was sold through his auto dealers who were not well suited to selling farm equipment. It proved too light for 14-in plows and its implements were not well tested. Ford ceased production of the Fordson in 1928.

In 1919, the Titan was the IH leading product in the era when power farming was adopted to reduce costs. The International 8-16 four cylinder tractor soon followed. John Deere waited until 1919 to begin production of tractors. They became the largest competitor. Others named include Massey Harris of Canada, JI Case, Oliver, and Minneapolis-Moline. There is also occasional mention of motor trucks, but few details are included.

Photos show early tractors with steel wheels and metal lugs. IH offered solid rubber tires as an option in 1918. In 1932, Allis Chalmers had the first tractor with balloon tires. The tires were made by Firestone.

International Harvester was charged under anti-trust laws in 1914. The ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court where it languished for years. In both 1915 and 1917, the justices heard arguments but they could not agree. In 1918, IH agreed to a consent decree. They were required to divest the Osborne, Champion, and Milwaukee lines and could have no more than one agent per town beginning in 1920. They were allowed to begin selling plows. The consent decree was reviewed in 1925, but IH was found to be in compliance.

The war created much demand but end of the war created problems. The Soviet government confiscated assets there and did not pay for them. Equipment in the plant in France was commandeered. The economy fell into recession in 1921. IH found itself with overvalued inventory produced with materials at war inflated prices. During the war cost of living nearly doubled. Wartime prosperity was not real. Ag prices fell as did land values.

International Harvester adopted a pension system for its employees in 1908. They also provided housing for employees at some locations. And they had an early policy against discrimination.

The is an excellent summary of the International Harvester company and its early days. An early invention was well developed and marketed with much success. Sales and new technologies were pursued aggressively following an impressive growth curve. Also a useful summary of the development of mechanical technology in agriculture. Index, photos.