| Great Inventors and Their Inventions|
|by Frank P. Bachman|
|Twelve stories of great inventions, grouped under inventions of steam and electric power, inventions of manufacture and production, and in ventions of printing and communication. The final chapter introduces the famous inventors of the early twentieth century. The story of each invention is interwoven with that of the life of its inventor. Through these stories the reader learns how big things are brought about, and on the traits of mind and heart which make for success. Ages 10-14 |
CYRUS H. MCCORMICK AND THE INVENTION OF THE REAPER
 THE chief occupation the world over is farming. This
will always be true, because our food comes from the
farm. The most important article of food is bread, and
the best bread is made from wheat. The amount of wheat
raised depends largely on the amount that can be harvested.
The farmer, as a rule, has ample time to prepare
the ground and sow the wheat, but the time within which
he can harvest the golden grain is limited to from four to
ten days. Very soon after the wheat is ripe, the stalks
begin to break and fall down, and the grain begins to
shatter. Unless cut very soon after it is ripe, the crop is
lost. The harvesting wheat is, then, most important.
Each improvement in methods of harvesting has increased
the amount of wheat raised, and has decreased the amount
of hunger in the world.
THE SICKLE AND THE CRADLE
In the very earliest times, the harvester walked along
and pulled the heads off by hand, leaving the stalks to
stand in the field. The first improvement over this primitive
method was the use of a long-bladed knife. By
grasping a bunch of stalks with one hand, and using the
knife with the other, a number of heads could be cut off
 at one stroke. A knife that was slightly curved answered
better than one with a straight blade, and this led to the
making of the sickle.
HARVESTING WITH THE SICKLE IN COLONIAL DAYS.
In the days when the sickle was king, the whole family
turned out to help gather in the harvest. The women
could reap quite as well as the men. It was a good day's
work for one person to cut and bind into sheaves or
bundles a half acre of wheat, which would yield anywhere
from five to twenty bushels of grain.
The sickle gave way to the cradle, which first came
into use about the time of the Revolutionary War. The
cradle is merely a scythe furnished with wooden fingers
 running parallel with the blade. These wooden fingers
hold the stalks of grain, after they have been cut off, in
an upright position, and enable the cradler to lay the
grain down in a neat row, with the stalks parallel, ready
to be gathered into bunches and bound into sheaves.
HARVESTING WITH THE CRADLE.
A strong man could cut with a cradle from two to two
and a half acres of wheat in a day, and a second man
following along could gather it up and bind it into sheaves.
The cradle was thus a great improvement over the sickle
or reap hook, for it increased two to three times the
amount of wheat one man could harvest. But cradling
and binding grain was the very hardest work on the farm.
In hot weather even the strongest men could keep at
 work only a part of the time. So long, then, as the cradle
was the best means of harvesting, the amount of wheat
that could be raised on a single farm was small. Still,
the cradle continued to be the king of harvesters until
almost the middle of the last century. Even to-day,
wheat raised in stumpy ground, in small fields, and in
orchards, is cut with a cradle.
THE FIRST REAPING MACHINES
The success of men like Watt with the steam engine,
and Arkwright with the water frame, set many a man in
England working on labor-saving machines. One of these,
Patrick Bell of Scotland, came near making a practical
BELL'S REAPER AT WORK.
The important point to be noticed about Bell's reaper
is the cutting apparatus. It is made up of twelve pairs
of shears or scissors. One side of each pair of shears is
fastened to the cutter bar and stands still; the other side
is fastened on a pivot and vibrates back and forth, and
 thus cuts the grain. The reel draws the grain against
the blades of the scissors, and causes it to fall, when cut,
upon a moving canvas. The moving canvas carries the
grain to one side, out of the way of the horses which are
hitched behind the machine. In workmanship, this
machine was far ahead of any reaper made in America
until at least 1847. Bell's reaper was first tried in the
harvest of 1828, and a public exhibition of its work was
given in that year.
"This reaper," said a writer in 1852, "soon worked its
way to a considerable success. . . . In the harvest of 1834
I saw several of them at work, all giving satisfaction.
They were manufactured in Dundee, and thence found
their way throughout the country. Four of them went
to the United States of America. This renders it highly
probable that they became the models from which the
many so-called inventions of the American reapers have
since sprung. . . . In a few cases the Bell reaper has
kept in operation up to the present time."
You wonder why this machine did not come into general
use, and why Bell is not called the inventor of the reaper.
The cutting part of Bell's machine, as in all the early
reapers, was not satisfactory. If the grain was ripe, stood
up well, and was free from grass and weeds, it went satisfactorily.
But if the grain was down, and there was an
abundance of weeds and grass, the machine choked, running
over the wheat without cutting it. As a rule, only
about four fifths of a field could be harvested with this
machine; the remainder had to be cut with the cradle.
Again, farmers were not accustomed at that time to machinery.
Besides, the fields in England were small, and
 labor was plentiful. English farmers did not have much
trouble in harvesting what grain they could raise. There
was not, for these reasons, very much encouragement in
England for an inventor to make the sacrifice to perfect a
machine and to educate the people to buy and use it.
Still, if Bell is not to be called the inventor of the reaper,
it should be granted that he made the first reaping machine
used to any considerable extent.
THE MAN WHO SUCCEEDED
Although Bell's reaper cut grain with some success,
people went on harvesting their wheat with the sickle
and cradle, almost as if his invention had not been made.
But not long afterwards, a reaper was invented which,
when perfected, was used in all parts of the world. This
reaper took the place of the sickle and the cradle; it increased,
many times, the amount of wheat raised, and it
relieved the farmers of the back-breaking work of cutting
and binding grain by hand. The man who took the chief
part in the invention and improvement of this reaper was
an American, Cyrus H. McCormick, born in 1809, near
Robert McCormick, the father of Cyrus, was a farmer,
who, like many other farmers of the day, did other things
besides farming. On his ample farm of 1800 acres, there
stood a sawmill and a gristmill. There was also a blacksmith
shop of goodly size, where the father not only made
and repaired the tools used on the farm, but often tried
his hand at invention. A reaping machine was his hobby.
He was at work on this as early as 1816, and continued to
 busy himself with it until 1831. At the time it left his
hands, the cutting part was made up of whirling saws
eight to ten inches in diameter, which revolved like shears
past the edge of stationary knives. A reel pressed the
grain against the cutters, and pushed the cut grain upon
a platform. When there was enough cut grain on the
platform to make a sheaf, it was raked to the ground by
a man who followed along beside the reaper. This machine
was at last tested in the early harvest of 1831, but
the cutter would not work.
Cyrus H. McCormick, the oldest of a family of eight children,
grew up like many another country boy, familiar
from childhood with farm life. He prided himself on
knowing how to do every kind of farm work, and how to
run and repair every bit of machinery in use. The winter
months he spent in the near-by "Field School," studying
reading, writing, and arithmetic, and the rest of the year
was given to work, either on the farm, in the mills, or in
the shop. By the time he was twenty-one, Cyrus was as
big and strong as any man in all the region round about;
he was a good farmer, and was skilled in the use of blacksmith
tools. Like his father, he had a fondness for making
things and for invention.
MCCORMICK'S FIRST REAPER
When Robert McCormick, the father of Cyrus, drew his
crude reaper out to a field of wheat in the early harvest
of 1831, to make a trial of the invention on which he had
spent fifteen years, Cyrus, you may be sure, was more
than an onlooker. He had doubtless had a considerable
 part in the making of this machine. So when it choked
down and would not cut, he was probably even more
disappointed than his father. But when the disappointed
father said, "I am through with it; it is impossible to
make a practical reaping machine," not so with Cyrus.
The surrender of the father was the call of the son to
battle. Then and there Cyrus resolved to make a successful
reaper. The machine was pulled back to the
blacksmith shop, and Cyrus took up the work where his
father left off.
To improve the cutting part of the machine, Cyrus
made a sickle bar, to carry a moving sickle, with wire
guards extending forward into the grain. The sickle was
made of a thin bar of steel, on the edge of which were
filed sharp, saw-like teeth. A divider was attached to
the outer end of the sickle bar, and extended forward, to
separate the grain to be cut from the grain to be left standing.
These two changes were probably the only ones
made on his father's machine in the summer of 1831.
Cyrus was anxious to give the new kind of cutter a trial.
So before the last oats were cut, the improved machine
was taken back to the field. The new cutter worked so
well that Cyrus felt he was on the right track.
By the harvest of 1832, the improved machine probably
looked very much like the machine patented in 1834. At
all events, Cyrus felt ready to take his machine out into
the "wide, wide world." A public exhibition was given
near Lexington, which was attended by the farmers and
laborers for miles around. The field in which the trial was
to be made was very rough. The machine did not work
well, and it looked for a time as if it also were a failure.
 "Here," shouted the owner of the field, "stop your
horses. That won't do, you are ruining my wheat."
This delighted the laborers, who feared that the machine would take work away from them.
"It's a humbug," shouted one.
"Give me the old cradle yet," cried another.
All this, you may be sure, was discouraging enough to
the farmer-inventor. But farmers like fair play.
MCCORMICK'S MACHINE, 1831-1834, CUTTING A FIELD OF OATS.
"I'll see that you have a fair chance, young man,"
said a farmer. "That field of wheat on the other side of
the fence belongs to me. Pull down the fence and cross
Cyrus pulled down the fence and crossed over. The
field was level, and before sundown he had laid low a full
six acres of grain.
 With this unheard-of feat accomplished, the machine
was driven into Lexington and exhibited at the courthouse
square. One spectator, after looking it over carefully,
said, "This machine is worth a hundred thousand
Probably quite as agreeable to Cyrus were the words
of his father: "It makes me feel proud, to have a son do
what I could not do."
The general feeling of most of those who saw the machine
on that day was, however, probably expressed by
a certain lady, who said, "I thought it was a right smart
curious sort of a thing, but that it wouldn't come to much."
SELLING REAPERS IN THE EAST
McCormick advertised in the local newspaper, reapers
for sale, as early as 1833. But it was seven years before
he sold his first machine. To be sure, between 1833 and
1839 he was engaged with his father in running an iron
furnace, and gave little time to his invention. The iron
business, however, proved a failure, McCormick losing
everything. The reaper was all he had left. He now
turned to it to help him out of his financial troubles,
exhibiting it in the harvest of 1839. Though he cut as
much as twelve acres of grain in a day, no one wanted to
buy. To the farmers of that time the machine was not
only costly,—the price was fifty dollars,—but it was
also very complex. "It can be run," said the farmers,
"right well, by one who knows all its cogs and levers,
but we are running farms and not circuses."
Most persons would have been discouraged, would have
 given up. McCormick was not that kind of man; he
worked even harder than before. He succeeded in selling
seven machines in 1842, twenty-nine in 1843, and fifty in
1844. This was big business.
Best of all, seven reapers were ordered from the West.
These seven orders gave great joy to the McCormick
brothers, who were now all busy at the old blacksmith
shop, turning out a reaper a week. But when the question
how to get reapers out to Ohio, Missouri, Iowa,
Illinois, and Wisconsin arose, Cyrus saw that the old
"home farm" was no place to make reapers, if these
were to be sent to the West.
About this time a friend remarked, "Cyrus, why don't
you go West with your reaper, where the fields are large
and level, and where labor is scarce?"
McCormick decided that this was the best thing for
him to do.
In a few days he was on his way. He traveled by stage
through Pennsylvania, by boat along the lake ports, and
on horseback over the Middle Western States. It was
the first time he had seen the prairies, so broad and level
and fertile. They seemed made for his reaper, and in
Illinois he realized how greatly the West needed it. The
bounteous harvest was too much to be cut with the cradle,
and hogs and cattle had been turned into great fields of
"With my reaper," thought McCormick, "millions of
bushels of grain can be saved, which are now left to rot
on the ground. Here and there in Virginia, a farmer can
be persuaded by hard work to buy a reaper, but the
West,—the West must have the reaper."
CARRYING THE REAPER TO THE WEST
Returning home, McCormick brought together all the
improvements he had made in his machine since his first
patent, and took out a new one in 1845.
He was going West, but where should he locate? St.
Louis, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Cleveland were cities of
good size, and each offered some special advantage. But
McCormick studied the maps, saw where the railroads
were going, and observed where the people were settling.
He finally chose Chicago. This was one of the most fortunate
decisions in his long and successful career.
When McCormick voted for Chicago, he had neither
money nor credit. To start in business, he must find
a man to furnish him with the needed money. McCormick
called on William Ogden, at that time Mayor
of Chicago, and told him of his invention, of his success,
and of his new plans. On hearing McCormick's story,
Ogden said, "You are just the man we want. I will
give you twenty-five thousand dollars for a half interest
in this reaper business of yours, and we will build a factory
at once." The factory was built, and five hundred reapers
were manufactured for the harvest of 1848, and fifteen
hundred for the harvest of the next year. The making of
reapers on a large scale in the West was thus a success
from the first.
At the end of the second year, McCormick said to
Ogden, "For your share of the business, I will pay you
back the twenty-five thousand dollars you invested, and
will give you twenty-five thousand besides for interest
 Ogden, having many other interests, gladly accepted
this offer; he had doubled his money in two years. McCormick
now had a factory of his own, and the commanding
position of being the inventor and successful maker of
the reaper. He was well on the way to a great fortune.
From this time on, he had no partners except his brothers,
who joined him in Chicago, to help in the growing business.
THE SELF-RAKE REAPER
The reaper did away with the hard work of cutting grain
with the sickle or cradle. Farmers soon began to ask,
"Why cannot a device be invented to do away with the
even harder work of the raker?" In answer, a self-rake
was invented in 1852, by Jearum Atkins, an invalid.
Atkins had a McCormick reaper placed outside of his
window. Day after day he sat in his chair and worked
 on an attachment which would of itself rake from the
platform the cut grain. Success finally crowned his
efforts, and McCormick, always anxious to meet the
demands of the farmer, bought this invention.
MCCORMICK SELF-RAKE REAPER.
The farmers nicknamed the contrivance the "Iron Man."
It was surely a spectacle to see its long rake fingered arm
whirling up through the air, and then, descending to the
platform, rake off the cut grain in great bunches ready to
be bound. The self-rake saved the labor of from one to
two men, and after 1860 farmers scarcely bought any
other kind of machine.
THE MARSH HARVESTER
The reaper by this time had taken away fully half the
hard work of the harvest. There remained only the
binding of the bunches of cut grain about the middle
with a straw rope, so that the grain could be easily handled.
This, to be sure, was back-breaking toil, but most of the
farmers thought it would always have to be done by hand.
"How can a machine ever gather the grain into bundles
and tie bands about them?" they would ask.
An inventor by the name of Mann fitted a McCormick
reaper, in 1849, with a canvas elevator, to carry the cut
grain up into a wagon moving along beside the machine.
Nine years later, two brothers by the name of Marsh
were using a machine of this kind, when one asked the
other, "Why should the grain be carried up to the wagon?
Why can't we put a platform on the side of the machine
to stand on, make a table all round to work on, and bind
the grain as fast as it comes up?"
 By the next harvest, the Marsh boys had their new
rigging arranged. As they expected, they could bind
grain nearly three times as fast as before. One of the
brothers bound a whole acre by himself, in fifty-five
minutes. They patented their device, and called it the
The Marsh harvester cut the cost of binding grain in
two. The binders had no longer to walk from bundle
to bundle, nor were they compelled to stoop over, each
time they bound a sheaf. They could stand still and
straight at their work. Two men could do what before
it took five or six to do. Strange as it may seem, the
Marsh harvester was not at first popular. The farmers
called it a "man killer." The farm hands dubbed it the
"Weary Willie." Like all good things, it soon won its
way, and for more than ten years was the king of
Besides reducing the cost and the drudgery of binding
grain, the Marsh harvester was a long step towards what
the farmers said could never be done. All that was now
needed to do "the impossible" was to teach the Marsh
harvester to twist a wire or to tie a knot.
THE WIRE SELF-BINDER
In the winter of 1874, Charles Withington, of Janesville,
Wisconsin, carried to McCormick at Chicago a new
invention. It was a remarkable device. Two steel arms
caught a bundle of grain between them, put a wire tightly
around the bundle, and fastened the two ends of the wire
together by a twist. This was the long sought self-binder,
 the very thing the farmer said could never be made. A
wire self-binder was built and tested in the following July.
It cut fifty acres of wheat, and bound almost every bundle
without a slip. Within the next five years, McCormick
alone made and sold fifty thousand of these machines.
THE WIRE SELF-BINDER.
This was the end of harvest drudgery. Sickles, cradles,
rakers, binders, each in turn were set free. From this
time on, all that was needed was a man or a good-sized
boy to drive the team and to manage the machine. The
machine cut the grain, bound it into sheaves, collected
these on a carrier, and dropped them to the ground, ready
to be placed in shocks,—all without the aid of the
THE TWINE SELF-BINDER
There was one defect in the wire binder, which proved
to be its undoing. The wire mixed with the straw got
into the mouths of the cattle, and at times killed them.
 Pieces of wire mixed in the grain cut the hands of those
handling it. So, while the farmers were delighted with
the self-binder, they disliked the wire.
At the very time the wire binder seemed to be most
secure in its position in the harvester world, John Appleby,
of Wisconsin, took to William Deering, the chief maker
of the Marsh harvester, an invention which he claimed
could tie a knot more quickly and more securely than
was ever done by sailor.
Deering knew the dislike of the farmers for wire.
"Here," he said to himself, "is the device to make
the perfect binder, a binder that will use twine." And
he forthwith accepted the new device without the slightest
During the winter of 1880, word went about among
the makers of binders that "Deering is crazy over a
twine binder. Why, he is making three thousand of
Before the harvest of 1880 was over, the shoe was on
the other foot, for Deering not only made, but he sold
his three thousand twine binders, at a profit of one hundred
By the next harvest almost every manufacturer was in
the field with a twine binder, most of them paying a royalty
to Appleby. The wire binder passed away almost
as quickly as a summer shower. The twine binder took its
place, and it is to-day the standard binder of the world.
With one of these machines, having almost human
skill, a sixteen-year-old boy can harvest as much grain as
a dozen strong men could harvest with the cradle, or
even forty with the sickle.
THE COMPLETE HARVESTER
 The final step in the improvement of the reaper was the
invention of the complete harvester, which is really a
harvester and thrasher in one machine. The complete
harvesters are used, in our own country, chiefly on the
Pacific Coast. They are great machines drawn by thirty
to forty horses, or by an engine. They cut a swath from
twenty to twenty-five feet wide, and a single machine will
cut, thrash, clean, and sack from seventy-five to a hundred
acres of grain in a day, all at a cost of not more than forty
cents an acre.
THE WORTH OF THE REAPER
McCormick lived until 1884. He thus saw the reaper
grow, from the time when he drove that crude machine
back to the old blacksmith shop in July, 1831, until it
reached its full maturity in the self-binder of to-day.
With his own hand, he added the improvements which
first made the reaper a success; in his own time, he was
always the largest single maker of reapers, and he did
 more than anyone else to carry the reaper to Europe
and the other countries of the world.
LARGE MODERN HARVESTER ON WESTERN PLAINS.
Chiefly because of the reaper, the amount of wheat
produced in the world has increased by leaps and bounds,
until it now amounts to about four billion bushels a
year. To handle this enormous crop, great elevators are
built along rairoads, at rairoad centers, and at seaports.
A single elevator, like the "Jumbo" at Minneapolis, holds
six million bushels. To grind this wheat, thousands of
flour mills have been erected, some of which are so large
that a single mill grinds seventeen thousand barrels of
flour in twenty-four hours. Even the making of reapers
has in itself become a great industry. One harvester
company alone gives regular employment to an army of
twenty-five thousand men and women.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics