J. Seymour (Josiah Seymour) Currey.

Chicago: its history and its builders, a century of marvelous growth (Volume v.5) online

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Like almost every farmer of that period, there was a workshop for most farm
machinery and tools were made by those who wished to use them, but on the
McCormick place there were other evidences of mechanical activity and ingenuity.
The father was the owner of two gristmills, two sawmills, a smelting furnace,
a distillery and a blacksmith shop. He possessed considerable skill with tools and
his inventive genius brought forth a hemp-brake, a clover huller, a bellows and
a threshing machine. The little log workshop upon the place is still standing,
and there on rainy days father and son worked at fashioning tools and farm
implements and in repairing those which much use had disabled. The household,
too, was a hive of industry where cotton, flax and hemp were spun into yarn,
woven into cloth and fashioned into clothes for the whole family. In early man-
hood Robert McCormick wedded Mary Ann Hall, whose father, Patrick Hall,
was a Virginia farmer, also of Scotch-Irish descent, his ancestors having been
driven out of Armagh, Ireland, by the massacre of 1641. His daughter has been
described as "a thorough Celt, impulsive, free-spoken and highly imaginative.
. . . a woman of exceptional quality of mind." The children of that house-
hold were eight in number of whom Cyrus Hall McCormick was the eldest. The
mother never countenanced idleness in the least measure, and the children were
all wisely employed at such tasks as age and strength qualified them to under-
take. One of his biographers, said of the eldest son: "From his father he had
a specific training as an inventor; from his mother he had executive ability and
ambition; from his Scotch-Irish ancestry he had the dogged tenacity that defied
defeat; and from the wheatfields that environed his home came the call for the
reaper, to lighten the heavy drudgery of the harvest." As a boy he attended
the "Old Field" school, a log structure not far from his father's home, his text-
books consisting of Murray's Grammar, Dilworth's Arithmetic, Webster's Spell-
ing Book, the Shorter Catechism and the Bible. As opportunity offered he fur-
ther improved his mind by reading and study at home, and in that way largely


mastered surveying and mathematics. The mechanical bent of his mind, de-
veloped through the assistance which he gave his father in the workshop, found
expression in invention when he was but fifteen years of age. His work was a
most elaborate map of the world, showing two hemispheres side by side, but from
that time forward his labors assumed a most practical character for the arduous
task of swinging the cradle in the wheatfield under the hot summer sun sug-
gested to his mind that there might be easier and better ways of performing the
same labor. This idea took tangible form in the manufacture of a smaller cradle
which, while doing the work as effectively, was not as heavy as the ones then in
use. He was about twenty-two years of age and was described as "a tall, mus-
cular, dignified young man" when he first seriously undertook the task of per-
fecting the reaper.

America, free and independent, with no system of serfdom to depend upon
for agricultural labor, was finding out that she must solve problems not common
in the monarchies of the old world. For two or three decades in the republican
form of government there was little progress made on this side of the Atlantic,
and then the people awoke to the fact that the vast prairie areas of the country
might be utilized to counteract the conditions of poverty which were all too
prevalent. But to cultivate fields, labor was required and it was therefore that
the mind of man was directed toward labor-saving devices. It is a matter of
current knowledge that up to the nineteenth century the world was still follow-
ing the primitive processes of farming in use before the Christian era. Robert
McCormick's broad farmlands required cultivation, and the mechanical bent of the
father aroused in him the ardent ambition to invent a reaper. His attempt of
1816 was a failure, and then with the aid of his sons he worked behind the locked
doors of his shop or at night and in 1831 he produced another reaper, but with
scarcely better results than before. The machine cut the 'grain fairly well but
flung it in a tangled heap. All this time Cyrus McCormick was sharing in his
father's enthusiasm concerning the building of a reaper and, investigating the
reasons for his father's failure, there developed in his own brain a new plan and
from the outset showed that his work was in advance of all other attempts made
at the building of a reaper. He attempted to solve the problem of cutting the
grain that lay in fallen and tangled masses and concluded that the reaper which
would cut such grain must separate it from that which was left standing: it must
have at the end of its knife a curved arm a binder. For the first time this idea
was put into use in reaper construction. Then, too, to cut this prostrate grain
he saw that the knife must have not only a forward motion as drawn by the horse
but also a slashing, sidewise motion, and this led to the invention of the recipro-
cating blade. The problem of supporting the grain while it was being cut was
met by placing a row of fingers on the edge of the blade and a simple revolving
reel was introduced to lift up and straighten the grain that had fallen. Another
important feature of his labor was a platform on which to catch the cut grain
as it fell and which was to be raked off by a man who walked beside the machine.
The sixth idea was in putting shafts on the outside, or stubble side, of the reaper
and the seventh new idea was the building of the whole machine upon one big
driving wheel which carried the weight and operated the reel and cutting-blade.
The seven features have been used in all the successful reapers manufactured


since that day, although, of course, improved upon. Mr. McCormick, working
untiringly on his invention, had it ready just at the close of the harvesting season
of 1831. The machine was placed in a field and although the work was roughly
done as compared with that of the present improved McCormick reapers, it was
nevertheless successfully done. Shortly afterward Mr. McCormick gave public
exhibitions of his reaper at the near-by village of Steel's Tavern and in 1832 a
public exhibition near the little town of Lexington, Virginia, where a six-acre
field of wheat was successfully cut and Professor Bradshaw, of the Lexington
Female Academy, a visitor on that occasion, announced loudly and emphatically :
"This machine is worth one hundred thousand dollars !" From his father came
the quiet word of praise: "It makes me feel proud to have a son do what I could
not do."

It must not be supposed that Cyrus Hall McCormick was the first man to
attempt the building of a reaper or the first to secure a patent. He was the forty-
seventh, twenty-three patents having been issued in the United States, but no
machine had done the work that he accomplished. He was a farmer and his prac-
tical experience in the field told him what were the needs and the difficulties, and
added to this was the inventive genius that brought forth a machine that has
revolutionized the history of agriculture throughout the world.

The invention of the reaper, however, was but one step. The public press did
not herald it and it came into being in a little, isolated community among the
Virginia mountains. For a year after producing the reaper he lived upon a tract
of land received from his father and attempted to farm it, hoping that from the
profits he might build reapers. After a year, however, he saw that this could not
be done. He needed money to buy iron, to advertise, to appoint agents. At
length he resolved to build a furnace and make iron from a large deposit of iron
ore near by. He persuaded his father and the school teacher to become his
partners and in 1835 they began the manufacture of iron, Cyrus McCormick
making the patterns for the molds and doing much of the heaviest labor, but his
work was so incessant that he had no time to build reapers. Then came the
financial panic of 1837 and by 1839 the price of iron fell and Cyrus McCormick
became bankrupt. He turned over his farm and other property that was salable
to his creditors but he still had his reaper, although eight years had passed and
it was not yet marketable. This was one of the darkest hours in his life history,
but when obstacles and difficulties have been greatest his dominant qualities of
perseverance and determination have come most strongly to the front, and thus
he was able to turn seeming defeats into victories. In this hour of debt and
defeat he became the leader of the family: he began manufacturing reapers in the
little log workshop on his father's farm and in that year, 1839, gave a public
exhibition on the farm of Joshua Smith near Staunton. Though the machine did
the work, there were no buyers, for farmers were not accustomed to using machinery
in those days. It was not until the following year that he made a sale of one
of his reapers, the price being fifty dollars. Several weeks later two more were
sold. Experiment had found that the reaper did not do good work in the wet
grain and the study of this obstacle led to the making of a more serrated edge
on the blade and the difficulty was obviated. By 1841 he had a wholly satisfactory
reaper and fixed his price at one hundred dollars. He attempted to market his


invention and by great persistency sold seven reapers in 1842, twenty-nine in
18-13 and fifty in 1844. Moreover, the public was beginning to recognize the
value of his invention and one man wrote: "My reaper has more than paid for
itself in one harvest." Then came offers from two men, one agreeing to pay him
twenty-five thousand dollars for the right to sell in southern Virginia, while
another bought an agency in five counties for five hundred dollars. But best of
all the reaper was becoming known in the west, the great center of the wheat
industry. Orders came from two farmers in Tennessee and one each in Wis-
consin, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Ohio. But the difficulty of shipment to
those far away points confronted him and at length he determined to es-
tablish business in the west. Traveling largely by stage, he traversed Penn-
sylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri, and for the first
time saw the prairies. In Illinois he saw hogs and cattle turned into the fields
of ripe wheat for the lack of laborers to gather it in. Men with sickle and
the scythe could not cut it. Here surely was the need of his invention. He
secured the cooperation of manufacturers who, together with the McCormick fam-
ily, built one hundred and ninety reapers for the harvest of 1846, but he learned
that all of these manufacturers were either not using good materials, or knew
not how, or were careless in the construction of the machine. This was intolerable
to him, for he wanted none but reapers of the best possible manufacture to be
sold. His thoughts turned to the little village of Chicago on the lake, for he
recognized that shipments must be made by water.

Cyrus McCormick, therefore, became the first of the prominent manufacturers
of this city and the McCormick factories have remained to this day one of the
greatest sources of the city's growth and development, for every reaper sold has
brought back wheat for sale and shipment to this point. It has made Chicago
a shipping center as well. Without capital or credit, Mr. McCormick sought the
cooperation of William B. Ogden, then undoubtedly the leading citizen here, and
after hearing the proposition he agreed to invest twenty-five thousand dollars in
a half interest in a reaper factory. The plant was built and equipped and the
business proved a profitable one from the beginning. In 1849, however, the
partnership was dissolved, Mr. McCormick paying to Mr. Ogden the twenty-five
thousand dollars he had invested and twenty-five thousand additional for profits
and interest.

It was after the establishment of the factory that Mr. McCormick proved his
worth not only as an inventor but as a business man of marked executive ability
and administrative direction. He instituted the system for selling his reapers,
planning the methods of advertising. At that time such a thing as distributing
agencies were unknown and also the plan of a written guarantee. This, however,
Mr. McCormick agreed to give with every machine which was also to be sold on
easy terms. Moreover, he established a suitable price for his reapers, laying down
the principle of equal prices to all and special rebates to none. He advertised
more extensively than other merchants and manufacturers of that day and the
business grew. This development is "a matter of Chicago's commercial and in-
dustrial history, yet it was not all "smooth sailing." There were many difficulties
and obstacles to be encountered that would have deterred a man of less resolute
spirit and less abundant business ability. His original patent expired in 1858


and his application for its extension brought about one of the most extraordinary
legal complications ever known in the field of patent law. Lincoln, Stanton,
Seward, Douglas, Harding, Watson, Dickerson and Reverdy Johnson were the
lawyers arrayed in this great contest. For eight years the question of his suit
was discussed in patent office and in congress and in the meantime competitors
made the most of this. If Mr. McCormick had won his case they would have to
pay him a royalty of twenty-five dollars on each machine. Shrewd men they
were, who not only employed the ablest counsel and lobbyists, but also secured
petitions from farmers, combining the public in one great body to "beat the
common enemy." Mr. McCormick lost his suit in that year, again in 1859 and a
third time in 1861. The granting of his patent would have been no more than
was done for many other inventors and yet the hue and cry was raised against
his "monopoly" and it was said that if he were granted the exclusive right to
manufacture and sell his reapers it would take the bread out of the mouths of
thousands. In 1861, however, D. P. Holloway, the commissioner of patents, said:
"He is an inventor whose fame, while he is yet living, has spread through the
world. His genius has done honor to his own country and has been the admiration
of foreign nations. He will live in the grateful recollection of mankind as long
as the reaping-machine is employed in gathering the harvest." Then, in an abrupt
postscript to so fine a eulogy this extraordinary commissioner adds: "But the
reaper is of too great value to the pifblic to be controlled by any individual and
the extension of his patent is refused." His biographer, H. M. Casson, in this
connection, writes: "The truth seems to be that McCormick was too strong, too
aggressive, to receive fair play at the hands of any legislative body. The note
of sympathy could never be struck in his favor. He personally directed his own
cases. He dominated his own lawyers. And he fought always in an old-fashioned,
straight-from-the-shoulder way that put him at a great disadvantage in a legal
conflict." After this Mr. McCormick took the aggressive stand and attempted the
prosecution of people who were manufacturing his reapers, bringing suit against
Manny and Emerson, of Rockford, Illinois, for making McCormick reapers with-
out a license. Mr. McCormick was represented by W. H. Seward, E. N. Dick-
erson and Reverdy Johnson. Opposing him were Lincoln, Douglas, Edwin M.
Stanton, P. H. Watson, George Harding and H. W. Davis. The powerful, elo-
quent, logical address of Stanton turned the day in favor of his opponents. This
one speech was national in its significance, inasmuch as it was on this occasion
that Lincoln became so impressed with Stanton's ability that he made him secre-
tary of war after he (Lincoln) had been called to the presidency.

While engaged at times in these law suits Mr. McCormick's first thought was
for the reaper and its improvement. Of course it was evident from the begin-
ning that it was a labor saving device, not only because of the amount of work
accomplished but because it did mechanically what had previously been done by
two men, the sickler and the cradler, but the raker and the binder were still at
work by the side of the machine and Mr. McCormick turned his attention to
the problem of doing away with the services of these men. The question of the
raker was soon solved but it was a more difficult task to supplant the binder.
Others were at work upon this question and eventually the Marsh Harvester was
perfected, a platform being built on the machine that caught the grain and ob-


viated the necessity of the binder's walking from bundle to bundle, enabling him
to do about twice as much work in tying the bundles. Still the problem remained
of the producing of a machine that would not only collect the grain for the sheaf
but would tie the knots. This was brought about by an inventor by the name of
Withington, who, calling upon Mr. McCormick, showed him his model of a reaper
on which were two steel arms, each of which caught a bundle of grain, whirled
a wire tightly around it, fastened the two ends together with a twist, cut it loose
and tossed it to the ground. This self-binder was perfect in all its details and
Mr. McCormick perfected arrangements with Mr. Withington to use his inven-
tion. Other self-binders were upon the market but he was the first to manu-
facture them upon a large scale, putting fifty thousand upon the market the first
year. The new device proved most successful and seemingly adequate until 1880,
when William Deering began the manufacture and sale of twine self-binders and
it became at once evident that the farmers were prejudiced against the use of the
wire, which, they said, got mixed with the straw and killed their cattle. It also
caused trouble in the flour mills, sometimes falling into the wheat. Besides, it
was more difficult to use. With the keen vision always characteristic of Mr. Mc-
Cormick he recognized the superiority of twine binding and called to his assistance
a mechanical genius, Marquis L. Gorham, who took up the idea of making a twine
binder and his inventive genius resulted in producing one by the time the grain
stood ready for the harvest. From the time the twine binder was introduced the
sales of the McCormick plant increased with astonishing rapidity. It must be
evident to all, even in a sketch as brief as this, that Mr. McCormick's business
career was one of battle as well as of invention and manufacture, and yet his
labors, ability and resources were rewarded by victory, and not only in America
did his reaper take prominent place but also in foreign lands. The London Ex-
position of 1852 gave him his opportunity for its introduction into Europe. At
that exposition, which was the pride of England, there were the finest works of
art and manufacture from all the centers of Europe and Asia. It was said that
the American department contained only articles of utility and for three weeks
was the joke of the exposition. Among America's exhibit was the McCormick
reaper, which was alluded to as "a cross between an Astley chariot, a wheelbarrow
and a flying-machine." But one day the exposition was visited by John J. Mechi,
an Anglo-Italian much interested in scientific farming, and when he saw the
reaper he proposed that it be tested upon his farm not far from London. An-
other reaper was first put into the field and failed of its purpose. Then the Mc-
Cormick reaper was tested. Said Casson: "It swept down the field like a
chariot of war, with whirling reel and clattering blade seventy-four yards in
seventy seconds. It was a miracle. Such a thing had never before been seen by
Europeans. 'This is a triumph for the American reaper,' said the delighted
Mechi. 'It has done its work completely; and the day will come when this machine
will cut all the grain in England. Now let us, as Englishmen, show our appre-
ciation by giving three hearty English cheers.' Horace Greeley, who was present
on this occasion, described the victory of the McCormick reaper as follows: 'It
came into the field to confront a tribunal already prepared for its condemnation.
Before it stood John Bull burly, dogged and determined not to be humbugged
his judgment made up and his sentence ready to be recorded. There was a mo-


ment, and but a moment of suspense; then human prejudice could hold out no longer
and burst after burst of involuntary cheers from the whole crowd proclaimed the
triumph of the Yankee reaper. In seventy seconds McCormick had become famous.
He was the lion of the hour; and had he brought five hundred reapers with him
he could have sold them all.' " The London Times wrote: "The reaping machine
from the United States is the most valuable contribution from abroad, to the stock
of our previous knowledge, that we have yet discovered. It is worth the whole
cost of the exposition." Mr. McCormick soon won recognition and his reaper
was sent to the Paris Exposition and in 1862 he took his family to London and
devoted the succeeding two years to the upbuilding of his business in Great Britain,
Germany and France. Later Emperor Napoleon III conferred upon him the Cross
of the Legion of Honor, probably the last time a sovereign of France ever be-
stowed the coveted emblem. Since the '60s the American reaper has by far lead
all others in sales in all European countries. As a result of its introduction four-
fifths of the harvesting machinery of the world is today made in the United States.

In speaking of the marvelous business ability of Mr. McCormick Casson says :
"His energy was the wonder of his friends and the despair of his employes. His
brain was not quick. It was not marvellously keen nor marvellously intuitive.
But it was at work every waking moment, like a great engine that never tires. The
work that he chose to do himself was invariably new business. He cared little
for the mere making of money. The success always pleased him much more than
the profit. He was at heart a builder and therefore when he had finished one
structure he moved off and began another." He realized large profits from his
investment in Chicago real estate and in placing his investments he did not seek
out the companies whose stock was selling at par, but rather new ventures, ope-
rating in gold mines in South Carolina and Montana, and also aiding in the build-
ing of railways, including the Union Pacific. The immense plant which had
gradually grown up with the development of his business was totally destroyed
in the fire of 1871. At this time was manifested the close relationship in busi-
ness interests as well as home affairs that existed between Mr. and Mrs. Mc-
Cormick. Telegraphing for his wife, who at that time was in New York, he
asked her whether he could then retire from business or rebuild. Thinking of
her son, the answer came promptly "rebuild." It was what Mr. McCormick
wished and men were at once set to work to secure lumber and other necessary
supplies, and the McCormick interests therefore became a vital element in the
upbuilding of the greater city of the present day, just as they had been in the
development of the little frontier city of pioneer times.

It was in 1858 that Mr. McCormick was united in marriage to Miss Nettie
Fowler, of New York. Their interests in every phase of life were most closely
interwoven. Mr. McCormick discussed with her his business projects and she
with him her philanthropic work. One biographer has said: "Mrs. McCormick
was a woman of rare charm, and with a comprehension of business affairs that
was of the greatest possible value to her husband. She was at all times in the
closest touch with his purposes. By her advice he introduced many economies
at the factory and rebuilt the works after the great fire of 1871. The precision
of her memory and the grasp of her mind upon the multifarious details of human
nature and manufacturing made her an ideal wife for such a. man as Cyrus H.


McCormick. As he grew older he depended upon her judgment more and more;
and as Mrs. McCormick is still in the possession of health and strength, it may
truly be said that for more than half a century she has been a most influential
factor in the industrial and philanthropic development of the United States."

Online LibraryJ. Seymour (Josiah Seymour) CurreyChicago: its history and its builders, a century of marvelous growth (Volume v.5) → online text (page 73 of 74)