Cyrus McCormick (1809 – 1884)

The Man Who Freed the World From the Shackles of the Farm

Cyrus McCormick was born in 1809 in rural Virginia.  He has been called the “Father of Modern Agriculture.” His creativity was twofold. The first element of his genius was his invention of a workable mechanical reaper, a machine that harvested grain. In the 1820s the limits on agriculture were very much dictated by how much grain could be harvested before it went bad. A man, using a scythe and techniques that were largely unchanged for thousands of years, could harvest approximately one acre of grain a day. For centuries men had been toiling in vain to invent a tool that would increase that number. In 1831 McCormick solved the riddle and created the first effective mechanical reaper. Despite its great limitations, his first reaper instantly more than doubled a man’s capacity to harvest grain and began a technological march that continues to this day.

As if that were not enough, McCormick had more up his sleeve. The second element of his genius was the introduction of financing for his equipment. Farmers moving west often had little more than the clothes on their back and very little cash. Unlike most bankers, McCormick understood the economics of farming and sold his reapers for $30 down and the balance – typically $90 or $100 – in 6 months. (By 1880 when McCormick retired, economies of scale had driven the cost of a far better reaper down to $18.) McCormick also introduced advertising, (including satisfied customer testimonials) replacement parts and the written guarantee to American agriculture. Indeed, “15 acres a day or your money back” was his promise.

By the time McCormick died in 1884, his company had sold over 6 million reapers around the world. A measure of his impact can be found by noting that in 1831, the year he invented the reaper, 80% of the American population was involved in agriculture. Today that number stands at less than 3%. Not only does that 3% feed the United States, (with its 350 million vs. 15 million in McCormick’s time), but it also exports millions of tons of food every year. Although the impact on farming was substantial, the real impact of McCormick’s genius was felt far beyond the fields. Millions who had formerly been tied to the farm were now free to pursue their dreams elsewhere from energy exploration to medicine to manufacturing to retail to professional sports and Hollywood… Virtually every area of our economy beyond the farm, the economic miracle that came to personify the United States owes much to the man who freed the population to dream of the possibilities that lay beyond the amber fields.