Cyrus Hall McCormick

Is your surname McCormick?

Research the McCormick family

Share your family tree and photos with the people you know and love

  • Build your family tree online
  • Share photos and videos
  • Smart Matching™ technology
  • Free!

About Cyrus Hall McCormick

Often credited for inventing the Reaper, which was created by a black slave named Jo Anderson. Cyrus McCormick got the patent because slaves were considered property and not citizens, thus could not legally patent inventions.


Cyrus Hall McCormick, Sr. (1809–1884) was an American inventor and founder of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, which became part of International Harvester Company in 1902. He and many members of the McCormick family became prominent Chicagoans. Although McCormick is often called the "inventor" of the mechanical reaper, it was based on work by others, including his family members.

Early life

Cyrus Hall McCormick was born February 15, 1809 on the McCormick family farm known as Walnut Grove in Rockbridge County, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley on the western side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. His parents were Robert McCormick (1780–1846) and Mary Ann Hall McCormick (1780–1853), both of whom were of Scots-Irish descent. He was the oldest of eight children, and had little or no formal education.

Although the plantation kept some slaves, every family member was expected to help during harvest. From a young age, McCormick preferred using machines to save work in the fields. In his teens he devised a scythe cradle, and then patented plows that could be used on hillsides and sharpened themselves. His father kept a workshop to repair and build machines, such as those for mills on the property. McCormick tried to sell a hemp brake machine to farmers in Kentucky but made no sales.


McCormick's father had obtained a few patents of his own, and worked for 28 years on a horse-drawn mechanical reaper to harvest grain. However, he was not able to build a reliable version and his son took up the project. A few machines based on a design of Patrick Bell in Scotland (which had not been patented) were available in the US. The Bell machine was pushed by horses. The McCormick design was pulled and cut the grain to one side. One of the first public demonstrations by McCormick of mechanical reaping was at the nearby village of Steeles Tavern, Virginia in 1831. McCormick claimed he developed a final version of the reaper in 18 months. The young McCormick was granted a patent on the reaper on June 21, 1834.

This machine also did not work in many conditions, so none were sold. Instead, the McCormick family worked on starting a metal smelting business. The panic of 1837 almost caused the family to go into bankruptcy when a partner pulled out. In 1839 he started doing public demonstrations of the reaper, but local farmers still thought the machine was not reliable. He did sell one in 1840, but none for 1841. Using the endorsement of his first customer, and continuously improving the design, seven reapers were sold in 1842, 29 in 1843, and 50 in 1844. They were all built manually in the family farm shop. He received a second patent for reaper improvements on January 31, 1845.

A New City

Word kept spreading, and McCormick noticed orders were coming from farther west, where farms tended to be larger. While he was in Washington, DC to get his 1845 patent, he heard about a factory in Brockport, New York, where he contracted to have the machines mass-produced. In 1847 he and his brother Leander J. McCormick moved to Chicago, where they established a factory to build their machines. At the time, other cities in the midwestern United States such as Cleveland, Ohio, St. Louis, Missouri, or Milwaukee, Wisconsin were more prosperous. Chicago had no paved streets. However, Chicago offered water transportation from the east over the Great Lakes for his raw materials, as well as railroad connections to the farther west where his customers would be.

When McCormick tried to renew his patent in 1848, the US Patent Office noted that a very similar machine had already been patented by Obed Hussey a few months earlier. McCormick then claimed he had really invented it in 1831, but the renewal was denied. Another reaper patent had already been issued to William Manning of Plainfield, New Jersey in May 1831, but Manning was evidently not defending his patent.

Brother William Sanderson McCormick moved to Chicago in 1849, and joined the company to take care of financial affairs. The McCormick reaper sold well, partially as a result of savvy and innovative business practices. Their products came onto the market just as the development of railroads offered wide distribution to distant markets. He developed marketing and sales techniques, developing a vast network of trained salesmen able to demonstrate operation of the machines in the field. William H. Seward said of McCormick's invention that owing to it "the line of civilization moves westward thirty miles each year." A company advertisement was a take-off of the Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way mural by Emanuel Leutze adding to the title: “with McCormick Reapers in the Van."

In 1851, McCormick traveled to London to display a reaper at the Crystal Palace Exhibition. He won a gold medal, but celebration was short-lived when he learned that he had lost a court challenge to Hussey's patent.

McCormick-Manny Case

Another McCormick company competitor was the company of John Henry Manny of Rockford, Illinois. After the Manny Reaper beat the McCormick reaper at the Paris Exposition of 1855, McCormick filed a lawsuit against Manny for patent infringement

McCormick demanded that Manny stop producing reapers, and pay McCormick $400,000. The trial, originally scheduled for Chicago, Illinois in September 1855, had prominent lawyers on both sides. McCormick hired former US Attorney General Reverdy Johnson and New York patent attorney Edward Nicholl Dickerson. Manny hired Edwin M. Stanton who hired local Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln. However, the trial was moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Although Manny won the case, with an opinion by Supreme Court Judge John McLean,[9] Lincoln ended up not contributing to the defense. After later being elected President, Lincoln chose Stanton as his Secretary of War.

More Controversy and Success

In 1861, after Hussey's patent was extended but McCormick's was not, he convinced the US Congress to step in.

In 1879 his brother Leander changed the name of the company from "Cyrus H. McCormick and Brothers" to "McCormick Harvesting Machine Company". Leander wanted to clearly acknowledge contributions of others to the reaper "invention", especially their father. Cyrus' work was done with the help of Jo Anderson, a slave on the plantation at the time.

Death and Legacy

McCormick died in Chicago on May 13, 1884; he had been handicapped for the last four years of his life. The official leadership of the company passed on to his son Cyrus Hall McCormick Jr. He was buried in Graceland Cemetery. The McCormick factories were later the site of urban labor strikes that led to the Haymarket Square riot in 1886.

Cyrus McCormick's papers are held by the Wisconsin Historical Society. Numerous prizes and medals were awarded for his reaper, and he was elected a corresponding member of the French Academy of Sciences, "as having done more for the cause of agriculture than any other living man." The invention of the reaper made farming far more efficient, and resulted in a global shift of labor from farmlands to cities.

A statue of McCormick is on the front campus of Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia.

The town of McCormick, South Carolina and McCormick County were named for him after he bought a gold mine in the town, formerly known as Dornsville.

McCormick was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1975.

Family Tree

On January 26, 1858 he married Nancy Fowler (1835–1923), better known as "Nettie". They had seven children:

1.Cyrus Hall McCormick Jr. was born May 16, 1859.

2.Mary Virginia McCormick was born May 5, 1861.

3.Anita McCormick was born July 4, 1866, married Emmons Blaine on September 26, 1889, and died February 12, 1954. Her husband was the oldest son of US Secretary of State James G. Blaine.

4.Alice McCormick was born March 15, 1870 and died less than a year later on January 25, 1871.

5.Harold Fowler McCormick was born May 2, 1872, married and died in 1941.

6.Stanley Robert McCormick was born November 2, 1874, married Katharine Dexter (1875–1967), and died January 19, 1947.

Mary Virginia and Stanley Robert both suffered from schizophrenia. Stanley's life was dramatized in the 1998 novel Riven Rock by T. Coraghessan Boyle.

He was the uncle of Robert Sanderson McCormick (son-in-law of Joseph Medill); granduncle of Joseph Medill McCormick and Robert Rutherford McCormick; great-granduncle of William McCormick Blair, Jr.

He invented and commercialized the crop reaper. A machine to harvest wheat and corn crops efficiently with minimal human labor. Chicago operations with some ugly labor strife including the Haymarket riots.

view all 16

Cyrus Hall McCormick's Timeline

February 15, 1809
Walnut Grove, Rockbridge County, Virginia, United States
May 16, 1859
Morristown, Middlesex, New Jersey, United States
May 5, 1861
Illinois, United States
July 4, 1866
Vermont, United States
May 15, 1870
Age 60
New York Ward 15 District 5, New York, New York
Age 60
New York Ward 15 District 5, New York, New York
May 2, 1872
Chicago, Cook, Illinois, United States