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Reaping—harvesting cereal grains—was hard work to do by hand, and typically had to be finished in the short period between the grain being ripe and its beginning to spoil, often under the threat of bad weather. Around 1830, a number of American inventors began to develop mechanical reapers: horse-drawn machines that would cut down cereal grains more efficiently than a farmer with a scythe. Drawing on earlier work by his father and by Jo Anderson, an African-American enslaved on the family plantation in Virginia, Cyrus McCormick developed in 1834 a reaper that, by the 1850s, became a commercial success. His business, relocated to Chicago, eventually became the International Harvester Company.

Cyrus McCormick (1809-1884),

public domain engraving by George Smillie


Sketch from McCormick’s 1845 patent of an improved grain reaper


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