Every future competitor copied the salient features of the prototype McCormick Reaper, setting off a lifetime of lawsuits, controversies with the patent office, and fixing the occasional mechanical difficulties. Providentially, twenty-two-year-old Cyrus McCormick proved to be a man of “inventive genius, undaunted courage, untiring energy and of unswerving courage.” He scheduled field trials in farms around Lexington, the county seat. The reaper needed tweaking but eventually received newspaper coverage and endorsement by prominent Virginia supporters. The demand for reapers, however, took five years to stimulate after the patent had been secured. Improved castings, further field trials and exhibitions in rural counties around Rockbridge enabled Cyrus to begin manufacturing and selling his machine. From 1842 to 1850 he built 778 machines, only a very few shipping by wagon to the grain states of the midwest, “where land was flat and labor scarce.”
An 1884 version of the McCormick Reaper which also bound the harvest
Cyrus formed a partnership with the mayor of Chicago who invested $25,000 in the company, enabling the company to move the manufacturing to that city. Cyrus convinced two of his brothers to move there and assist him. Competitors “lawyered up” and formed a cabal of resistance before the patent office to block McCormick’s patent renewal in 1852. They succeeded, but the ending of his patent only spurred the energetic McCormick to greater efforts of marketing and manufacturing his machines. Cyrus swept the competition from the field (so to speak), through superior quality parts and machines, enabling buying on credit, and a policy to never sue a farmer for his failure to pay. He took his machine to Europe, where it created a sensation, and its use increased grain productivity exponentially. As the American frontier expanded, the McCormick Reaper travelled with the pioneers, making the midwest the bread basket of the entire nation. Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, claimed that the Virginian’s invention “carried civilization westward more than fifty miles per year . . . and took the place of regiments of young men in the Western harvest fields, releasing them to do battle for the Union,” as well as feeding them at the battle-front.
The Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition in London, 1851, where McCormick exhibited his McCormick Reaper with great success
McCormick retained a loyalty to his home state, pleading for reconciliation of the sections before and during the Civil War, a very unpopular position to hold in Chicago at that time. He spent much of the Civil War years in Europe, believing and perhaps hoping, that the Confederacy would succeed. He unsuccessfully ran for Congress on a “Peace Democrat” platform in 1864.
In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire burned the McCormick factory, however, at the urging of Cyrus’ wife, Nettie, it was rebuilt and back in production by 1873.
An outspoken Christian businessman and a lifelong Presbyterian, McCormick endowed four theological chairs at what became McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. He donated $10,000 to help Dwight L. Moody start the YMCA, and his own son Cyrus, Jr. became the first President of Moody Bible Institute. Cyrus and his wife Nettie Day donated large sums to Tusculum College, a Presbyterian school in Tennessee, and helped start churches and Sunday Schools all across the South after the War. In the last 20 years of his life, Cyrus served on the Board of Trustees of Washington and Lee College in his native Lexington, Virginia.