Cyrus McCormick was born in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia on February 15, 1809. His father was Robert McCormick, Jr. (1780-1846), and his mother was Mary Ann “Polly” Hall (1780-1853). As an inventor, Robert McCormick was aware of the “potential of the design for a mechanical reaper” and applied for a patent for his invention. “He worked for 28 years on a horse-drawn mechanical reaper to harvest grain; however, he was never able to reproduce a reliable version.”
Cyrus inherited the project of his father and was assisted by Jo Anderson who was an African American slave on the McCormick plantation. The McCormick reaper was pulled by horses with the cutting blades for the grain located to the side of the horses. McCormick demonstrated his reaper in the village of Steele's Tavern in Virginia in 1831 and received a patent on it on June 21, 1834. He did not sell any of the machines because they were not capable of working in varying conditions.
In spite of the fact that the family also operated a blacksmith/metal smelting business, they went into bankruptcy during the panic of 1837. Cyrus did more public demonstrations of his reaper in 1839 but sold only one in 1840 and none in 1841 because local farmers did not think they were reliable.
“Using the endorsement of his father’s first customer for a machine built by McPhetrich, Cyrus continuously attempted to improve the design. He finally sold seven reapers 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.”
When orders began arriving from further west where “farms were larger and the land flatter,” McCormick contracted to have a factory in Brockport, New York, build the machines. Other factories were contracted to build the machines, but their poor quality only hurt the reputation of the product.
Robert McCormick died in 1847, and Cyrus moved to Chicago with his brother Leander (1819-1900) to establish a factory to build their reapers. Chicago was not as established or prosperous as other cities and did not have paved streets, but it had great water ways to transport the much needed raw materials and to carry the completed machines to his customers further west. Many members of the McCormick family became prominent residents of Chicago.
When McCormick tried to renew his patent in 1848, he was told by the US Patent Office that other inventors had patented their reapers; McCormick was denied a patent renewal. In 1849 his brother William (1815-1865) moved to Chicago to join the company to handle finances. The McCormick reaper sold well and was distributed to distant markets. The company built a network of salesmen and trained them to demonstrate the operation of the reapers in the field, how to get parts quickly and how to repair the machines in the field if need be. He later made a trip to London where one of his reapers was displayed at the Crystal Palace Exhibition.
McCormick is credited as the inventor of the mechanical reaper even though he based his work on the work of other people. His “achievements were chiefly in the development of a company, marketing and sales force to market his products.”
Forty-nine-year-old Cyrus McCormick married his secretary Nancy “Nettie” Fowler (1835-1923) on January 26, 1858. Nettie was an orphan from New York, had graduated from the Troy Female Seminary, and moved to Chicago. They had known each other for two years and shared views about business, religion and Democrat Party politics. They became the parents of seven children - many of whom became members of the Republican Party: (1) Cyrus Hall McCormick Jr. (May 16, 1859), (2) Mary Virginia McCormick (May 5, 1861), (3) Robert McCormick III (October 5, 1863 to January 6, 1865), (4) Anita McCormick (born July 4, 1866, married Emmons Blaine [the son of James G. Blaine] on September 26, 1889, and died February 12, 1954), (5) Alice McCormick (March 15, 1870, to January 25, 1871), (6) Harold Fowler McCormick (born May 2, 1872, married Edith Rockefeller [youngest daughter of John Davison, co-founder of Standard Oil, and Laura Celestia “Cettie” Spelman, school teacher], and died in 1941), and (7) Stanley Robert McCormick (born November 2, 1874, married Katharine Dexter [1875-1967], and died January 19, 1947).
Cyrus McCormick was an invalid during the last four years of his life because a stroke left him with paralyzed legs. He died at his home in Chicago on May 13, 1884, and was buried in Graceland Cemetery. He was survived by his widow, Nettie, who donated the equivalent of over $160 million to hospitals, disaster and relief agencies, churches, youth activities and educational institutions; she became “the leading benefactress of Presbyterian Church activities” at that time.
Cyrus Hall McCormick, Jr. became the official leader of the company, but Cyrus McCormick III actually ran the company. In 1902 McCormick’s company merged with the International Harvester Corporation. Various members of the McCormick family ran the corporation until 2007.