History of the McCormick Observatory

The McCormick Family and their Mechanical Reaper




Who invented the mechanical reaper is still a point of contention between members of the McCormick family descending from the family of Robert Hall McCormick of Walnut Grove in Rockbridge, Virginia. Perhaps the debate lies more between members of the family and the popular history that has come down through the years. Though it has become common knowledge that Cyrus H. McCormick invented and manufactured the reaper, it may have actually been his father's genius as a simple inventor that led to the family's riches and renown.

Robert Hall McCormick

Robert Hall McCormick (seen left) was born on the family estate of Walnut Grove on June 8, 1780. He married Mary Ann McCormick February 11, 1808 and was granted ownership of Walnut Grove in 1810. Robert and Polly, as Mary Ann was known to friends and family, raised their eight children on the farm there and the kids grew up helping in the shop and the mill. Robert frequently busied himself with small gadgets and inventions around the farm. By 1809, Robert had constructed a partially completed reaper.  He eventually decided to formalize some of his work when he applied for a patent in 1830 for a device he called a "hemp-break", a device for breaking hemp and flax. He also produced a threshing machine, a clover sheller of stone, a blacksmith's bellows and a hill-side plow.

In 1831 Robert H. McCormick produced what became known as the reaper. According to research compiled by Norbert Lyons, Polly encouraged Robert to give Cyrus his inventions as a gift and allow Cyrus, the assertive and most business minded member of the family, to make the most of it. According to multiple account from members of the family and close friends, Robert had already invented the reaper after years of working on it, ran initial test trials in 1831 and gave it to his son Cyrus as a gift which Cyrus patented in 1834.


Walnut Grove houseold shop and mill

the old shop and the mill

In order for Cyrus to patent the reaper himself as inventor, he made improvements to his father's original design. The debate lies in the fact that shortly after his father's death July 4, 1846, Cyrus began advertising himself as the inventor of the reaper. With the patent registered in his name, few outside the family had any reason to contest his claims. Cyrus had done most of the advertising and publicizing of the reaper and he made the first steps to set up a manufacturing effort in Chicago. The first McCormick factory opened in 1847.

A striking piece of evidence against Cyrus McCormick's claims came from the time frame in which he supposedly invented the reaper. His father spent twenty years developing the reaper which Cyrus claims failed in a test at the beginning of the summer in 1831. The successful trial which followed in July where Cyrus claimed to demonstrate his own reaper occurred only six weeks later. Cyrus, lacking his father's reputation as an inventor, managed to construct a new machine of his own invention in six short weeks, while it took his inventive father twenty years and he had yet to succeed. It seemed like a fantastic claim, but few people outside the family realized the implausibility of Cyrus's claims.

The first person to contest him was his brother, Leander James McCormick. As far as most of the family was concerned, the reaper was a family affair. Leander had also allowed his brother to patent most of the improvements that he had developed for his father's reaper. When his father gave him the reaper, Cyrus promised that any wealth or other benefits that came to him because of the reaper would be shared with all of his brothers and sisters. Brothers Leander and William worked for Cyrus on a salary basis, but Leander decided that they deserved a bigger portion of the business, so in 1859 Leander and William each received one-fourth of the business and it became Cyrus H. McCormick and Brothers.

Over the next twenty years, the business boomed and Leander's son Robert became very involved in the business. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed the entire factory and the McCormicks' homes, but the business quickly rcovered.  After several short term contracts splitting the business between the McCormick brothers, in 1879 they formed the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company (a predecessor of International Harvester Inc. and the Case Corporation), with Cyrus as president, Leander as vice-president and superintendent of manufacturing, with Robert serving as Leander's assistant. Despite the contract decisions, the split between the two brothers was severe and Leander essentially retired from active participation in the business in 1879.

          In the over thirty years of business since their father's death, Cyrus's patent on the reaper had expired, despite legal efforts to extend it, but his claim as its inventor had stood firm. Leander's objections about his brother's claims had helped to precipitate the change in the company's name in 1879. In 1878, Cyrus hired William Hanna to return to Virginia and collect information to contend that Cyrus had invented the reaper and performed most of the trials known to Virginia in the 1830's. Unfortunately for Cyrus, large portions of Hanna's work attribute more to his father than they do to him, but there were a couple accounts giving Cyrus considerable credit for the success of the reaper. In 1885, the year after Cyrus's death, Leander and Cyrus McCormick Jr. collected sworn statements and accounts from family members, friends and old neighbors, all claiming that Robert H. McCormick had given the already invented reaper to his son Cyrus.  In 1910, Robert Hall McCormick (Leander's son) and James Hall Shields (Leander's nephew) republished Leander's collected statements along with additional testimonies and a brief biography of their grandfather, Robert H. McCormick

          In the end, the publicity behind the name Cyrus H. McCormick was more than Leander's efforts could overcome, but the documentation for a different story was quite complete. Beyond the collection of statements that Leander produced and letters written by neighbors of the time, the only account of Robert McCormick as inventor of the reaper is found in Norbert Lyons' The McCormick Reaper Legend, published in 1955 in cooperation with the McCormick family.