Cyrus McCormick was a businessman and inventor best known for his invention of the mechanical reaper which revolutionized farming.

Read the following:

“Cyrus H. McCormick and the Invention of the Reaper”

  • Map the following (you’ll find mapping resources below):
  • Learn more about bread and wheat.
  • View a picture of a sickle.
  • View a picture of sheaves of wheat.
  • Read (and view) how a grain cradle was used in “Bittersweet.”
  • Note how much grain could be harvested by one person with the sickle and the amount of yield.  (One day — 1/2 acre of wheat — 5–20 bushels yield.)  Compare that to the amount of grain that could be harvested with the grain cradle.  (One day — 2–2 1/2 acres of wheat — 2–3 times the harvest over the sickle).
  • View an illustration of Bell’s reaping machine.  Notice that the horses are pushing the reaper.
  • Explain (narrate) how the Bell reaper worked.
  • Explain the problems with Bell’s machine (bottom of pg. 146).
  • View a photo of the Robert McCormick farm and workshop.
  • View the Robert McCormick reaper.
  • Explain how Robert McCormick’s reaper worked and the design problem.
  • Explain how Cyrus McCormick improved his father’s reaper (pg. 149).
  • View an illustration of the first practical reaper invented by Cyrus McCormick at
  • Make a list of the objections the farmers had to a mechanical reaper that McCormick would have to overcome.
  • Learn more about William Butler Ogden who financed McCormick’s Chicago plant.
  • Learn more about Jearum Atkins whose invention of the self-rake helped improve McCormick’s reaper at
  • View an illustration of the McCormick reaper of 1845 at
  • View an illustration of the Marsh harvester of 1860 at
  • View an illustration of the Wire Binder of 1873 at
  • Explain the problems with the wire binder (bottom of pg. 157).
  • Learn more about Appleby’s twine binder at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum.
  • At the time the book was written, four billion bushels of wheat were produced in the world each year.  According to a commodity conversion table, one bushel of wheat is approximately 60 lbs.  How much wheat in metric tons was produced in the world at the time the book was written?  1 Metric Ton = 2204.62 Pounds (108,862,298 million tons)  Compare that amount to the amount that is produced today.
  • Learn how grain elevators work at the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation.
  • View the video below of the world’s largest combine — the harvester of today!
  • Make a timeline of the improvements in harvesting from the sickle to the combine (see resources below).
  • More about Cyrus McCormick and the reaper from the Book of Knowledge:

    In the early days of North America, grain was cut with a sickle.  You may have seen a picture of one somewhere; it is shaped like a question mark.  A man gathered grain by holding it in one hand and cutting it free with the sickle in the other.  Next, a “cradle” was used.  This was a long curved knife at the end of a handle; it had wooden fingers which kept the grain from falling….

    The first attempts to make a grain-cutting machine were made in Great Britain.  Henry Ogle, a schoolmaster of Rennington, made a mechanical reaper in 1822, and Patrick Bell, a young Scottish student, invented a more advanced type four years later.

    Obed Hussey and Cyrus Hall McCormick, two Americans, worked at the same time on a new machine to cut grain.  Both received patents, one in 1833 and the other in 1834.  McCormick’s was the more successful.  This machine, which was drawn by horses, cut more than could be cut by the hands of many men.  At once others began attempts to improve the McCormick invention; and just before the American Civil War, John E. Heath invented a machine which not only cut the grain, but tied it into bundles, thus saving much more time.

    In 1875 John F. Appleby, who had invented a successful twine-knotter some years before, made a binder which has proved to be the basis for modern machines of this type.  In later years a threshing machine was added to the reaping operation, thereby separating the grain from the chaff as the farmer moves along the fields.

    “Some Other Famous Inventors” from The Book of Knowledge


Further Investigation

Cyrus McCormick
Brief biography at MIT.

Cyrus McCormick
Brief biography at

Case IH History
Timeline of McCormick/International Harvester at


Walnut Grove — McCormick Family Homestead
Tour the homestead operated by Virginia Tech.

The Story of Wheat
A 19-page download from the North Dakota Wheat Commission with background information and activities.

Interactive Timeline Maker
Use this interactive at to create a timeline showing the improvements in harvesting from sickle to combine.


“Cyrus Hall McCormick”
A chapter from Inventors by Philip G. Hubert.

Cyrus Hall McCormick: His Life and His Work by Herbert Newton Casson
Easy-to-read public domain work.

“The Story of an Up-to-Date Farm”
Heavily illustrated article from The Wonder Book of Knowledge explaining the history of harvesting.

“The Story of a Loaf of Bread”
Chapter from How We Are Fed by James Franklin Chamberlain that starts with a grain of wheat.

Unit Studies & Lesson Plans

Cyrus McCormick Inventor of the Reaper
Information sheet with essay questions following.

Free Nature Studies: Our Daily Bread (Wheat)

Free Nature Studies: Our Daily Bread (Wheat)
Many, many activities, printables, and other resources in our Free Nature Studies series covering the harvesting process including videos showing the sickle/scythe, McCormick-Deering Binder, and a modern combine operation.

Printables & Notebooking Pages

United States Map
At EduPlace for locating Virginia and Illinois.

Virginia Map
At for locating Midvale.

Illinois State Map
At for locating Chicago.

Cyrus McCormick & the Reaper Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.

Enjoy the entire series:
Free Science Studies: Great Inventors & Their Inventions
Free Science Studies: Great Inventors & Their Inventions

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