Robert McCormick spent the larger part of his days and nights tinkering at a practical machine. He finally produced a horrific contrivance, made up of whirling sickles, knives, and revolving rods, pushed from behind by two horses; when he tried this upon a grain-field, however, it made a humiliating failure.
Evidently Robert McCormick had ambitions far beyond his powers; yet without his absurd experiments the development of American agriculture might have waited many years. They became the favorite topics of conversation in the evening gatherings that took place about the family log fire. Robert McCormick had several sons, and one manifested a particular interest in his repeated failures. From the time he was seven years old Cyrus Hall McCormick became his father's closest companion. Others might ridicule and revile, but this chubby, bright-eyed, intelligent little boy was always the keenest listener, the one comfort which the father had against his jeering neighbors. He also became his father's constant associate in his rough workshop. Soon, however, the older man noticed a change in their relations. The boy was becoming the teacher, and the father was taught. By the time Cyrus was eighteen, indeed, he had advanced so far beyond his father that the latter had become merely a proud observer. Young McCormick threw into the discard all his father's ideas and struck out on entirely new lines. By the time he had reached his twenty-second birthday he had constructed a machine which, in all its essential details, is the one which we have today. He had introduced seven principles, all of which are an indispensable part of every reaper constructed now. One afternoon he drove his unlovely contraption upon his father's farm, with no witnesses except his own family. This group now witnessed the first successful attempt ever made to reap with machinery. A few days later young McCormick gave a public exhibition at Steele's Tavern, cutting six acres of oats in an afternoon. The popular ridicule soon changed into acclaim; the new invention was exhibited in a public square and Cyrus McCormick became a local celebrity. Perhaps the words that pleased him most, however, were those spoken by his father. "I am proud," said the old man, "to have a son who can do what I failed to do."
This McCormick reaper dates from 1831; but it represented merely the beginnings of the modern machine. It performed only a single function; it simply cut the crop. When its sliding blade had performed this task, the grain fell back upon a platform, and a farm hand, walking alongside, raked this off upon the ground. A number of human harvesters followed, picked up the bundles, and tied a few strips of grain around them, making the sheaf. The work was exceedingly wearying and particularly hard upon the women who were frequently impressed into service as farm-hands. About 1858 two farmers named Marsh, who lived near De Kalb, Illinois, solved this problem. They attached to their McCormick reaper a moving platform upon which the cut grain was deposited. A footboard was fixed to the machine upon which two men stood. As the grain came upon this moving platform these men seized it, bound it into sheaves, and threw it upon the field. Simple as this procedure seemed it really worked a revolution in agriculture; for the first time since the pronouncement of the primal curse, the farmer abandoned his hunchback attitude and did his work standing erect. Yet this device also had its disqualifications, the chief one being that it converted the human sheaf-binder into a sweat-shop worker. It was necessary to bind the grain as rapidly as the platform brought it up; the worker was therefore kept in constant motion; and the consequences were frequently distressing and nerve racking. Yet this "Marsh Harvester" remained the great favorite with farmers from about 1860 to 1874.
All this time, however, there was a growing feeling that even the Marsh harvester did not represent the final solution of the problem; the air was full of talk and prophecies about self-binders, something that would take the loose wheat from the platform and transform it into sheaves.