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June 21 The Man who wanted to feed the world

Today in 1834 in Chicago, Cyrus McCormick, a Christian inventor died. He patented the world’s first workable agricultural reaper, increasing wheat productivity all over the world. He make a fortune from it, and gave much to charity.


Born in Virginia, his father was an inventor called Robert McCormick Jr. who had seen the potential of the design for a mechanical reaper and applied for a patent. Having worked for 28 years on a horse-drawn mechanical reaper to harvest grain; he was never able to reproduce a reliable version. His son, Cyrus took up the project aided by Jo Anderson, an enslaved African-American on the McCormick plantation. Anderson was a gifted metal worker and did the blacksmith work on the prototypes. By some accounts, Cyrus and Joe were more like brothers than slave and master, and according to Joe “Sometimes he and I used to go out of an evening to see our girls. ” clearly referring to Cyrus’ daughters. Historically it is difficult to find out reliable evidence about the relationship, however we know that there is a Richmond Dispatch to an “emancipated slave” named Joe Anderson being granted permission to remain in the commonwealth in 1855, and in 1870 Cyrus wrote a letter to Joe saying that he’d advised him (Joe) to go west before the Civil War broke out. Late in life, Cyrus bought him some land and a cabin, and sent him money whenever he wrote to ask for some but he didn’t get nearly as much money as Cyrus’s actual brothers.

A Scottish man named Patrick Bell had designed a machine that was pushed by horses. However the McCormick design was pulled by horses and cut the grain to one side of the team. Living in such a creative environment, Cyrus had already been granted a patent for a self-sharpening plough, however none had been sold, because the machine could not handle varying conditions. It took a while to build up market confidence in the reaper, as local farmers thought the machine was unreliable. He relied on public demonstrations of the reaper, and using the endorsement of the first customer he continuously attempted to improve the design. Finally selling seven reapers in 1842, 29 in 1843, and 50 the next year, the business took off. As his wealth and influence grew, he travelled to London to display a reaper at the Crystal Palace Exhibition. After his machine successfully harvested a field of green wheat while the rival Hussey machine failed, he won a gold medal and was admitted to the Legion of Honour.

McCormick was a devout Presbyterian and an advocate of Christian unity. He believed feeding the world, made easier by the reaper, was part of his mission in life. As a businessman, he valued and demonstrated the Calvinist traits of self-denial, sobriety, thriftiness, efficiency, and was respected widely and trusted. Leading the effort to reconcile the country before the Civil War, he published editorials in newspapers that he had bought, The Chicago Times and Herald, calling for reconciliation between the sides. His views, however, were unpopular in his adopted home town of Chicago. Although his invention helped feed Union troops, believing the Confederacy would not be defeated, he and his wife travelled extensively in Europe during the war. When he returned, he proposed a peace plan to include a Board of Arbitration. After the war, McCormick helped found the Mississippi Valley Society, with a mission to promote New Orleans and Mississippi ports for European trade and served a four-year term on the Illinois Democratic Party's Central Committee. He would later propose an international mechanism to control food production and distribution.

He became the principal benefactor of a Theological Seminary and the institution was named after him after his death and began sharing facilities with the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He also donated $10,000 to help Dwight L. Moody start the YMCA, and established churches and Sunday Schools in the South after the war,. He purchased a religious newspaper, the Interior, which he renamed the Continent and became a leading Presbyterian periodical. Numerous prizes and medals were awarded McCormick for his reaper, which reduced human labour on farms while increasing productivity. His invention made an international impact, contributing to the industrialization of agriculture as well as migration of labour to cities in numerous wheat-growing countries. The French government who had already awarded him the legion of honour, twenty years later elected him to the French Academy of Sciences "as having done more for the cause of agriculture than any other living man."


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