The innovative genius of Cyrus McCormick
Cyrus McCormick—best known for having invented the first mechanical reaper in 1833—was actually not the first. That honor went to Obed Hussey, who announced construction of his reaper a year before McCormick patented his in 1834. So while the argument can be made that McCormick didn’t actually invent the reaper, what’s clear is that McCormick invented the business of selling reapers to farmers from all over the world. Most people today see this business angle as even more innovative than the actual invention itself.
According to Cyrus McCormick biographer Herbert Newton Casson, there were four keys to the success of McCormick’s growing business:
First, he gave his customers a written guarantee with every machine and “warranted the performance of the machine in every respect.” He did this by charging the customer—typically, a farmer—$80 up front, with the balance due in six months on the condition that the reaper would cut one and a half acres an hour, that it would scatter less grain than existing methods, and that the raking off could be done from a raker’s seat. If the reaper failed to fulfill these promises, the customer could return it and have his down payment refunded. The idea of giving a free trial and returning the money to any dissatisfied customers was at the time a new and revolutionary policy.
Second, McCormick sold his reapers at a known price. The prices were posted in newspapers and in all his advertising. While again, this is common practice today, it was unheard of in the 1830s, when bargaining between seller and buyer was the established rule in business. McCormick felt strongly in the principle of “equal prices to all and special rebates to none.”
Third, he was one of the first American businessmen to use advertising as an effective way to market his product. While others may used newspapers to sell their products, McCormick was the first to use it on a large scale—buying up full half-page and full-page ads; previously, ads filled much smaller portions of the page. And McCormick was the first to include success stories and testimonials in his ads. He made great use of the argument that the reaper pays for itself, and showed that it would cost the farmer less to buy it than not to buy it. The most effective testimonial from satisfied buyers said something to the effect of, “My reaper has more than paid for itself in one harvest.”
And finally, McCormick was the first entrepreneurs to build storage warehouses for his product at every competitive point. He did not wait for business to grow—he pushed it. He knew that farmers would be undecided until the very hour of harvest, when there would be no time to get a reaper from its manufacturing plant in Chicago, so he needed to pre-position these reapers in various parts of the country. And to sell these machines all over the country, he developed a vast network of trained salesmen able to demonstrate operation of the machines in the field.
While credit for the initial invention might be in doubt, what is clear is that Cyrus McCormick’s innovative sales process gave farmers easy access to a machine that made farming far more efficient—it could harvest more grain than five men using existing technology, and it substantially decreased the tedious handiwork in the fields. It is credited with pushing westward expansion of the United States in the mid-1800s and eventually helped to initiate the global shift of labor from farmlands to cities. In 1851, the reaper won the highest award of the day, the gold medal at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition.
While the invention of the reaper was certainly significant, it would not have had nearly the effect it did on society had Cyrus McCormick not found innovative ways to get these machines into the hands of farmers.