A sickle is a curved, hand-held agricultural tool used for harvesting grain crops. Horse drawn mechanical reapers later replaced sickles for harvesting grains. Reapers developed into and was replaced by the reaper-binder, which was in turn was replaced by the swather and then the combine harvester.
Early American pioneers had only a sickle or scythe to cut their grain. Mostly, they were very simple tools. An addition that looked like wooden fingers and kept the grain flat until the end of the cutting swing, was added perhaps as early as 1803.
The first attempts to build a machine to cut grain were made in England and Scotland, several of them in the eighteenth century. The first recorded English patent for a mechanical reaper was issued to Joseph Boyce in 1799. In 1822, school teacher Henry Ogle, invented a mechanical reaper, but the opposition of the laborers of the vicinity, who feared loss of employment, prevented Ogle from making any further innovations.
In 1826, Patrick Bell, a Presbyterian minister, who had been moved by the hard work of the harvesters on his father’s farm in Argyllshire, made an attempt to lighten their labor. His reaper was pushed by horses; a reel brought the grain against blades which opened and closed like scissors, and a traveling canvas apron deposited the grain at one side. The inventor received a prize from the Highland and Agricultural Society of Edinburgh, and pictures and full descriptions of his invention were published. Several models of this reaper were built in Great Britain, and it is said that four came to the United States, however, Bell’s machine was never generally adopted.
Three Inventors of American Reapers
Soon afterward three men patented reapers in the United States: William Manning, Plainfield, New Jersey, 1831; Obed Hussey, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1833; and Cyrus Hall McCormick, Staunton, Virginia, 1834. Just how much they owed to Patrick Bell cannot be known, but it is probable that all had heard of his design if they had not seen his drawings or the machine itself.
The first of these inventors, Manning of New Jersey, never made a machine other than his model. More persistent was Obed Hussey of Cincinnati, who soon moved to Baltimore to fight out the issue with Cyrus McCormick. Hussey was an excellent mechanic. He patented several improvements to his machine and received high praise for the efficiency of the work. But he was soon outstripped in the race because he was weak in the essential qualities which made Cyrus McCormick the greatest figure in the world of agricultural machinery.
Cyrus McCormick was more than a mechanic; he was a man of vision; and he had the enthusiasm of a crusader and superb genius for business organization and advertisement.
Though Cyrus McCormick offered reapers for sale in 1834, he sold none in that year and for six years afterwards. He sold two in 1840, seven in 1842, fifty in 1844. The reaper did not work well in the hills of Virginia, and farmers hesitated to buy anything that needed the attention of a skilled mechanic.
However, things changed after Cyrus McCormick made a trip through the Mid West. In the rolling prairies, with mile after mile of rich soil with few trees or stones, McCormick saw his chance. Obed Hussey had moved East. Cyrus McCormick did the opposite; he moved West, to Chicago, in 1847. Chicago was then a town of hardly ten thousand, but Cyrus McCormick built a factory there, and manufactured five hundred machines in time for the harvest of 1848.
He formulated an elaborate business system. His machines were to be sold at a fixed price, payable in installments if desired, with a guarantee of satisfaction. He set up a system of agencies to give instruction or to supply spare parts. Advertising was done chiefly by exhibitions and contests at fairs and other public gatherings.
He was not daunted by the Government’s refusal in 1848 to renew his original patent. He successfully decided to make profits as a manufacturer rather than accept royalties as an inventor.
Reapers developed into the reaper-binder (cuts grain and binds it in sheaves), which was in turn was replaced by the swather and then the combine harvester. The combine harvester is a machine that heads, threshes and cleans grain while moving across the field.
The reaper-binder, or binder was invented in 1872 by Charles Withington.
Cyrus McCormick had many competitors, and some of them were in the field with improved devices ahead of him, but he always held his own, either by buying up the patent for a real improvement, or else by requiring his staff to invent something to do the same work. Numerous new devices to improve the harvester were patented, but the most important was an automatic attachment to bind the sheaves with wire. This was patented in 1872, and Cyrus McCormick soon made it his own. The harvester seemed complete. One man drove the team, and the machine cut the grain, bound it in sheaves, and deposited them upon the ground.
The Self-Binding Harvester
The main complaint about the first harvesters were about the wire ties. When the wheat was threshed, bits of wire got into the straw, and were swallowed by the cattle; or else the bits of metal got among the wheat itself and gave out sparks in grinding, setting some mills on fire.
Two inventors, almost simultaneously, produced the remedy. Marquis Gorham, working for Cyrus McCormick, and John Appleby, whose invention was purchased by William Deering, one of McCormick’s chief competitors, invented binders which used twine. By 1880, the self-binding harvester was complete.
Harvesters now needed the services of only two men, one to drive and the other to shock the bundles, and could reap twenty acres or more a day, tie the grain into bundles of uniform size, and dump them in piles of five ready to be shocked. Grain must be separated from the straw and chaff.
The threshing floor, on which oxen or horses trampled out the grain, was still common in George Washington’s time, though it had been largely succeeded by the flail. In Great Britain several threshing machines were devised in the eighteenth century, but none was particularly successful. They were stationary, and it was necessary to bring the sheaves to them. One patent issued by the United States to Samuel Mulliken of Philadelphia, was for a threshing machine. The portable horse-powered treadmill invented in 1830 by Hiram and John Pitts of Winthrop, Maine, was coupled with a thresher, or “separator.”
The horse-powered treadmill was later replaced by the traction engine tractor, which both transported the threshing machine from farm to farm, and when a destination was reached powered the thresher.
Combination Harvester and Thresher
Another development was the combination harvester and thresher used on the larger farms of the West. This machine does not cut the wheat close to the ground, but the cutter-bar, over twenty-five feet in length, takes off the heads. The wheat isseparated from the chaff and automatically weighed into sacks, which are dumped as fast as two expert sewers can work. The motive power is a traction engine or else twenty to thirty horses, and seventy-five acres a day can be reaped and threshed. Often another tractor pulling a dozen wagons follows and the sacks are picked up and hauled to the granary or elevator.
In 1822, Jeremiah Bailey, of Chester County, Pennsylvania, patented a horse-drawn machine with a revolving wheel with six scythes, used for haying and other cutting.
The haying machine was co-developed with the reaper. The basic idea in the reaper, the cutter-bar, became part of mower. Hazard Knowles, an employee of the Patent Office, invented the hinged cutter-bar, which could be lifted over an obstruction, but never patented the invention.
In 1844, William Ketchum of Buffalo, New York patented the first machine intended to cut hay only, and dozens of others followed. An improved mowing machine was patented by Lewis Miller of Canton, Ohio, in 1858.
Hayrakes and Tedders
Hayrakes and tedders seem to have developed almost of themselves. Diligent research has failed to discover any reliable information on the invention of the hayrake, though a horserake was patented as early as 1818. Joab Center of Hudson, New York, patented a machine for turning and spreading hay in 1834. Mechanical hayloaders have greatly reduced the amount of human labor. The hay-press makes storage and transportation easier and cheaper.
Binders cut and bind corn. An addition shocks the corn and deposits it upon the ground. The shredder and husker removes the ears, husks them, and shreds shucks, stalks, and fodder. Power shellers separate grain and cobs more than a hundred times as rapidly as a pair of human hands could do.
Other inventions created during the agricultural revolution included: clover hullers, bean and pea threshers, ensilage cutters, manure spreaders, and dozens of others. On the dairy farm the cream separator increased the quantity and improved the quality of the butter. New power also drove the churns. Cows were milked and sheep were sheared by newly invented machines and eggs were hatched without hens.