The Birth of an Invention

A Few Little-Known Facts about the Modern Combine

Farming changed forever when Cyrus McCormick introduced the mechanical reaper to the world. Although Cyrus brought this invention to its birth, its origins are more complex.

- McCormick's reaper was a mechanized marvel in a simpler age. -

– McCormick’s reaper was a mechanized marvel in a simpler age. –

Learn 3 stops on the timeline of invention, and see a LEGO® combine.

When Cyrus was about 7 years old, his father Robert began tinkering with the idea of a mechanical reaper. Back in the early 1800s, harvesting a field was all manual labor. A group of men carried sharp scythes into a wheat field and cut from sunup to sundown.

The Failure Phase

Cyrus’ father made and modified machines for 15 years without success. Most of us lose heart after hours, days or weeks of failure, but very few would stick with an idea for years.

In a sense, Robert never graduated past the failure phase. However, his son Cyrus would achieve a breakthrough only because of Robert’s passion and persistence.

The Eureka Moment

Contrary to popular opinion, “eureka” is not a moment, but rather a process. As Keith Sawyer discusses in his book, Group Genius, invention comes as a collaborative result of great minds building on and interacting with each other.

Cyrus was surrounded by great minds who were each pondering the harvesting puzzle. Cyrus grew up with an African-American slave boy who helped create the famous McCormick harvester. Jo Anderson‘s contribution to the harvester and friendship with McCormick are documented in the 1931 book, The Century of the Reaper.

Some inventors catch the public eye, while others work behind the scenes. While we love to hear stories about a dramatic moment that a lone inventor achieves a breakthrough, invention is most often a process of collaboration.

The Improvement Process

In 1830 harvesting 40 acres of grain required 8 men, in 1831 harvesting the same field only required 2 men. McCormick’s revolutionary invention would save farmers a fortune in labor costs, but McCormick would have to wait 10 years for his first sale.

- The reaper has come a long way. -

– The reaper has come a long way. –

McCormick would spend the rest of his life improving his invention in an effort to beat the competition. Today reapers are more mechanized than ever, the result of 200 years of improvements. You see them on the front of combines.

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We can contribute to the birth of the next great inventions by pushing through failure, working with others and continually improving. Although it is true that we reap what we sow, we won’t necessarily receive fame or fortune for our contributions. Jo Anderson and Robert McCormick didn’t get credit for the reaper, but they had the satisfaction of being innovators.

The satisfaction of being an inventor is priceless, so go ahead and get started.


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