100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Combine Harvester
Year of Invention: 1831

What Is It? A machine to simultaneously cut, gather, separate, and bag a grain.

Who Invented It? Cyrus McCormick (in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Endless miles of waving grain fields did not exist back when grain was harvested by hand. Cutting, gathering, threshing (separating grain from stalk), winnowing (separating grain from husk), and bagging consumed long hours and meant that farms could only plant and harvest enough grain for their own livestock.

Then Cyrus McCormick invented the combine harvester. That one machine revolutionized grain harvesting. What had consumed long weeks of hard work could be done in a day. The combine increased food production and shifted agriculture toward grains. It transformed farming from a low-intensity family affair into a capital-intensive big business.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Harvest had always been a grueling, backbreaking, labor-intensive process. Wheat, rye, oats, and other grains were cut by hand with a scythe. A good man could cut several acres a day. Others raked up the cuttings into rows, where still others gathered them into sheaves (bunches of stalks—three to four feet in diameter—stood on end and tied). The sheaves were beaten by hand to shake off the grains, which then had to be separated from their husks. On a family farm, the entire family would slave from dawn to dusk to get the crop in before rain or snow ruined it.


How Was the Combine Harvester Invented?

In 1820, inventor and farmer Robert McCormick attempted to design and build an automatic, horse-drawn reaper (cutter) on his rolling farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Frustrated, he abandoned the project in 1829.

Just as his father quit this effort in disgust, Robert’s 19-year-old son, Cyrus, became inspired to pick up the project himself. However, Cyrus dreamed of creating a single machine that would combine the tasks of cutting, reaping, and threshing into one automatic process.

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