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Home -> Burton J. Hendrick -> The Age of Big Business, A Chronicle of the Captains of Industry -> CHAPTER VI

The Age of Big Business, A Chronicle of the Captains of Industry - CHAPTER VI










The Civil War in America did more than free the negro slave: it
freed the white man as well. In the Civil War agriculture, for
the first time in history, ceased to be exclusively a manual art.
Up to that time the typical agricultural laborer had been a bent
figure, tending his fields and garnering his crops with his own
hands. Before the war had ended the American farmer had assumed
an erect position; the sickle and the scythe had given way to a
strange red chariot, which, with practically no expenditure of
human labor, easily did the work of a dozen men. Many as have
been America's contributions to civilization, hardly any have
exerted greater influence in promoting human welfare than her
gift of agricultural machinery. It seems astounding that, until
McCormick invented his reaper, in 1831, agricultural methods, in
both the New and the Old World, differed little from those that
had prevailed in the days of the Babylonians. The New England
farmer sowed his fields and reaped his crops with almost
identically the same instruments as those which had been used by
the Roman farmer in the time of the Gracchi. Only a comparatively
few used the scythe; the great majority, with crooked backs and
bended knees, cut the grain with little hand sickles precisely
like those which are now dug up in Etruscan and Egyptian tombs.

Though McCormick had invented his reaper in 1831, and though many
rival machines had appeared in the twenty years preceding the
Civil War, only the farmers on the great western plains had used
the new machinery to any considerable extent. The agricultural
papers and agricultural fairs had not succeeded in popularizing
these great laborsaving devices. Labor was so abundant and so
cheap that the farmer had no need of them. But the Civil War took
one man in three for the armies, and it was under this pressure
that the farmers really discovered the value of machinery. A
small boy or girl could mount a McCormick reaper and cut a dozen
acres of grain in a day. This circumstance made it possible to
place millions of soldiers in the field and to feed the armies
from farms on which mature men did very little work. But the
reaper promoted the Northern cause in other ways. Its use
extended so in the early years of the war that the products of
the farms increased on an enormous scale, and the surplus,
exported to Europe, furnished the liquid capital that made
possible the financing of the war. Europe gazed in astonishment
at a new spectacle in history; that of a nation fighting the
greatest war which had been known up to that time, employing the
greater part of her young and vigorous men in the armies, and yet
growing infinitely richer in the process. The Civil War produced
many new implements of warfare, such as the machine gun and the
revolving turret for battleships, but, so far as determining the
result was concerned, perhaps the most important was the reaper.

Extensive as the use of agricultural machinery became in the
Civil War, that period only faintly foreshadowed the development
that has taken place since. The American farm is today like a
huge factory; the use of the hands has almost entirely
disappeared; there are only a few operations of husbandry that
are not performed automatically. In Civil War days the reaper
merely cut the grain; now machinery rakes it up and binds it into
sheaves and threshes it. Similar mechanisms bind corn and rice.
Machinery is now used to plant potatoes; grain, cotton, and other
farm products are sown automatically. The husking bees that
formed one of our social diversions in Civil War days have
disappeared, for particular machines now rip the husks off the
ears. Horse hay-forks and horse hayrakes have supplanted manual
labor. The mere names of scores of modern instruments of farming,
all unknown in Civil War days--hay carriers, hay loaders, hay
stackers, manure spreaders, horse corn planters, corn drills,
disk harrows, disk ploughs, steam ploughs, tractors, and the
like--give some suggestion of the extent to which America has
made mechanical the most ancient of occupations. In thus
transforming agriculture, we have developed not only our own
Western plains, but we have created new countries. Argentina
could hardly exist today except for American agricultural
machinery. Ex-President Loubet declared, a few years ago, that
France would starve to death except for the farming machines that
were turned out in Chicago. There is practically no part of the
world where our self-binders are not used. In many places America
is not known as the land of freedom and opportunity, but merely
as "the place from which the reapers come." The traveler suddenly
comes upon these familiar agents in every European country, in
South America, in Egypt, China, Algiers, Siberia, India, Burma,
and Australia. For agricultural machinery remains today, what it
has always been, almost exclusively an American manufacture. It
is practically the only native American product that our European
competitors have not been able to imitate. Tariff walls, bounty
systems, and all the other artificial aids to manufacturing have
not developed this industry in foreign lands, and today the
United States produces four-fifths of all the agricultural
machinery used in the world. The International Harvester Company
has its salesmen in more than fifty countries, and has
established large American factories in many nations of Europe.

One day, a few years before his death, Prince Bismarck was
driving on his estate, closely following a self-binder that had
recently been put to work. The venerable statesman, bent and
feeble, seemed to find a deep melancholy interest in the

"Show me the thing that ties the knot," he said. It was taken to
pieces and explained to him in detail. "Can these machines be
made in Germany?" he asked.

"No, your Excellency," came the reply. "They can be made only in

The old man gave a sigh. "Those Yankees are ingenious fellows,"
he said. "This is a wonderful machine."

In this story of American success, four names stand out
preeminently. The men who made the greatest contributions were
Cyrus H. McCormick, C. W. Marsh, Charles B. Withington, and John
F. Appleby. The name that stands foremost, of course, is that of
McCormick, but each of the others made additions to his invention
that have produced the present finished machine. It seems like
the stroke of an ironical fate which decreed that since it was
the invention of a Northerner, Eli Whitney, that made inevitable
the Civil War, so it was the invention of a Southerner, Cyrus
McCormick, that made inevitable the ending of that war in favor
of the North. McCormick was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia,
on a farm about eighteen miles from Staunton. He was a child of
that pioneering Scotch-Irish race which contributed so greatly to
the settlement of this region and which afterward made such
inestimable additions to American citizenship. The country in
which he grew up was rough and, so far as the conventionalities
go, uncivilized; the family homestead was little more than a log
cabin; and existence meant a continual struggle with a not
particularly fruitful soil. The most remarkable figure in the
McCormick home circle, and the one whose every-day life exerted
the greatest influence on the boy, was his father. The older
McCormick had one obsessing idea that made him the favorite butt
of the local humorists. He believed that the labor spent in
reaping grain was a useless expenditure of human effort and that
machinery might be made to do the work. Other men, in this
country and in Europe, had nourished similar notions. Several
Englishmen had invented reaping machines, all of which had had
only a single defect--they would not reap. An ingenious English
actor had developed a contrivance which would cut imitation wheat
on the stage, but no one had developed a machine that would work
satisfactorily in real life. Robert McCormick spent the larger
part of his days and nights tinkering at a practical machine. He
finally produced a horrific contrivance, made up of whirling
sickles, knives, and revolving rods, pushed from behind by two
horses; when he tried this upon a grain-field, however, it made a
humiliating failure.

Evidently Robert McCormick had ambitions far beyond his powers;
yet without his absurd experiments the development of American
agriculture might have waited many years. They became the
favorite topics of conversation in the evening gatherings that
took place about the family log fire. Robert McCormick had
several sons, and one manifested a particular interest in his
repeated failures. From the time he was seven years old Cyrus
Hall McCormick became his father's closest companion. Others
might ridicule and revile, but this chubby, bright-eyed,
intelligent little boy was always the keenest listener, the one
comfort which the father had against his jeering neighbors. He
also became his father's constant associate in his rough
workshop. Soon, however, the older man noticed a change in their
relations. The boy was becoming the teacher, and the father was
taught. By the time Cyrus was eighteen, indeed, he had advanced
so far beyond his father that the latter had become merely a
proud observer. Young McCormick threw into the discard all his
father's ideas and struck out on entirely new lines. By the time
he had reached his twenty-second birthday he had constructed a
machine which, in all its essential details, is the one which we
have today. He had introduced seven principles, all of which are
an indispensable part of every reaper constructed now. One
afternoon he drove his unlovely contraption upon his father's
farm, with no witnesses except his own family. This group now
witnessed the first successful attempt ever made to reap with
machinery. A few days later young McCormick gave a public
exhibition at Steele's Tavern, cutting six acres of oats in an
afternoon. The popular ridicule soon changed into acclaim; the
new invention was exhibited in a public square and Cyrus
McCormick became a local celebrity. Perhaps the words that
pleased him most, however, were those spoken by his father. "I am
proud," said the old man, "to have a son who can do what I failed
to do."

This McCormick reaper dates from 1831; but it represented merely
the beginnings of the modern machine. It performed only a single
function; it simply cut the crop. When its sliding blade had
performed this task, the grain fell back upon a platform, and a
farm hand, walking alongside, raked this off upon the ground. A
number of human harvesters followed, picked up the bundles, and
tied a few strips of grain around them, making the sheaf. The
work was exceedingly wearying and particularly hard upon the
women who were frequently impressed into service as farm-hands.
About 1858 two farmers named Marsh, who lived near De Kalb,
Illinois, solved this problem. They attached to their McCormick
reaper a moving platform upon which the cut grain was deposited.
A footboard was fixed to the machine upon which two men stood. As
the grain came upon this moving platform these men seized it,
bound it into sheaves, and threw it upon the field. Simple as
this procedure seemed it really worked a revolution in
agriculture; for the first time since the pronouncement of the
primal curse, the farmer abandoned his hunchback attitude and did
his work standing erect. Yet this device also had its
disqualifications, the chief one being that it converted the
human sheaf-binder into a sweat-shop worker. It was necessary to
bind the grain as rapidly as the platform brought it up; the
worker was therefore kept in constant motion; and the
consequences were frequently distressing and nerve racking. Yet
this "Marsh Harvester" remained the great favorite with farmers
from about 1860 to 1874.

All this time, however, there was a growing feeling that even the
Marsh harvester did not represent the final solution of the
problem; the air was full of talk and prophecies about
self-binders, something that would take the loose wheat from the
platform and transform it into sheaves. Hundreds of attempts
failed until, in 1874, Charles B. Withington of Janesville,
Wisconsin, brought to McCormick a mechanism composed of two steel
arms which seized the grain, twisted a wire around it, cut the
wire, and tossed the completed sheaf to the earth. In actual
practice this contrivance worked with the utmost precision.
Finally American farmers had a machine that cut the grain, raked
it up, and bound it into sheaves ready for the mill. Human labor
had apparently lost its usefulness; a solitary man or woman,
perched upon a seat and driving a pair of horses, now performed
all these operations of husbandry.

By this time, scores of manufacturers had entered the field in
opposition to McCormick, but his acquisition of Withington's
invention had apparently made his position secure. Indeed, for
the next ten years he had everything his own way. Then suddenly
an ex-keeper of a drygoods store in Maine crossed his path. This
was William Deering, a character quite as energetic, forceful,
and pugnacious as was McCormick himself. Though McCormick had
made and sold thousands of his selfbinders, farmers were already
showing signs of discontent. The wire proved a continual
annoyance. It mingled with the straw and killed the cattle--at
least so the farmers complained; it cut their hands and even
found its way, with disastrous results, into the flour mills.
Deering now appeared as the owner of a startling invention by
John F. Appleby. This did all that the Withington machine did and
did it better and quicker; and it had the great advantage that it
bound with twine instead of wire. The new machine immediately
swept aside all competitors; McCormick, to save his reaper from
disaster, presently perfected a twine binder of his own. The
appearance of Appleby's improvement in 1884 completes the cycle
of the McCormick reaper on its mechanical side The harvesting
machine of fifty nations today is the one to which Appleby put
the final touches in 1884. Since then nothing of any great
importance has been added.

This outline of invention, however, comprises only part of the
story. The development of the reaper business presents a
narrative quite as adventurous as that of the reaper itself.
Cyrus McCormick was not only a great inventor; he was also a
great businessman. So great was his ability in this direction,
indeed, that there has been a tendency to discredit his
achievements as a creative genius and to attribute his success to
his talents as an organizer and driver of industry. "I may make a
million dollars from this reaper," said McCormick, in the full
tide of enthusiasm over his invention; and these words indicate
an indispensable part of his program. He had no miserly instinct
but he had one overpowering ambition. It was McCormick's
conviction, almost religious in its fervor, that the harvester
business of the world belonged to him. As already indicated,
plenty of other hardy spirits, many of them almost as commanding
personalities as himself, disputed the empire. Not far from
12,000 patents on harvesting machines were granted in this
country in the fifty years following McCormick's invention, and
more than two hundred companies were formed to compete for the
market. McCormick always regarded these competitors as highwaymen
who had invaded a field which had been almost divinely set apart
for himself. A man of covenanting antecedents, heroic in his
physical proportions, with a massive, Jove-like head and beard,
tirelessly devoted to his work, watching every detail with a
microscopic eye, marshaling a huge force of workers who were as
possessed by this one overruling idea as was McCormick himself,
he certainly presented an almost unassailable battlefront to his
antagonists. The competition that raged between McCormick and
the makers of rival machines was probably the fiercest that has
prevailed in any American industry. For marketing his machine
McCormick developed a system almost as ingenious as the machine
itself. The popularization of so ungainly and expensive a
contrivance as the harvester proved a slow and difficult task.
McCormick at first attempted to build his product on his Virginia
farm and for many years it was known as the Virginia Reaper.
Nearly ten years passed, however, before he sold his first
machine. The farmer first refused to take it seriously. "It's a
great invention," he would say, "but I'm running a farm, not a
circus." About 1847 McCormick decided that the Western prairies
offered the finest field for its activities, and established his
factory at Chicago, then an ugly little town on the borders of a
swamp. This selection proved to be a stroke of genius, for it
placed the harvesting factory right at the door of its largest

The price of the harvester, however, seemed an insurmountable
obstacle to its extensive use. The early settlers of the Western
plains had little more than their brawny hands as capital, and
the homestead law furnished them their land practically free. In
the eyes of a large-seeing pioneer like McCormick this was
capital enough. He determined that his reaper should develop this
extensive domain, and that the crops themselves should pay the
cost. Selling expensive articles on the installment plan now
seems a commonplace of business, but in those days it was
practically unknown. McCormick was the first to see its
possibilities. He established an agent, usually the general
storekeeper, in every agricultural center. Any farmer who had a
modicum of cash and who bore a reputation for thrift and honesty
could purchase a reaper. In payment he gave a series of notes, so
timed that they fell due at the end of harvesting seasons. Thus,
as the money came in from successive harvests, the pioneer paid
off the notes, taking two, three, or four years in the process.
In the sixties and seventies immigrants from the Eastern States
and from Europe poured into the Mississippi Valley by the
hundreds of thousands. Almost the first person who greeted the
astonished Dane, German, or Swede was an agent of the harvester
company, offering to let him have one of these strange machines
on these terms. Thus the harvester, under McCormick's
comprehensive selling plans, did as much as the homestead act in
opening up this great farming region.

McCormick covered the whole agricultural United States with these
agents. In this his numerous competitors followed suit, and the
liveliest times ensued. From that day to this the agents of
harvesting implements have lent much animation and color to rural
life in this country. Half a dozen men were usually tugging away
at one farmer at the same time. The mere fact that the farmer had
closed a contract did not end his troubles, for "busting up
competitors' sales" was part of the agent's business. The
situation frequently reached a point where there was only one way
to settle rival claims and that was by a field contest. At a
stated time two or three or four rival harvesters would suddenly
appear on the farmer's soil, each prepared to show, by actual
test, its superiority over the enemy. Farmers and idlers for
miles around would gather to witness the Homeric struggle. At a
given signal the small army of machines would spring savagely at
a field of wheat. The one that could cut the allotted area in the
shortest time was regarded as the winner. The harvester would
rush on all kinds of fields, flat and hilly, dry and wet, and
would cut all kinds of crops, and even stubble. All manner of
tests were devised to prove one machine stronger than its rival;
a favorite idea was to chain two back to back, and have them
pulled apart by frantic careering horses; the one that suffered
the fewest breakdowns would be generally acclaimed from town to
town. Sometimes these field tests were the most exciting and
spectacular events at country fairs.

Thus the harvesting machine "pushed the frontier westward at the
rate of thirty miles a year," according to William H. Seward. It
made American and Canadian agriculture the most efficient in the
world. The German brags that his agriculture is superior to
American, quoting as proof the more bushels of wheat or potatoes
he grows to an acre. But the comparison is fallacious. The real
test of efficiency is, not the crops that are grown per acre, but
the crops that are grown per man employed. German efficiency gets
its results by impressing women as cultivators--depressing bent
figures that are in themselves a sufficient criticism upon any
civilization. America gets its results by using a minimum of
human labor and letting machinery do the work. Thus America's
methods are superior not only from the standpoint of economics
but of social progress. All nations, including Germany, use our
machinery, but none to the extent that prevails on the North
American Continent.

Perhaps McCormick's greatest achievement is that his machine has
banished famine wherever it is extensively used, at least in
peace times. Before the reaper appeared existence, even in the
United States, was primarily a primitive struggle for bread. The
greatest service of the harvester has been that it has freed the
world--unless it is a world distracted by disintegrating
war--from a constant anxiety concerning its food supply. The
hundreds of thousands of binders, active in the fields of every
country, have made it certain that humankind shall not want for
its daily bread. When McCormick exhibited his harvester at the
London Exposition of 1851, the London Times ridiculed it as "a
cross between an Astley chariot, a wheel barrow, and a flying
machine." Yet this same grotesque object, widely used in Canada,
Argentina, Australia, South Africa, and India, becomes an engine
that really holds the British Empire together.

For the forty years succeeding the Civil War the manufacture of
harvesting machinery was a business in which many engaged, but in
which few survived. The wildest competition ruthlessly destroyed
all but half a dozen powerful firms. Cyrus McCormick died in
1884, but his sons proved worthy successors; the McCormick
factory still headed the list, manufacturing, in 1900, one-third
of all the self-binders used in the world. The William Deering
Company came next and then D. M. Osborne, J. J. Glessner, and W.
H. Jones, established factories that made existence exceedingly
uncomfortable for the pioneers. Whatever one may think of the
motives which caused so many combinations in the early years of
the twentieth century, there is no question that irresistible
economic forces compelled these great harvester companies to get
together. Quick profits in the shape of watered stock had nothing
to do with the formation of the International Harvester Company.
All the men who controlled these enterprises were individualists,
with a natural loathing for trusts, combinations, and pools. They
wished for nothing better than to continue fighting the Spartan
battle that had made existence such an exciting pastime for more
than half a century. But the simple fact was that these several
concerns were destroying one another; it was a question of
joining hands, ending the competition that was eating so deeply
into their financial resources, or reducing the whole business to
chaos. When Mr. George W. Perkins, of J. P. Morgan and Company,
first attempted to combine these great companies, the antagonisms
which had been accumulated in many years of warfare constantly
threatened to defeat his end. He early discovered that the only
way to bring these men together was to keep them apart. The usual
way of creating such combinations is to collect the
representative leaders, place them around a table, and persuade
them to talk the thing over. Such an amicable situation, however,
was impossible in the present instance. Even when the four big
men--McCormick, Deering, Glessner, and Jones--were finally
brought for the final treaty of peace to J. P. Morgan's office,
Mr. Perkins had to station them in four separate rooms and flit
from one to another arranging terms. Had these four men been
brought face to face, the Harvester Company would probably never
have been formed.

Having once signed their names, however, these once antagonistic
interests had little difficulty in forming a strong combination.
The company thus brought together manufactured 85 per cent of all
the farm machinery used in this country. It owned its own
coal-fields and iron mines and its own forests, and it produces
most of the implements used by 10,000,000 farmers. In 1847 Cyrus
McCormick made 100 reapers and sold them for $10,000; by 1902 the
annual production of the corporation amounted to hundreds of
thousands of harvesters--besides an almost endless assortment of
other agricultural tools, ploughs, drills, rakes, gasoline
engines, tractors, threshers, cream separators, and the like--and
the sales had grown to about $75,000,000. This is merely the
financial measure of progress; the genuine achievements of
McCormick's invention are millions of acres of productive land
and a farming population which is without parallel elsewhere for
its prosperity, intelligence, manfulness, and general

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