Nature Bulletin No. 759 June 6, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
The early settlers in Illinois and Indiana grew corn, but not much wheat
other than patches of it to be ground into flour by local grist mills.
There was a reason. In those days wheat had to be sown, cut and
threshed in virtually the same way as it had been for 6000 years -- by
hand -- and that meant countless hours of monotonous backbreaking
The earliest tool for cutting grain was a long knife of wood or bone with
flakes of flint inserted to give it a saw like edge. Late Stone Age people
used curved flint tools similar to the sickles made by ancient Egyptians
of bronze and, later, of steel. The Romans developed a two-handed
scythe that was gradually improved until, after the Middle Ages, a
cradle was added.
The cradle, as perfected in colonial America, had five long wooden
fingers paralleling the scythe blade and attached to the snath (handle).
On each back stroke it laid the cut grain in a neat swath. Two men, one
cradling and the other gathering bundles which he bound with bands of
straw, could harvest and shock about two acres of wheat in a long day.
After harvesting the bundles were hauled to a threshing floor, scattered
over it and, to separate the grains from the heads, trodden by cattle as in
Biblical times, or beaten with flails. Then, after the straw was raked off,
the wheat was cleaned by winnowing -- tossing forkfuls of grain and
chaff into the air so that the chaff (hulls) would be blown aside by wind.
The invention of two successful reaping machines -- independently by
Obed Hussey in Ohio, who obtained the first patent in 1834, and by
Cyrus Hall McCormick in Virginia - brought about an end to that
tedious handiwork. Further, they apparently encouraged the invention
and manufacture of other labor-saving farm implements and machinery:
the chilled steel moldboards plow, harrows, seeding drills, corn planters
and cultivators, threshing machines, and steam "traction engines" to
pull or propel them.
The first reapers merely cut the standing grain and, with a revolving
reel, swept it onto a platform from which it was raked off into piles by a
man walking alongside. It could harvest more grain than five men using
cradles. The next innovation, patented in 1858, was a self-raking reaper
with an endless canvas belt that delivered the cut grain to two men who
riding on the end of the platform, bundled it.
Meanwhile, Cyrus McCormick had moved to Chicago, built a reaper
factory, and founded what eventually became the International
Harvester Company. In 1872 he produced a reaper which automatically
bound the bundles with wire. In 1880 he came out with a binder which,
using a magical knotting device invented by John F. Appleby, a
Wisconsin pastor., bound the handles with twine. Ultimately, in this
20th century, it was replaced by the self-propelled combine, operated
by one man, which cuts gathers, threshes, and sacks the grain
The reaper was the first step in a transition from hand labor to the
mechanized farming of today. It shattered an ancient bottleneck in the
path of progress and brought about an industrial revolution, as well as a
vast change in agriculture. A man became able to produce more and
more with less and less effort. He could farm more land. His excess
crops fed the city folks, factory workers, and the builders of canals,
highways and railroad. Hand in hand, the reapers and the railroads
enabled the rapid westward movement of our civilization.
We will be back in September. Meanwhile, have a good summer!
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Update: June 2012