Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
Nature Bulletins
Newton Home Page

Introduction and Instructions

Search Engine

Table of Contents



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 toil.

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 mechanically.

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!

To return to the Nature Bulletins Click Here!
Hosted by NEWTON

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Sponsered by Argonne National Labs