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What is a Mechanical Reaper?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A mechanical reaper is an agricultural device that harvests crops mechanically, providing an alternative to using laborers to gather in crops by hand at harvest time. Its development was a major event in the history of agriculture, playing a critical role in the mechanization of agriculture that occurred during the 19th century. Mechanization allowed for much higher rates of agricultural production, with reduced physical labor requirements.

Although the first mechanical reaper was patented in 1834, several societies used their own versions historically. The Romans actually invented and widely used mechanical reapers, but the technology was later lost, forcing Europeans to revert to harvesting crops by hand. Several other people have also laid claim to the invention, with a handful of patents dating to the 1830s in various regions of the world.

With the mechanical version, a farmer steers the reaper through the field, and it collects the crops. Reapers are classically used to harvest grain crops, and the original McCormick reaper simply cut the stalks of grain, leaving bunches behind for collection. A reaper-binder was quickly invented to cut stalks of grain and bundle them for easier handling, and modern day agriculture relies on the combine harvester, which reaps and threshes the grain all at once, streamlining the harvest process considerably.

Reaping by hand takes time and some skill, and the rate of harvest is limited by the number of workers available and their skill at harvesting. With a mechanical reaper, a farm worker can harvest multiple fields in a single day, as long as the reaper is in good condition. With the use of mechanical devices, harvest can go from being a multi-day affair in which additional laborers are hired to bring in the harvest to the work of an afternoon on a tractor.

Specialty machines have been developed for fragile crops or crops with special needs, like rice. These reapers have attachments that are customized for particular grains, minimizing damage and maximizing yield. Very few crops in the developed world are still harvested by hand as a result of the mechanization of agriculture. In developing nations, there may be more of a focus on manual labor in the raising and harvesting of crops, and working farm animals can also be seen in some regions pulling reapers, plows, and other agricultural devices.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon928091 — On Jan 27, 2014

Cool article, but who really did it? The father or son? A lot of other inventions have had the same questions

By MrsPramm — On Feb 16, 2013

@Iluviaporos - I can see that argument working with other forms of mechanization, but I think with a harvester it's much more difficult to tell whether they make it more or less difficult to get a job.

They increase the amount of farmland each individual farmer can work, which means that more people are required (in theory) to help with other tasks.

When they aren't used, more people are needed to harvest, but harvesting is only a few days worth of work per year, particularly on farms without many different kinds of crops (and a wide variety usually means different kinds of harvesters anyway, some of which are still people). Harvesting requires a high level of fitness and skill as well and it usually happens all at once, so harvesters can't go from farm to farm all year.

So, yeah, I think that the mechanical reaper invention didn't deprive that many people of jobs.

By lluviaporos — On Feb 15, 2013

@Denha - I do as well. The mechanical harvesters not only waste a lot of grain, they are also very destructive to the ecosystem that gets set up in the fields, while harvesting by hand allows the field dwellers time to get away. Which might not sound like it matters much, but if you've got a good proportion of predators to pests in your fields, you don't have to worry so much about the pests. And they are the ones who spring back much more quickly.

Plus having mechanical reapers takes jobs away from people who might otherwise be able to make a living.

By EarlyForest — On Oct 31, 2012

@anon270965 -- Robert Hall McCormick came up with the basic idea for it, and then Cyrus, his son, improved on that idea and then patented it.

By anon270965 — On May 24, 2012

Who is the inventor: Cryus McCormick or Robert Hall McCormick?

By Denha — On Feb 22, 2011

While mechanical reapers do save a lot of time, they also can have a great margin of error. I admire those farmers who, even today, still reap crops by hand.

By sherlock87 — On Feb 05, 2011

I had never read before that the Romans' first mechanical reaper technology had been lost. It makes me wonder just how many other inventions and forms of technology were lost during that time, and if they have all been recreated or we are still waiting to reinvent something.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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