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.