Don’t Fear the Reaper

Halloween is long gone, so we’re not talking about the Grim version here—but don’t fear him, either! Instead, since it’s nearly Thanksgiving, a harvest celebration, we’re talking about the reaper that cuts and gathers (or “reaps”) crops.

Manual Reaping

Naturally, the first reapers farmers used were handheld and powered by good ol’ elbow grease. After farmers got tired of plucking ears of grain, etc., by hand, they invented sickles and scythes to cut the stalks for harvest. (A scythe is a type of reaper, which is why the Grim Reaper carries one and why he’s called that. Whaddaya know?!)

Mechanical Reaping

Artist's rendition of the Hussey Reaper in action (see below)

Artist’s rendition of the Hussey Reaper in action (see below)

A truly unsung hero of human civilization, the mechanical reaper is one of the most important inventions in the history of mankind. They helped make it possible for farmers to harvest more crops faster and easier, which in turn made it possible to sustain villages and settlements via agriculture without every single person in the group having to work the fields, which in turn allowed civilization to grow in other ways.

The first mechanical reaper was invented by the Belgae Gallics. Known as the “Gallic header,” this simple device cut the ears off grain stalks, leaving the straw behind, and was pushed by an ox or oxen. The Gallic header was essentially lost during the Dark Ages, because Dark Ages, and farmers reverted to manual reaping. Dummies.

After just a few quick centuries, in 1814, Thomas “Big Tom” Dobbs of Birmingham, England, invented a new-and-improved mechanical reaper. Dobbs’ invention consisted of a circular blade that cut grain stalks as it went and gathered the harvested grains via a pair of rollers.

It took but fourteen years for a newer-and-improveder mechanical reaper to appear. Developed by Scottish minister and inventor Patrick “Big Paddy” Bell, it used a revolving reel, a cutting knife, and a canvas conveyor belt. Bell’s reaper was widely used throughout Scotland, and eventually reached mainland Europe.

Hussey vs. McCormick

In 1833, American inventor Obed Hussey patented the Hussey Reaper, which provided a significant improvement in reaping efficiency. The Hussey Reaper could be drawn by two horses (and wasn’t particularly strenuous on the horsies), as well as a human operator and a separate human driver. It’s design left reaped fields with clean and even surfaces.

Invented by the father and son duo of Robert and Cyrus McCormick and patented in 1837, the McCormick Reaper was also horsedrawn and was specially designed to harvest small grain crops. Though it included a number of unique features, the McCormick Reaper was very similar in design to the Hussey Reaper, and Hussey and the McCormicks battled each other in patent court for many years, even as they continued to update their respective designs to outdo their competitor in the marketplace.

A McCormick Reaper reaping.

A McCormick Reaper reaping.

A mere twenty-four years later, the US Patent and Trademark Office issued their ruling. They determined that Hussey’s design was the basis for both sides’ reapers and their success. It was ruled that Hussey’s heirs should receive monetary compensation for his invention as well as a number of further innovations made by others. Simultaneously, and perhaps paradoxically, McCormick’s patent was extended for seven more years.

Hussey Reaper photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via / No known copyright restrictions

McCormick Reaper photo credit: UpNorth Memories – Donald (Don) Harrison via / CC BY-NC-ND