The history of International Harvester starts in the wheat fields of Virginia during the 1830s on the farm of Robert McCormick. Farming at that time was hard work using only the power and sweat of the farm workers aided by horses. One of the most backbreaking and important jobs was reaping the standing grain, a job done in the hottest part of the year. A mechanized reaper was the dream of many a farmer and many experiments were underway both in the US and Europe.
The farmer working as a reaper used a scythe with a cradle to cut the wheat and lay it in bundles. A binder followed the reaper and tied the bundles into shocks with twists of wheat. A good scythe-man could cut 2-3 acres per day.
Between 1810 and 1830 Robert McCormick experimented with mechanical harvesting of wheat and demonstrated a working version in 1831. Cyrus McCormick (b.1809) continued his father’s experiments and eventually developed a working model of a practical reaper. The mechanical reaper had several important components.
Straight reciprocating knife to cut the standing wheat.
Fingers to guide the wheat stalk to the knife.
Reel to pull the wheat stalk against the knife.
Platform to catch the falling wheat.
Single main power wheel.
Cutting to one side of the draft.
Divider bar to separate cut and standing grain.
In 1931 a reproduction of the first reaper was built by the International Harvester Company to celebrate the century of the reaper. One is on display at the Ardenwood Farms Museum is occasionally loaned to other tractor shows. If you have a chance to see this remarkable machine, do so.
It took a while for the mechanical reaper to be accepted by farmers of the day and the first machines were not sold until 1840 and full production started in 1846. Meanwhile other inventors were working on the mechanical reaper and many public trials were held between competing designs. One inventor in particular was Obed Hussey whose machines faced off the McCormick machines in several field trials. Both machines had strengths and weaknesses and both introduced refinements to the design of reapers. For many years the origins of the reaper were in dispute and countless hours of court testimony has done little to clear the air.
In the late 1840s, Cyrus moved his reaper company to Chicago to be near the center of US farming then moving into the plains of Illinois and Iowa. Chicago also provided ready access to ship transportation to support a growing export business. With Cyrus running the business and his brother Leander directing manufacturing operations, the company continued to grow.
Eventually in 1879 the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company was formed to manufacture and sell agriculture machinery. Over the years many improvements were added to the reaper and other types of agricultural machinery were added to the company line as mechanical farming gained popularity. By the turn of the century man and horse power were aided by mechanical farm implements from plowing to harvesting. Grain harvesting became completely mechanized.
As the McCormick company grew so did its needs for capital and as mechanical farming grew, the marketplace became ever more competitive. One of the biggest competitors was Deering Harvester company. Deering manufactured much of the same equipment as McCormick and beat McCormick to many improvements. In 1902 under the direction of J.P. Morgan & Company the two companies merged with several others to form the International Harvester Company.
During the several years following the merger, the IHC company fought off several lawsuits. The company pulled out of several states due to lawsuits that went on until the 1920s. For a while the company maintained the names of the component companies and McCormick Deering. Eventually after several settlements the company settled on International Harvester Company.
The IHC company was a full line manufacture of agriculture equipment. With new capital the company was able to compete in all phases of farm equipment. Eventually the company made and sold tractors, stationary engines, trucks, plows, Scout off road vehicles, construction equipment, household appliances, jet engines, along with a full line of farm equipment.
Early machines were powered by teams of horses. The care and feeding of horses was almost as much work as was the rest of the farm. Horses needed care year round, their feed represented a significant portion of the farm crops, and horses could not be worked long hours. A harvest crew could require nearly 50 horses. In the beginning of the new century the internal combustion engine was developed to the point that it was light weight and reliable enough for farm use. Both McCormick and Deering had been experimenting with Internal combustion engine power farm implements from before the merger.
These early experiments taught the companies much about IC engines but neither developed a product to market. IHC continued development of the IC engine and introduced a complete line of engines for portable farm work.
The Famous Engines introduced in 1906 were used to power an IHC line of friction drive tractors. These were large tractors used as traction engines to pull large plows and for belt work on threshing machines. There was limited use for large heavy tractors so a smaller tractor was needed. IHC lead the development of farm tractors and later in construction equipment. Over the years many were tested in the Nebraska Tractor Tests.
In 1924 IHC was facing fierce competition from small cheap tractors in the Fordson. The 10-20 and 15-30 were powerful tractors of high quality and reliability but were also very expensive. The 10-20 sold for over $1000 while the Fordson could be had for as little as $350. The problem was that both tractors were designed for tasks such as plowing. Horses were still needed for careful work such as cultivating.
IHC experimented with a general purpose tractor. A tractor with the visibility necessary for working close to the crop as in cultivating but with the power and balance for traction work such as plowing. The result was the Farmall. Shortly after the introduction of the Farmall in 1924, Ford moved all production of the Fordson to England and ceased to be an important player in the US market until the 9N of 1939.
The Farmall introduced the tricycle style of row crop tractor. The narrow frame aided visibility around crop rows and tall wheels were designed to work tall row crops such as corn and cotton. Mounted implements such as cultivators and corn pickers further extended the use of the tractor. The row crop Farmall replaced the last horses on many American farms and was the start of a long and distinguished line of Farmalls.
Over the years several books have been written about IHC. The company had a long history but was merged with J.I. Case in 1982 to form Case IHC. The truck division was split off to form Navistar and has continued to be a successful leader in the heavy truck industry.
After the merger of IHC and Case in the early eighties, many of the archives of the IHC company were moved to the Wisconsin Historical Society. www.wisconsinhistory.org/libraryarchives/ihc/