The Journal of Economic History


The Mechanization of Reaping and Mowing in American Agriculture, 1833–1870

Alan L. Olmsteada1

a1 University of California, Davis

The successful demonstration of reaping machines by Obed Hussey and Cyrus McCormick in 1833 and 1834 inaugurated long series of events that eventually revolutionized the harvesting of small grains and grasses, drastically altering the lives and productivity of grain farmers. Given the ultimate success and widespread impact of the reaping machine, historians have long pondered why almost twenty years elapsed between the date when Obed Hussey sold his first machine in 1833 and the first wave of popular acceptance in the mid-1850's. Why did it take twenty years for a significant number of farmers to begin to exchange their cradles and scythes for reapers and mowers? What important economic and technological factors governed the initial diffusion of this invention? These are important historical questions, the answers to which can significantly influence our broader perceptions of the problem of technological diffusion.