Today, some thoughts about Cyrus McCormick and
America's Centennial. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
We finished our first
hundred years sleek, confident, and well-fed. So we
ordered a grand birthday party -- the 1876
Philadelphia Centennial. It was the largest
exhibition ever mounted -- 236 acres, 30,000
exhibits, and over 8,000,000 visitors.
The Centennial celebrated American industrial
power. Its most famous exhibit was the gigantic
1600-HP Corliss steam engine that powered Machinery
Hall. The first piece of the Statue of Liberty --
the hand and torch -- had just arrived from France
and was put on exhibit. But it paled against the
machinery -- the fruit of American factories, the
raw muscle of our industries.
The glimpse behind all this wasn't entirely pretty.
By 1876 men like Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould,
and Daniel Drew were law unto themselves. They
operated above the law and controlled small private
armies. The financier Drew loudly complained that
America had become "too democratic." In fact,
government of and by the people had grown weak, and
business was in the saddle.
Invention was the specie
behind all the machinery. But invention profited
the strong -- not necessarily the inventive. Take
Cyrus McCormick, for example. He demonstrated his
famous reaper in 1831. Then he improved it for two
decades. But after he went into production, his
life work changed from invention to combat.
The patent protection system was also weak. Tough
people fought endlessly in the courts for the
ownership of ideas. On the way to becoming a
millionaire, McCormick retained a young lawyer
named Abraham Lincoln to help him ruin just one of
his rivals. McCormick simply loved to fight. In
1862 he was overcharged $8.40 for his wife's train
luggage. His legal war with the New York Central
Railroad ended only when his estate was awarded a
$20,000 settlement after his death. His wife wrote
to their son, "You see, your dear father's course
from first to last is ... vindicated." Nothing
about what he'd accomplished by developing the
reaper -- only that he'd won an obsessive legal
The great 1876 Centennial subtly celebrated this
mentality. By then the individualism that'd brought
us so far had gone quite mad. During the next
century we've tried, with varying success, to put a
leash around the power brokers.
It's been suggested that McCormick took his ideas
for the reaper from the slave who helped him build
it. But I think the story is even sadder than that.
I see a man putting youthful inventiveness behind
him. I see McCormick and others forgetting the
joyful creativity that'd brought America so far in
her first hundred years.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds