“Hussey’s Reaper.” (July 12, 1841)


This article, published in 1841 in the Farmers’ Register, is an account of farmer William B. Harrison’s experiments with a mechanical reaper designed by Obed Hussey, the main competitor to the reaper invented by Robert McCormick and improved by his son Leander McCormick.  Harrison describes how enslaved laborers, or “hands,” developed ways of working with the reaper to make the process of cutting and gathering wheat more efficient by working at the more demanding speed of the reaper.



To the Editor of the Farmers’ Register.

Agreeably to the arrangement made between Mr. Hussey and yourself, with a view of testing the merits of his reaping machines fully in a long harvest, be made his appearance here on the 27th ult., having been preceded some days by two of his reapers, one of either sort; and having received due notice of the probable time of our commencing that interesting operation to the farmer, the securing of our crop of wheat. He accordingly put them in operation the next day, but from the unskillfulness of the hands, and from the horses not being accustomed to the work, and probably from the greater friction in using new machines, the work was so badly done, and the loss of time so great, that I more than once regretted having given my consent to make trial of them here. It is proper to observe that the first day the experiment was made on ten-foot beds, where the furrows were quite deep; and in crossing the beds the horses were a good deal jostled, and in going with the beds, or diagonally across them, as was done over part of the ground, the wheels occasionally would run into the furrows, and in both cases the machines were prevented from operating successfully. The next day they continued to work on the same unfavorable ground, and though there was a manifest improvement in the work done, and in the quantity of it, I was still very much dissatisfied. The third day, however, we removed them to a more favorable site, where the beds were wide, the furrows shallow, and the wheat heavy, and I very soon became convinced that Mr. Hussey’s reaper did not deserve to be classed with the humbugs of the day. By this time the horses and hands employed had become better trained, and the work was beautifully done—better indeed than I ever saw done by the most expert cradler and binder, “with every appliance and means to boot” to enable them to do the work well. Less wheat was left on the ground traversed by the machines, either standing or cut, than I ever observed in any wheat field before.

I wish I could speak as strongly in favor of the reaper as a time-saving machine, but the truth obliges me to say that I cannot. Still I think that it will save time; but the question is, how much? A very difficult question it is, too, and by no means so easily solved as might at first glance be imagined. Indeed so much depends on the locality, the length of the rows and the heaviness of the crop, (the reaper operating to most advantage in heavy wheat,) that the time saved is con-

— Page 435—

stantly varying; and to approximate the truth, therefore, is as much as can be expected. Something, indeed, a good deal, depends upon the fact, whether good cradlers have to be stopped in order to run the machine; good policy, however, would always suggest the propriety of stopping the worst.

It is not enough to ascertain the number of binders required to run the machine, in order to determine precisely the time saved. Say 8 hands are required for this purpose in heavy wheat, and where the rows are pretty long, and such situations are the most favorable to the reaper, and six where the wheat is lightest and the rows short, and a good deal of time consequently lost in turning. Are six cradlers saved in the former case, and four in the latter, estimating the driver and raker, who ought to be good and efficient hands, as of equal value with cradlers? Certainly not; and for this reason. The reaper cannot be started as long as there is any dew on the wheat in the morning, nor can it operate after much as fallen in the evening. At such times the hands that attend the machine have to be employed in some other way; and moving from one kind of work to another is always attended with more or less loss of time. Nor is this all. In shocking wheat after the machine, some loss of time is also incurred. Where we use the cradles, the binders follow immediately behind them, and then come the pickers-up, followed by the shockers, and the whole work goes on together. The reaper, however, when operating in long rows, as it must do to work to advantage, scatters the work so much, leaving it in long narrow strings, that shockers cannot find constant employment in following it. We have found it necessary, therefore, to stop a part of our cradles, once a day, in order to bring up the shocking after the machines, which certainly occasions some loss of time. Still I think on the whole that the securing of our crop has been somewhat expedited by the use of these machines; and if binders could have been hired to operate them, without stopping the cradles for the purpose, our harvest would have been very materially shortened; and the loss of wheat would unquestionably have been much less.

It would add greatly to the value of these machines, if the ingenious inventor, Mr. Hussey, could devise some way to make them cut damp straw; so that they might be kept at work all day. Whatever Mr. Hussey has not accomplished, however, is, I am sure, owing to the intrinsic difficulty of making the improvement desired; for the wonder with me is not that he has achieved no more, but that he has done so much.

The reaper compares most advantageously with cradles in cutting heavy wheat that stands well, cutting it quite as rapidly as it would a lighter crop, which the cradles would not do; or in cutting fallow wheat that inclines altogether one way. The fallow wheat, however, must be cut the way it inclines, the knife going under it, and it is laid beautifully, as it falls from the machine, for the binders; but the machine must go back without cutting. I am not of opinion that the reaper will answer in all situations, or will even supersede the use of the cradle altogether; but I incline to think that it may be used to great advantage in securing parts of almost every large crop; at least on level land.

After timing these machines repeatedly, I have not been as yet able to get either of them to cut more than an acre per hour, and, by the way, that is quite expeditious work in heavy wheat. Before trying the reaper, I had supposed that good scythemen would average more than 2 acres in good wheat, but I am now convinced that this is quite as much as can be done. My overseer, Mr. Adams, who superintended the machines, and is quite a judicious man, entertains the belief that 1 ½ acres might be accomplished by the reaper in an hour, with fast horses and superior driving. It is probably, too, that the experience of another season might enable us to effect more than we have yet done. But still I doubt if an acre and a half an hour can ever be counted on for many consecutive hours.

An observant gentleman of Charles City, and a practical farmer too, who has one of these machines which he worked last year, informed me recently that it would cut down sixteen acres of wheat a day, or would do the work of eight cradles. The testimony of this gentleman is every way entitled to credit, and justice to Mr. Hussey seems to require that it should be mentioned. I presume of course that some allowance was made for the time lost in the morning and evening, when the straw was damp.

In removing the machines, we employed for the most part of the same horses and hands. When they can be conveniently changed, so as to lose no time in feeding, the amount of work will no doubt be much greater; as full two hours are allowed at dinner time in harvest. When this plan is adopted, the horses and hands intended to work the latter half of the day, must be fed only.

I have heretofore mentioned that the two machines sent me by Mr. Hussey are of different kinds. The one has two large wheels and the other one, and I give a decided preference to the former. It is an easier draught and performs better in every respect.

Before taking leave of the subject, I would respectfully suggest to those who are making trial of these machines for the first time, that they ought not to be disheartened, if they fail to perform very perfectly for the first day or two. Whatever difference of opinion may exist in regard to their saving time, there certainly can be none as to the very superior style, in which they save wheat, when properly managed.

With regard to the durability of these machines, I can say no more than that neither gave out during our harvest, and that they are to appearance quite strong.

Wm. B. Harrison.

Brandon, July 12th, 1841.

APA Citation:
Harrison, William B.. “Hussey’s Reaper.” (July 12, 1841). (2021, December 09). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Harrison, William B.. "“Hussey’s Reaper.” (July 12, 1841)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (09 Dec. 2021). Web. 30 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 09
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.