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Thumbnail of Stephen McCormick (source)
Stephen McCormick
(26 Aug 1784 - 28 Aug 1875)

American inventor and manufacturer who invented and manufactured a practical cast iron plow with detachable components. His was an early use of standardization of replaceable parts which led to the development of improved manufacturing processes.


Stephen McCormick

American inventor and manufacturer of a cast iron plow with detachable components.
He introduced the concept of replaceable and standardized parts.

Stephen McCormick showing his plow - full-length photo
Stephen McCormick showing his plow (source)

Stephen McCormick was born in Auburn, Fauquier County, Virginia. He was a cousin of Cyrus McCormick who invented the famous reaper.

Ignoring his father's wishes that he study law, McCormick turned to invention, and one of his earliest achievements was to increase the productivity of the water-powered grist-mill by improving the shape of its nether millstone. On its face, grain was placed to be ground by the rotation of the upper stone. The shape of the grinding surfaces controls how the meal that was introduced in the middle would work its way out to the rim, and leave as flour.

By 1816, he had turned his inventiveness to the manufacture of a cast-iron plow that improved on the earlier design of Charles Newbold. McCormick created his plow with detachable components. His cast-iron mould board was designed to have an adjustable wrought-iron point attached beneath it. In use the plow had a lower draft, but produced a deeper furrow and broke up the soil more effectively.

His ideas led to the use of replaceable, standardized parts. McCormick's first patent was issued on 3 Feb 1819 (No. X3063), with further patents on 28 Jan 1826 (No. X4325) and 1 Dec 1837 (No. 501).

After starting production of plows on his Auburn farm for local sales, by 1826, McCormick had expanded his marketing efforts to the entire state of Virgina and the South. In addition to his manufacturing at Auburn, he started factories in Leesburg and Alexandria, Virginia, which sold plows either by direct sales to the farmer, or through his company, McCormick and Minor, based in Richmond.

In addition to the plows built at his own factories, McCormick had an income from licensing his design to some dozen iron foundries in Virginia, with a royalty of up to seventy-five cents per plow. In this way, more than ten thousand plows of McCormick's design had been made by 1839.

Within a year of his second patent, McCormick experienced infringement of his patent rights when other iron foundries widely copied the design without paying royalties. McCormick even had to defend his patent against a claim of infringement by inventor Gideon Davis, but the matter was settled out of court.

While McCormick's sales were primarily in Virginia, and to a lesser extend in the Southern U.S. the well-known inventor, Jethro Wood, successfully manufactured and sold cast-iron plows in the Northern U.S. states. Wood's patent, however, was issued about seven months later than McCormick's.

The main period of activity for the production of his plows spanned from 1826 to 1850, and when McCormick later retired from the business to enjoy his later life, he lived to the age of ninety-one.

Image of Stephen McCormick's first patented plow, from restored copy of U.S. Patent No. X3063
Stephen McCormick's first patented plow
Image from restored copy of U.S. Patent No. X3063 (source)

Ref: Dictionary of American Biography.


See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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