The history of the combine harvester

Updated November 21, 2016

For thousands of years, reaping grain by hand was the only way to bring in the crop. After the Industrial Revolution, however, machinery of all sorts began to arrive on the scene, including the harvesters that today are known as combines. Rows of combines making inroads into vast fields of golden wheat is one of the iconic sights of summer anywhere that grain is grown in quantity.

The First Reaping Machine

A horse-drawn combination "harvester-thresher" was introduced in Michigan in 1836. Primitive in design, it was also used in California but gave way to more efficient machines.

The McCormick Reaper

The first harvesting machines were devised by Patrick Bell in Scotland and Cyrus Hall McCormick in the United States. McCormick invented his first reaper at the age of 22 and tested it in a neighbour's field in 1831. It worked well, but was so noisy that it frightened the horses, and someone had to walk beside the team to keep them calm!


McCormick improved his design and sold his first two reapers in 1841. The machine quickly became popular, especially in the Midwestern United States. Formerly, the amount of land that could be tilled was limited to the amount of manpower available to sow and harvest it. The McCormick reaper vastly cut the cost of labour required to harvest grain crops and allowed much larger tracts of land to be cultivated.


By 1858, sales of the McCormick reaper were upward of 4,000 a year throughout the United States. In 1902, the McCormick Harvesting Co. merged with other companies to form the International Harvester Co.

From Horses to Gas

Some late 19th-century combines were powered by steam, but in 1912 the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine began to appear on some models. In the 1930s the "combine" shifted away from horse-drawn to tractor-drawn, though it was not uncommon in wheat country to still see teams of up to 40 horses pulling reaping machines.

Modern Combines

Self-propelled grain harvesters, better known as combines, are the norm today, machines that cut the stalks and feed them through a thresher, which separates the wheat kernels from the stalks and expels the chaff out the rear of the machine. John Deere and International Harvester are among the most common brands.

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