In 1831, young Cyrus Hall Mc-Cormick of Virginia hitched four horses to "a cross between an Astley chariot, a wheelbarrow and a flying machine," and drove with noisy lurchings into neighbor's hilly oat field. Dogs barked, slaves giggled, small boys guyed as the clumsy juggernaut slewed and jolted through a ragged swath. The owner of the oats called a halt. It took the young inventor months to convert anyone but his family to the reaper.

Today, the International Harvester Co., which Cyrus Hall Mc-Cormick founded in Chicago,...

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