Twenty mules pull a mid-1860s Case brand combine; a refinement of Hiram Moore’s early work

A man ahead of his time

by Andy Bryenton

Rural contractors everywhere would likely be praising the name of Hiram Moore every morning as they turned the keys to their combine harvesters; if only they knew who he was.

The American inventor lived an eventful life but missed out on fame and fortune by reaching too far too fast. Today he’s known as the father of the combine, but in his own time, he was the man who missed out on patenting the reaping machine.

Moore lived in the interestingly named town of Climax, near Kalamazoo, Michigan, a place he’d helped to found by wagon train. The strait-laced Christian settlers saw nothing funny about the name; they were talking about the fact that the founding of the town was the high point of their journey west.

They also found nothing funny about the sheer amount of crops, which the fertile soil there brought forth. Enough that, in 1835, a friend of Moore’s asked him if he could design a machine to help cut it all, saving the town’s scythe-swinging menfolk a lot of aching backs.

It’s possible that Moore’s friend had read about a machine made by Scotsman Patrick Bell in 1826, using the same scissor cutting method sometimes still used today.

A few of these machines had reached the east coast before the founders of Climax saddled up to go west, but they were notoriously tricky to use and were never patented. However, Hiram Moore had a vision. He wanted to design a machine that could not only reap the grain but thresh it and winnow it too. All three parts of the machine were clear in his mind. He retreated to a large barn and began to experiment.

In 1835, as the harvest came around, a monster of a machine came forth from that old building. Hiram Moore had done it. He had created the first-ever combine harvester, but it was gigantic.

Twenty horses and a team of men were required to get it moving, and its internals were complex and made of wood and iron, not modern materials as we see today.

Despite all this, the concept caught on. Poor old Hiram spent his later years wrangling with rival inventor Cyrus McCormick, who designed a simpler reaping machine at about the same time.

Some Michigan folk say that Cyrus literally pinched patent blueprints from Hiram out of the post, while others accept that the McCormick reaper was simply a coincidence. By the 1860s the combine concept had been picked up by large companies, and soon enough modern steel and the diesel engine would see it become king of the fields. Modern machines unload six bushels a second; unthinkable in the 1830s. Without Hiram Moore’s 20-horsepower creation, none of it would be possible.