The Great Inventions Made in Chicago

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McCormick’s reaper was the first in a series of inventions that would help put Chicago front-and-center during the 19th century. His “Mechanical Man” (as it came to be called) reduced the work involved in harvesting wheat crops, which in turn increased the amount of crops that could be planted and harvested each season. His reapers, and the grain they harvested were easily transported on the new railroads into Chicago. Although the reaper was incredibly efficient, it was also expensive, it cost a whopping hundred-and-twenty dollars. The cost was prohibitive, especially for the farmers of the time. McCormick’s solution was to offer the farmers credit, and allow them to pay back the cost of the reaper after the harvest season. As the popularity of grain exploded, so did the need for its storage. Soon huge grain elevators were erected to store the grain in Chicago while it waited to be packed into a ship. The amount of grain marketed in Chicago increased from 2 million bushels in 1856 to 50 million bushels in 1861 (from the book).


Chicago expanded, a massive amount of wood was required to build new houses, Stock Yards, grain silos, and railroad tracks. Lumberjacks in surrounding states harvested huge quantities of wood, and floated on the Michigan to Illinois canal into Chicago. In fact, the canal was so important that it “doubled the amount of lumber that passed through the city” (Big Shoulders). The lumber waiting to be shipped from Chicago took up over “30 acres of waterfront space”(UVM). This trade became revitalized after the Chicago Fire of 1871 after ⅓ of the citizens of Chicago lost their homes (the movie).

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Mail Order Business

In 1872, a year after the fire, Montgomery Ward opened his mail order business. His business was based around providing a cheap way to sell and deliver products to homesteaders. By buying products wholesale, and selling to a large amount of farmers he was able to keep his prices very low. He also provided a money back guarantee, which alleviated fears that his low prices were fraudulent (the book).

Soon, Sears and Roebuck joined Montgomery Ward in the mail order business. Sears was able to compete with Ward’s because of his incredible advertising, and low prices. In 1908, Sears began offering “Mail-Order” houses (Sears Archive). The houses were mass-produced with Chicago lumber and transported by train to homesteaders.


In 1864, the Chicago Pork Packers’ Association and some of the largest railroads met to discuss the inefficient stockyards of Chicago. Together, they purchased a large area of land and consolidated their industry. This area became known as the Stock Yards and contained “three miles of water troughs and ten miles of feed troughs for its inmates” (the book). The Stock Yards used an efficient process known as the “disassembly line” to quickly butcher their animals. In the “disassembly line” each worker only had to do one job, which allowed for the employment of unskilled immigrant workers. This lowered labor costs significantly, since the immigrants would work for much less. At the same time, trains profited greatly from the grain trade, which allowed them to expand their business and research new innovations and inventions. From this, the refrigerated train car, or “Reefer” was born (american rails). The “Reefer” allowed meatpackers to expand the meatpacking season to year-round (previously meat would spoil in the summer). However, the expansion of the meatpacking industry had a negative effect for their immigrant workers. Meatpackers worked in squalid conditions for very little money. In the paint room, “immigrant girls inhaled so much paint that their septum was blue” (the book). Upton Sinclair wrote about the plight of these workers in his book The Jungle, but sadly the main Socialist message of the book was ignored by the public. Instead, the book inspired the Food and Drug Administration. Sinclair commented, “I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach” (CRFA).


All these inventions and innovations have impacted each other significantly. McCormick’s reaper boosted the value of lumber, and the grain trade impacted the trains which produced the refrigerated rail car. The mail-order industry was benefited by the increase in transportation, which the lumber industry profited from when mail-order houses were created. The mail-order industry even used the idea of credit in the early 20th century (NY Times). Although they’ve impacted each other, it’s hard to say none of these inventions and innovations would exist on their own. One thing is for sure, they wouldn’t exist without the railroads or canal into Chicago.

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