The Evolution of Lawn Mowers

The lawn mower was invented in 1830 and has advanced to the point of really sophisticated engineering now. But there is growing recognition of the benefits of the low-tech approach.

The Evolution of Lawn Mowers
The goat as gardener has made a comeback Depositphotos

Having a beautiful, green lawn may be priceless, but it comes at a price. Last year, the global lawn mowers market amounted to 27.5 billion dollars.

The lawnmower category includes some rather pricey options today. Most people are not just about pushing a simple rotary mower but something far more advanced.

They may not be even be pushing it at all but driving it while riding on it. Or they may even be operating it remotely, as some models on the market now employ advanced technology like GPS and remote control.

SEE ALSO: THIS VIDEO SHOWS HOW A LAWNMOWER CUTS GRASS IN INCREDIBLE SLOW MOTION

Nevertheless, some people, whether to save on cost or on energy consumption stick to the type of rotary mower that is not all that different from the type that emerged in the 1800s. Before we get to the original invention, we have to go back a bit in history.

Parklands back in the 1700s

Now when we think of a park, we picture an expanse of grass that may extend for several acres. With prime examples like New York City's Central Park, we consider them public spaces to offer an oasis of green, particularly in urban areas.

But back in the days of large country estates, a park could, in fact, be the private property of one wealthy family. That’s certainly the case of Mansfield Park, a fictitious estate familiar to Jane Austen fans.

Mansfield Park was written some time after Lancelot Capability Brown had made his mark on redefining the English landscape to include rolling lawn and naturally set trees, shrubs, and bodies of water that gave a softer, less artificial effect to gardens than the formal garden styles that had been popularized by the very wealthy on the European Continent.

So how would all those acres of grass be kept trimmed to size?

One way was with grazing animals, typically sheep, who would also furnish the estate with wool or possibly even cows that would provide milk. This required no more work than bringing the animals out to do what they do naturally, and they also provided the fertilizer in the same manner.

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Another way that grass was kept in shape, though, was through very arduous labor. This is something that only the really wealthy could afford, hiring a team of gardeners merely to beautify their land with no yield of products resulting from the work.

In that way, your manicured lawn was clearly very much a sign of wealth and status. This is what is depicted in Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina.

If you’ve read the book or seen it rendered into a film, you may have been struck by the sheer physical labor involved in mowing. As you can see in the clip below, it took a small army of men armed with scythes many hours to cut the grass neatly.

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Tolstoy’s book was released in installments beginning in 1873, and it would seem that the lawn mower had not made its way over to this part of Russia. But the machine to reduce the amount of exertion necessary to trim grass had already been invented in England over forty years before that.

The first lawn mower

Edwin Beard Budding, an engineer from Stroud, Gloucestershire, England invented the lawn mower in 1830. He is said to have taken the concept of its operation from a machine in a cloth mill that employed a cutting cylinder to trim the surface of woolen cloth and leave it with a smooth finish.

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According to the post on “Mower History,” published by The Old Lawnmower Club, Budd partnered with another engineer named John Ferrabee to produce his mower design in a factory. There are a number of museums in the UK that showcase such machines, and you can see a photo of one here.

Budding’s invention was actually not quite the design we use today, though it certainly paved the way. The lawnmower went through a number of improvements through other English inventors.

One of them was the Silens Messor, which was introduced by Thomas Green and Sons of Leeds and London in 1859. Using a chain to transfer power from the roller in the back to the cutting cylinder made it both more reliable and quieter to operate, hence the name, which means 'silent operation' in Latin.

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The first American patent for a lawn mower was awarded in 1868 to Amariah Hills of Connecticut. It employed a "reel-type spiral-bladed cutter."

Two years later, Elwood McGuire came up with a “lighter, simpler machine” that was very popular. But there was yet another innovation at the very end of the century.

The improved lawn mower is an African-American invention

On  Sept. 8, 1898, John Albert Burr applied for a patent for his lawn mower design. He was granted U.S. patent 624,749 on May 9, 1899. The application describes the uniqueness of his invention as follows: 

This invention relates to improvements in lawn-mowers of the most common type, comprising traction-wheels and a rotary cutter or shear operating in conjunction with a fixed bar relative to which the curved knife of the rotary cutter has shearing actions.

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The object of my invention is to provide a casing which wholly encloses the operating gearing so as to prevent it from becoming choked by the grass or clogged by obstructions of any kind.

Why lawn mowers became so popular

Burr enjoyed quite a bit of success from his invention because it emerged at a time when there was gardening was taking off for the middle class. That’s what is posited in the American Gardening  blog post entitled "Victorian Middle Class Wanted the Lawn Mower."

While English gardens may have set the expectation for lawns on middle-class homes, it also took root in American soil, thanks to the influence of prominent landscapers like Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903). He is the one who set out the vision for New York City’s Central Park in 1858 to include a Sheep Meadow.

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Sheep did, in fact, graze there, trimming and fertilizing the grass the old-fashioned way between 1864 and 1934. They were considered to add a 'Romantic English quality' to the landscape.

But for people who sought to emulate the look of neat grass without having to keep farm animals, there had to be another option beyond the heavy investment in labor with a scythe and so the lawn mower became a necessity for the fashionable home adorned by a lawn.

The blog quotes Mark Laird, who wrote in The Flowering of the Landscape Garden: English Pleasure Grounds 1720-1800: “Not until gardening became the leisure occupation of many new middle-class town dwellers did the mechanization of mowers begin.”

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The Victorian Middle Class Wanted the Lawn Mower blog shows an ad for the Buckeye Lawn Mower from Springfield, Massachusetts from some time in the 1890s. It shows a fashionably dressed woman accompanied by an equally fashionably dressed girl who is pushing a lawn mower.

This is mowing shown to be a genteel, ladylike act of gardening, a far cry from the sweat-inducing labor we saw in Anna Karenina.

Fueling lawn mowers and pollution

Mowing actually did become a lot more effortless thanks to motorization. The Old Lawnmower Club dates “lightweight petrol [what we call gas in the U.S.] engines and small steam power units" all the way back to the 1890s.

Over in the United States, the gas-powered mower was first manufactured in 1919 by Colonel Edwin George. But it was too costly for homeowners until after World War II.

Affordable gas-powered mowers, no doubt, promoted a lot of green lawns to adorn the houses sprouting up in new suburban neighborhoods like Levittown after the war. They likely got another push from the design of tractor-like models that didn’t need to be pushed but driven to cover large areas quickly and easily.

In 1948, Max Swisher of Warrensburg, Missouri invented an innovative zero-turn mower called the “Ride King.” As the name indicates, the mower could ride and didn’t have to turn the mower around to start a new row; the wheel could be turned 180 degrees to allow a smoother flow.

Advances like these made mowing more efficient but at a price. Power motors are one of the factors that make keeping up a green lawn not a very green -- in the sense of environmentally sustainable -- endeavor.  

The stats on the resources expended to keep up green lawns in the United States are rather alarming.

Lawns use about 800 million gallons of gasoline a year to harvest their ‘crop’ of grass with lawnmowers, about 1/4 of 1% of national petroleum use,” according to Reducing Water for Lawns.

A finding from 2007 notes, “that the hourly emissions of push mowers were equal to that of 11 cars." Even worse, the ones from “riding mowers were equal to 34 cars.”

Cleaner mowers

Regulations on emissions for lawn mowers only approached the stringency of those applied to cars in 2008As a result, they are now cleaner than they had been, though gas power will always have an impact on the environment.  

What about electric power?

Electric lawn mowers have been around for decades, but they were generally not as popular as gas-powered ones, in part because they were tethered to a cord. However, this is changing with new designs.

New robotic mowers don’t have to be plugged in, as they are powered by charging in a docking station. They are also coming equipped with more advanced “features, such as laser vision, smart navigation, garden mapping, memory, and self-emptying" which make them even more convenient to use than gas-powered mowers.

Remote control lawn mowers started emerging around the beginning of our current century. They include brands like Spider that you can see in action in this video:

Of course, such advanced engineering that delivers convenience and reliability in a sleek design comes at a somewhat hefty price. In fact, the top comment on the video recommends getting a goat instead.

Putting the Goat back in Gotham

And some people are now taking that proposition seriously, at least when it comes to weed control for lawns. Goats can reach where people and most machines cannot, and what is work for people is just grazing to them.

Accordingly, On May 21, 2019, Riverside Park Conservancy launched what it calls Goathem. It introduced 24 goats to a section of the park that is difficult to reach a hard-to-access area in which there are many invasive plants in the northern part of the Park.  

As “goats are naturally effective weed whackers,” the park explains, “putting them to work in Goatham is like treating them to an all-you-can-eat buffet.” Plus, unlike advanced machines, that have to be powered by something, this is  “good for the environment.”

New Yorkers were very excited to greet these natural weed whackers who will consume some weeds we prefer not to handle ourselves, like poison ivy, as you can see in the video below.

While the city is claiming great innovation here, Long Island has been way ahead of them with the 24 Nigerian dwarf goats who call the  Norman J. Levy Park and Preserve in Merrick home. These goats are part of the park's approach to finding a "low-cost, ecologically responsible solution to the challenges that nature presents at a waterfront nature habitat."

In California, a high tech name goes very low tech

You don’t have to be an official park to use goats. Already back in 2009, Google began hiring 200 goats each summer to keep the lawn on its Mountain View headquarters in order. As explained in a blog post:

"This spring we decided to take a low-carbon approach: Instead of using noisy mowers that run on gasoline and pollute the air, we've rented some goats from California Grazing to do the job for us (we're not "kidding")."

These goats do not spend the whole summer there, only about a week. Google explains that the cost is about the same as it would be for mowing, though they can feel better about using the goats and enjoy watching them at work.

If you don't have the means of keeping a goat, you can still feel virtuous about mowing your own lawn with a mower that is powered by human labor rather than gas or electricity.

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