A lawnmower (aka a mower, grasscutter or lawnmower) is a machine using one or more revolving blades to cut a grass surface to an even height. The height of the cut grass may be fixed by the mower’s design but is usually adjustable by the operator, typically by a single master lever or by a lever or nut and bolt on each of the machine’s wheels. The blades may be powered by manual force, with wheels that are mechanically connected to the cutting blades so that when the mower is pushed forward (either manually or mechanically), the blades spin or the machine may have a battery-powered or plug-in electric motor. The most common self-contained power source for lawn mowers is a small (typically one cylinder) internal combustion engine.
Before the invention of the lawnmower, lawns were cut mainly by scythe, which resulted in an uneven cut lawn. Formal lawns with neatly manicured grass began appearing in France in the 1700s, tended to by grazing animals or hand-cut with shears and scythes, and the idea soon spread to England and the rest of the world.
The world’s first lawnmower was patented on 31st August 1830 by Edwin Beard Budding, who came from Brimscombe and Thrupp, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. He described his invention as “a new combination and application of machinery for the purpose of cropping or shearing the vegetable surface of lawns, grass-plats and pleasure grounds”. It’s said that Budding tested his grass cutting prototype at night to avoid curiosity and ridicule from his neighbours.
In 1842, Scotsman Alexander Shanks invented a 27-inch pony drawn reel lawnmower.
In 1870, in the US, Elwood McGuire of Richmond, Indiana, designed a very popular human-pushed lawnmower. Although it wasn’t the first to be human-pushed, his design was very lightweight and became a commercial success.
In the early part of the 19th century, many towns in England started to develop more open spaces, including parks and lawns. This, together with the rise in popularity of lawn sports, helped prompt the spread of the invention. Lawnmowers became a more efficient alternative to the use of scythes and domesticated grazing animals.
Budding came up with the idea of a lawnmower after seeing a machine in a local cloth mill that used a cutting cylinder mounted on a bench to trim cloth to make a smooth finish after weaving.
Budding’s first machine was 19 inches (480 mm) wide with a frame made of wrought iron. The mower was pushed from behind. Cast-iron gear wheels transmitted power from the rear roller to the cutting cylinder, allowing the rear roller to drive the knives on the cutting cylinder; the ratio was 16:1. Another roller placed between the cutting cylinder and the main or land roller could be raised or lowered to alter the height of the cut. The grass clippings were hurled forward into a tray-like box. But, it was soon realised that an extra handle was needed in front to help pull the machine along. Overall, these machines were remarkably similar to modern mowers.
Two of the earliest Budding machines were sold to Regent’s Park Zoological Gardens in London and the Oxford Colleges. Budding and a partner (John Ferrabee) allowed other companies to build copies of their mower under license. The most successful of these was Ransomes of Ipswich, which began making mowers as early as 1832.
From the beginning, two main styles of blades are used in lawnmowers:
- Mowers employing a single blade that rotates about a single vertical axis are known as rotary mowers.
- Mowers employing a cutting bar and multiple blade assembly that rotates about a single horizontal axis are known as cylinder or reel mowers (although in some versions, the cutting bar is the only blade, and the rotating assembly consists of flat metal pieces which force the blades of grass against the sharp cutting bar).
James Sumner of Lancashire patented the first steam-powered lawn mower in 1893, a machine that burned petrol and (or paraffin) as fuel.
In 1919, the first gas-powered lawnmowers (manufactured by Colonel Edwin George) and gang mowers (with multiple sets of blades) were brought to the United States. It wasn’t until after World War II that these rose in popularity.
In the 1920s, one of the most successful companies to emerge during this period was Atco, at that time a brand name of Charles H Pugh Ltd. The Atco ‘Standard’ motor mower, launched in 1921, was immediately successful. Just 900 of the 22-inch-cut machines were made in 1921, each costing £75. Within five years, annual production had accelerated to tens of thousands. Prices were reduced, and a range and choice of sizes became available, making the Atco Standard the first truly mass-produced engine-powered mower.
Other types of Mowers
The hover mower, first introduced by Flymo in 1964, is a form of rotary mower using an air cushion on the hovercraft principle.
Corded and Cordless Electric Mowers
Corded electric mowers are limited in range by the length of their trailing power cord. There is a hazard with these machines of accidentally mowing over the power cable although installing a residual-current device (RCD) on the outlet may reduce the shock risk.
Cordless electric mowers are powered by a variable number (typically 1-4) of 12 volt rechargeable batteries. Typically more batteries mean more run time or power. Cordless mowers have the manoeuvrability of a petrol-powered mower and the environmental friendliness of a corded electric but are more expensive and come in fewer models. The latest ‘kid on the block’ is the robotic lawnmower – see page 4.
Founded in 1908 by a partnership between inventor Stephen F. Briggs and investor Harold M. Stratton, Briggs & Stratton was already providing power for numerous agricultural and military applications by the 1920s. In 1953, Briggs & Stratton revolutionised the lawn and garden industry by developing the first lightweight aluminium engine.
Whilst marginal improvements have been made in mower technology (including the all-important riding mower [and more efficient batteries]), some municipalities and companies are bringing back the old ways by using grazing animals as a low-cost, low-emission and ‘greener’ alternative to the humble lawnmower.
Lawnmower racing is a form of motorsport in which competitors race modified lawnmowers, usually of the ride-on or self-propelled variety. The original mower engines are retained, but the blades are removed for safety reasons. As a sport, it attracts all ages and is usually entered into in a spirit of fun rather than extreme competitiveness, though many participants do take it seriously. The earliest record of an organised race involving lawnmowers in the United Kingdom was 1968 when the Ashton on Mersey Cricket Club organised a sporting event by the name Lawn Mower Grand Prix for the benefit fund of Lancashire cricketer Ken Higgs. The event consisted of a dash over 880 yards sponsored by Esso and Player’s No. 6 cigarettes.
The British Lawn Mower Racing Association (BLMRA) was formed in 1973 by Rally co-driver Jim Gavin. Jim and several sporting enthusiasts were bemoaning the prohibitive costs of getting involved in any kind of motorsport whilst enjoying a pint at The Cricketers Arms in Wisborough Green, West Sussex. They looked across the village green and noticed the groundsman mowing the cricket pitch. Realising that everyone had a lawnmower in their garden shed, they asked themselves: Why not race them? A local venue was found, and 80 mowers turned up for that first meeting.
There are several Lawn Mower Racing clubs in the UK with slightly differing construction rules, but a similar ethos that events should be professionally run and costs kept to a minimum. Racing usually takes place in fields, with the track marked in a temporary fashion, typically using bales or plastic blocks. Racing is generally either sprint or endurance, although fun races take various formats, including relay and last man standing. There are various championships held throughout the racing season.
Initially, mowers were self-propelled models such as the Suffolk Punch, which were re-geared and required the operator to run behind. These quickly gave way to larger cylinder mowers with towed seats which are now referred to as Group 2. Groups 3 and 4 followed in time; these are wheel driven ride-on mowers, Group 3 being an open engined garden rider (typically the Westwood Lawnbug) and Group 4 being a lawn tractor. All mowers must retain specified original components such as their chassis, bonnet and drive configuration. Engine regulations vary between clubs, but these are standard lawnmower type engines with little or no modification or tuning. Given the right track conditions, mowers can reach speeds of up to 50 mph, although track design serves to limit this and ensure that driver skill remains an important element of the sport.
“Derek Bell 2” by Toni P1 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
One of the best-known events is the annual BLMRA 12 hour endurance race held near Wisborough Green since 1978. The first such event was won by Sir Stirling Moss, Derek Bell and Tony Hazlewood (designer and builder of the Westwood Lawnbug). Actor Oliver Reed also participated. The event attracts participants from other British clubs and from all over the world. The current distance record over the 12 hours sits at 354.5 miles.
In the 1960s, when Derek Bell was a Formula 1 racing driver, he took me for a spin in an E-type Jaguar near his home in Pagham. It was an exhilarating experience, but it scared the living daylights out of me.
A robotic lawnmower is an autonomous robot used to cut lawn grass. A typical robotic lawnmower (in particular earlier generation models) requires the user to set up a border wire around the lawn that defines the area to be mowed. The robot uses this wire to locate the boundary of the area to be trimmed and, in some cases, to find a recharging dock. Robotic mowers can cope with both small and large lawns.
The very notion of robot lawnmowers is a seismic shift in our thinking about how this essential gardening tool should work. Earlier innovations such as hover mowers and rechargeable push mowers are still around, but the robot mower is a complete move away from anything conventional. Everyone thinks you need a tractor to cut large lawns. But robot mowers will cruise around a vast expanse of grass in their own time and do a perfect job.
Robotic lawnmowers are increasingly sophisticated, are self-docking, and some have rain sensors if necessary, nearly eliminating human interaction.
Robotic lawnmowers represented the second largest category of domestic robots used by the end of 2005. By 2012, the growth of robotic lawnmower sales was 15 times that of the traditional styles. Some robotic mowers can be controlled by a mobile phone and have integrated features within custom apps to adjust settings or scheduled mowing times and frequency, as well as manually control the mower with a digital joystick.
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Sources and Further Reading
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/NI2ZjBwpTcqYdtpXFnIzUQ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawn_mower
Picture Credit: “20160515-ROTL3008 1930 Atco Petrol Mower Powis Castle NT Powys Wales.jpg” by rodtuk is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Source: Bellis, Mary. “Greener Pastures: The Story of the First Lawn Mower.” ThoughtCo, 16th February 2021, thoughtco.com/first-lawn-mower-1991636 ↑