lawnmower and a lawn

Classic Project: Cylinder ‘reel’ lawn mower

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How the now widely enjoyed weekend pastime of lawn mowing originally made the cut.

In 1830 patent no. 6081 described “a new combination and application of machinery for the purpose of cropping and shearing the vegetable surface of lawns”. Remarkably, until that point there had been no commercially available mechanical device for trimming ‘greenswards’ (lawns) to an even height. Historically, until the Romans popularised the scythe in the 5th century BC, the only option for keeping your turf neat and tidy was livestock grazing.

After the scythe, not much happened in the way of technology evolution until engineer Edwin Beard Budding had his eureka moment while watching a rotary cutter trimming the nap of woollen fabric at Brimscombe Mill in Stroud, Gloucestershire. He noticed that after the nap had been removed the material was left with a smoother finish, and so set out to apply the idea to developing a machine that would lead to an English obsession with manicured lawns. While his invention was modest, its impact was monumental, ushering in an era of public parks, suburban gardens and grass sports. Without Budding, we would not have today’s versions of tennis, cricket, football, golf, bowls or even croquet.

The problem that Budding solved was that for two millennia, the only way to mow parkland was to send out men with sickles and scythes. By the end of the 18th century, large country estates routinely employed up to 200 labourers, with Blenheim retaining 50 alone for the management of its lawns and pleasure gardens. The ‘mowers’ would cut the grass every 10 days early in the morning while it was still wet with dew. In the afternoon, women and children would pick up the clippings. Apart from being labour-intensive, the process was inefficient. The height of the trimmed grass couldn’t be made consistent, while the mowers often left crescent shaped scars in the surface. Larger grasslands were kept short by grazing sheep and fallow deer.

Technology came to the rescue in the form of an idea not much more complicated than putting a rotating blade on the front of a wheelbarrow (which dates back to 2nd-century China). The operator pushes a small vehicle via two handles (with an optional handle for pulling the device uphill). A front roller acts as the horizontally rotating cutting blade, powered by a rear roller in geared arrangement, which also provides weight to ‘tamp’ the mown grass to stimulate regrowth. The clippings are shot forward by the blade rotation and are collected in a front-mounted tray. Today’s mechanical rotary cylinder lawn mowers are strikingly similar in design – even Centre Court at Wimbledon is mowed with a rotary cylinder machine (although these days petrol-powered mowers are used).

Budding, the man behind the invention, was an extraordinary creator of mechanical devices. Apart from the lawn mower, he came up with the adjustable screw wrench (1842) and a type of pistol - the ‘Pepper Box’ (1825-30) - that was more advanced than Samuel Colt’s patent of 1836.

Although a gifted engineer, he wasn’t a businessman, so Budding went into partnership with John Ferrabee, who was to look after sales, legal matters and licensing. Ferrabee quickly concluded that he needed to expand his network, leading to Ransomes of Ipswich being granted the manufacturing and wholesale licence in 1832.

In 1851, Ransomes showed the ‘Budding mower’ at the Great Exhibition to widespread acclaim, although by this time its inventor had died, having only seen sales of a few thousand units in his lifetime. Today, Ransomes is a household name.

Fact and figures: the Budding lawn mower 1930

Date: 1830

Originator: Edwin Beard Budding

Unit cost: In 1851, the 16-inch Budding grass mower was priced at £6 5s. Modern equivalents start at around £60.

Design is based on a trimming machine for woollen cloth.

Today’s ‘fine turf mowers’ use essentially the same rotary design.

Inventor Edwin Beard Budding (1796-1846) was an English engineer.

Budding invented the ‘Pepper Box’ pistol in 1827.

He also invented the adjustable screw wrench (spanner) in 1842.

The Budding Foundation is a charity named after the inventor to help disadvantaged young people.

The earliest machines were supplied to Regent’s Park Zoological Gardens in London and Oxford colleges.

The invention led to the codification of many modern sports including tennis, football and bowls.

It was originally marketed to the gentry as “an amusing, useful and healthful exercise”.

Examples of Budding-type mowers can be seen in the Science Museum in London.

General arrangement based on current design

19-inch cutting cylinder rotating around a horizontal axis

Wooden push handles

Additional front handle to allow the mower to be pulled as well as pushed

Wrought iron frame

Cast iron gear wheels (ratio 16:1)

Clippings tray

Main (or ‘land’) roller

Additional roller with adjustable cut height

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