Suburban house, nice lawn

The eccentric engineer: the evolution of the lawnmower

Image credit: Evan Dvorkin | Unsplash

This month’s edition tells the story of how mowing the lawn evolved from a task for an expert scythe-man to an ‘amusing, useful and healthy exercise’ for everyone.

In recent days, the scope for an engineer, even an eccentric one, to roam far and wide has been somewhat curtailed, so we’ve had to look for engineering where we can find it – in the shed. With little to do other than mow the lawn, we’ve had time to ponder that most useful of machines, the lawnmower.

Were this the 18th century, popping out to mow the lawn would have also accounted for our daily – if not weekly – exercise allowance. Lawns were cut by hand with a scythe, so the large garden sward could only really be considered by those who could afford ‘scythe-men’. These were the professional lawn-cutters of their day, using made-to-measure scythes that fitted their height. Adjustments to the height of grass were made by strapping blocks of wood to the soles of their boots, rather than by trying to adjust the height at which they swung the blade, as the very finely honed edges were instantly blunted if they hit the ground by accident.

Such labour-intensive work was clearly in need of a hero, and one was found in 1830 in a textile mill in Thrupp, Gloucestershire. Foundryman Edwin Beard Budding had established an ironworks in 1827 to provide parts for John Ferrabee’s nearby Phoenix textile mill, and it was here that he saw an ingenious machine for shaving the nap of the cloth used for Guardsmen’s uniforms to make it smooth.

Inspired by this ‘debobbling machine’, Budding wondered if it could be put to any other use. After much tinkering, he and Ferrabee went into business manufacturing their first ‘lawn-mower’, or as the 1830 patent puts it: “...machinery for the purpose of cropping or shearing the vegetable surface of Lawns, Grass-plats and Pleasure Grounds.”

This patent must have caused the heart of many a scythe-man to sink, but the lawnmower was not so much putting scythe-men out of business as creating the demand for lawns. So expensive was scything lawns that few places had them and even parks relied on sheep to graze grass down rather than having it cut. As Budding also points out in his specification, his machine was considerably more reliable that the most expert scythe-man and with his cut: “...the eye will never be offended by those circular scars, inequalities, and bare places, so commonly made by the best mowers with the scythe, and which continue visible for several days”.

Budding’s mower consisted of a series of curved blades around a cylinder set in a cast-iron frame with a handle for pushing from behind (or later pulling from in front). A system of 16:1 gears powered by a rear roller turned the blades and brought them against a rigid knife-bar on the underside of the machine where cutting took place. Another roller behind the cutting cylinder adjusted the height of the cut. The cuttings were thrown up and caught in a collection tray.

Under their agreement, Budding was responsible for the technical work and Ferrabee provided money for development, patenting and production. After costs, the profits were then shared equally between the two. Ferrabee was an astute businessman and in these early days of patenting, he decided to license the design to other agricultural manufacturers rather than wait for them to pirate it. In 1832 Ransomes, Sims, and Jeffries of Ipswich acquired the rights to produce the machines and one of the great names in lawn-mowing was born.

The lawnmower democratised grass-growing, once the preserve of the extremely wealthy. The mechanical lawnmower allowed municipal parks to manage large lawns, and one of the earliest machines was sold to the London Zoological Gardens. Oxford and Cambridge colleges also snapped them up, and rave reviews appeared in the Gardener’s Magazine for 1831. For larger lawns, horse-drawn versions were produced including ‘pony boots’ – leather overshoes for the horses to prevent their hoof marks spoiling the finish.

The lawnmower also democratised sport, allowing local teams to maintain a proper playing surface for the first time and leading to the codification of many sports including cricket, bowls and lawn tennis.

Budding himself would go on inventing, holding several more patents including the screw adjustable spanner, but it would be another 60 years before the first (steam) powered mowers appeared. The ‘personal’ mower remained a luxury well into the 20th century, but the British love of a finely cut lawn had been kindled. We can all agree with Budding that, in troubled times, “Country gentlemen may find in using my machine themselves an amusing, useful and healthy exercise.”

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