Who hasn’t pushed a lawnmower and given at least a passing thought to the utter stupidity of having a lawn? Some of us wonder why we don’t simply pave the entire front yard in green-dyed concrete. Or put in some Astroturf. Or create a rock garden.
During the growing season, a poor soul has to walk behind a mower or sit atop a riding mower, and go back and forth. It’s not just the drudgery of weekly or more often going back and forth, but there’s the droning noise of the gasoline engine or electric motor. The question of what to do with the clippings; gather them for collection to clog the city landfill, or let them decay in the yard. It’s not only monotonous, but mowing can be very dangerous, too.
Who do we blame for this banal obcession we have with trimming back one of the most boring plants in the world? Who invented the machine that enables this intrusive chore, the humble lawnmower?
Back in the day, only the one-percent could afford to own a carefully landscaped and groomed yard, or as they’re called in Britain, a garden. Only landowners who could afford to employ a full-time gardener had flower beds, trimmed shrubbery, and well manicured grass. Lawn grass was a rarity and would probably have remained so except for Britisher Edwin Budding’s horrible brainstorm in the early 19th Century.
During a tour of a textile manufacturing plant, Mr. Budding noticed a cutting cylinder that was mounted on a workbench. It was used to trim off the irregular nap and loose threads off the surface of cloth during the finishing process. Coincidentally, Budding had earlier wondered how to improve on the widely used scythes that were used by gardeners on English estates. Eureka!
He came up with a wrought iron device, 19-inches wide with a gear-driven mechanism with cylindrically arranged blades. There was an adjustable land roller to alter the cutting height. The grass clippings flew into a flat box placed at the front of the machine. The mower was designed to be pushed from behind by the gardener. After experimentation, Budding realized the need for a front mounted handle to provide a place for another person or an animal to help pull the device.
News of the invention reached prestigeous institutions. For instance, the Oxford University campuses and the Regent’s Park Zoological Gardens were the first two purchasers of Budding’s invention. The important institutions were enamored by the idea of efficient care of their grounds and gardens by such a machine.
On May 18, 1830, Budding signed an agreement with the owner of the Phoenix Foundry in Shroud, England, John Ferrabee. The two men went into a partnership to manufacture the first lawnmowers. On August 31st of that year, their patent was granted for “Machine for Mowing Lawns, etcetera.”
With a simple means of lawn mowing, came the idea of implementation of the machinery. The blame can be squarely placed on Chicago landscape architect Frederick Olmsted. It was Olmsted who came up with the notion of large, open, monoculture lawns that would provide the appearance of continuity for the lots of the Illinois suburb of Riverside in 1869.
Thus emerged the industrialization and desire for conformity and uniformity of suburban landscaping. The lawnmower enabled the “poor man’s formal garden”. A box shaped hedge or two bordered the uniform height of grass to create an horizontal theme for the yard. In turn, there should be uniform color and composition in the form of monoculture. This new form of lawn enabled the invention of the plant category called “weeds”. The more manufactured and machine-altered the yard appeared, the more fashionable it seemed.
Powered mowers began appearing during the Victorian era in Great Britain and also in North America. Small steam engines were the primary choice for several years. In 1902, gasoline engines were introduced to power the reel lawnmowers.
It wasn’t until the late 1920s that practical designs for rotary mowers were possible. Innovations in size and efficiency of internal combustion engines enabled smaller engines in the 1940s. In the 1950s, technology had evolved lighter metal alloys and inexpensive manufacturing techniques. Electric motors were also tried out as power sources.
Hence, we have the ubiquitous push and riding varieties of lawn mowers. Now you know who to blame when it’s time to mow your lawn.