Whether you’re a professional groundsman or an amateur gardener, the humble lawnmower has helped transform and maintain our gardens, parks and sports grounds for centuries. But where did it all start?
Before the lawnmower, keeping the green stuff in check was the domain of skilled men with scythes, trimming and maintaining grasslands by hand. This was an expensive outlay, so for those with larger areas to maintain, sheep came in very handy!
In 1827, things changed when the brilliantly named Edwin Beard Budding – an engineer from Stroud – had an idea. After a trip to a local mill, Budding was inspired by a napping machine which used blades to cut excess fibres from the surface of cloth. Budding maintained that something similar could be engineered which would allow a single person the ability to cut grass evenly and efficiently, and he was right.
After his patent was granted in August 1830, Budding went into partnership with an engineer called John Ferrabee and very shortly afterwards, the first ever lawnmower made it out of the workshop and onto the grass. Legend has it that trials of the fledgling machine were made on Budding’s own lawn, under cover of darkness.
Made entirely from cast iron, Budding’s brainchild featured a large roller at the back and a 19” cutting cylinder at the front. Power was transferred from the back forwards by way of a gearing system and clippings were collected by a tray at the front. Originally powered by being pushed, it was ten years before adaptations led to animal drawn mowers and 60 years before the use of steam.
In essence, these early cylinder machines aren’t that far removed from what we see in sheds up and down the country today and the cylinder is still beloved by many gardeners who see it as the king of cutters. Importantly, the cylinder/rear roller combination also gave us the ability to mow our lawns into stripes – an all-consuming passion for many.
In addition to being clever, Budding and Ferrabee were also canny. They gave permission to other companies to build copies of the mowing machine under licence and one of the first and most famous was Ransomes of Ipswich – a leading manufacturer of agricultural machinery.
Budding died in 1846, aged 50 and thus didn’t see the full potential of his mowers. During the 1850s, his patents were expiring opening the door for other companies to move things forward.
After over 100 years of cylinder domination, enter the rotary mower. With far fewer moving parts, a simpler propulsion method, the ability to munch its way through long grass without clogging up and with some now sporting a rear roller to satisfy the stripe-ists, the rotary mower offered some significant advantages.
Motorised mowers put in an appearance in the 1890s with small steam engines, which soon lost out to lighter petrol powered units in the 1900s. Electric mowers made little impact when first introduced in the 1920s and 30s but, with technical developments electric power has become a popular choice. At around the same time, the ride-on or riding mower was gaining ground and popularity. Designed with a seat and controls so the operator can literally ‘ride-on’, this type of mower provided a far less energy-sapping alternative for those with larger areas of grass. Another form of ride-on mower is the lawn tractor and as the name suggests, this mower is more robust in design, is generally larger and is also capable of towing lightweight attachments.
The most recent innovation in the world of mowers is the robot mower. It has been munching its way around the globe for a few years now but has only recently started gaining more popularity.
Nowadays, there’s a mower for virtually every requirement and budget but without the brilliant Budding, we might still be scything our way to the perfect lawn. For the true enthusiast where mower perfection has become a hobby and real passion, there are museums and clubs dedicated to Buddings’ brainchild:
British Lawnmower Museum http://www.lawnmowerworld.co.uk
The Old Lawn Mower Club http://www.oldlawnmowerclub.co.uk
Here the impact this relatively humble invention has had on our lives and landscape is celebrated in all its glory.