On May 18, 1830 an English textile worker and tinkerer Edwin Beard Budding patented the first mechanical lawn mower. He based his design on a velvet sheering device at his mill. Blade mounted on a cylinder rotated as the machine was pushed sheering grass against a stationary blade. It could be pushed by a strong man and also had an auxiliary handle so it could be pulled by a second.
While functional, his device was cumbersome and heavy, too expensive for the middling classes and not worth the investment by the grand owners of those country estates who could rely on legions of gardeners with scythes and sheep to keep their sweeping lawns under control.
Forty years later American Elwood McGuire patented a simpler, lighter weight reel machine that could be mass produced and sold at reasonable prices. By 1885 50,000 push mowers were being sold annually in the United States. This caused a revolution in home landscaping.
Previously front yards had often been small, weedy and often simply trampled ground apt to turn seasonally to mud or dust while back yards were reserved for home gardens and live stock. Both were typically surrounded by high wooden fences so the neighbors couldn’t complain. First front yards, then rear ones were transformed into lawns in imitation of the estates of the wealthy but on a much more modest scale.
Stockade fences came down to be replaced with picturesque pickets or decorative iron. As long as husbands, sons or help could be relied on for a couple of hours a week, middle class women could enjoy a new feeling of enhanced status. But lawns in cities, small towns and the emerging suburbs alike continued to be modest in size because pushing the mower was still a lot of work.
Enter the back yard tinkerers again who spent decades trying to effectively mount an engine on the mower. Most tried mounting heavy steam or gasoline powered motors to existing reel machines.
The breakthrough came in 1919 when Colonel Edwin George mounted a new light 2-cycle engine perfected during the First World War on a platform directly driving a rotating blade spinning parallel to the ground.
The new power machines did not really catch on in large numbers until the explosion of suburbia after World War II. In fact a good argument can be made that the leap to large lots that characterized the post-war suburban boon would have been impossible without them.
Now power mowers are a major source of air pollution in many areas and modernized push mowers have made a modest comeback among the ecologically minded and mindless fitness enthusiasts.
But this writer, whose muscles still ache from the memory of doing the quarter acre lot on Cheshire Drive in Cheyenne with a cranky push mower, still uses Col. George’s improvement—and tries to find a grandson or son-in-law to do the job.