People at the cutting edge: lawnmower designers
- Written by Marilyn Elm
Until the 19th century, parkland or lawns associated with vast country estates were traditionally managed by the use of grazing stock or the scythe. The latter required much skill, time and labour to be effective. An acre (0.4 hectare) of lawn required three men to work for a day.
When Edwin Beard Budding invented the first mowing machine in 1830, there had been a rapid population shift from the country to urban centres, fuelled by the Industrial Revolution. New working communities gathered around the mills, factories and mines, while the wealth-makers, the rising middle classes, sought refuge on the outskirts of the towns and cities in their new suburban villas.
Thinking outside the box
Budding was born in 1796, into a long-established family in the Stroud district of Gloucestershire. In the 1820s he went to Thrupp, where he worked in the mills, defining his trade as that of machinist or ‘mechanician'. His new invention was an adaptation of the napping or ‘shearing machine', which used rotary cutters to shear the surplus fibres or nap from the surface of cloth, to achieve a close, even pile on high-quality textiles.
The shearing machine that was his inspiration was a development of a device originally invented by John Lewis in 1815. It was made at John Ferrabee's Phoenix Iron Works, which was conveniently placed for the clothing mills of the ‘Golden Valley' in Gloucestershire. Lewis's original horizontal blade napper was developed into an improved helical form, which offered continuous cutting, and it is assumed that Budding helped make many of these machines, and saw them in action.
Budding's mowing machine used gears, powered by pushing a roller over the ground, which transmitted power to a rotating horizontal shaft supporting three blades. As they turned, the blades swept close to a straight and rigid knife plate on the underside of the machine, and guillotined the grass stalks.
This first machine had a 19-inch (480mm) cutting cylinder with a frame made of cast iron and was pushed from behind. The grass was thrown forward into a tray-like collecting box. The mower had another handle at the front so that a second worker could pull it in difficult areas.
In 1830 Budding went into partnership with the local mill owner and engineer John Ferrabee, who agreed to make the first prototype. It is reported that they tested the machine at night, away from prying eyes. They patented Budding's invention which was described as ‘a new combination and application of machinery for the purpose of cropping or shearing the vegetable surfaces of lawns, grass-plat and pleasure grounds, constituting a machine which may be used with advantage instead of a scythe for that purpose...' 
The first mowing machine
Budding's cylinder machine was initially manufactured by John Ferrabee's company, at the Phoenix Iron Works, and was sold from seven to 10 guineas each. The price included a wooden packing case and delivery (the manufacturer's catalogue offered package and delivery ‘to any principal railway station in the United Kingdom').
At the gardens of the Zoological Society in Regent's Park, the head gardener Mr Curtis undertook a four-month trial of Budding's mower, and commented that he was ‘entirely satisfied' and found that ‘with two men, one to draw and another to push, it does as much work as six or eight men with scythes and brooms; not only in mowing, but sweeping up the grass, and lifting it into a box; performing the whole so perfectly as not to leave a mark of any kind behind.'. Operators had to be watchful, however, that the lawn was free from stones and that it was dry.
Budding's machine allowed the middle classes to take part in gardening activities that had previously been the sole domain of the professional. John Claudius Loudon's Gardener's Magazine and the weekly Gardener's Chronicle, published by John Lindley and Joseph Paxton, informed this new audience of ‘amateurs' in all matters horticultural. Even children were encouraged to garden. The impetus for this came from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, whose own children were given monogrammed miniature gardening tools and equipment to garden at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
In 1832 Loudon gave details of Budding's new invention in his magazine, in which Budding stated that among the machine's particular advantages:
Grass growing in the shade, and too weak to stand against a scythe to be cut, may be cut by this machine as closely as required; and 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 further claimed that ‘Country gentlemen may find, in using my machine themselves, an amusing, useful, and healthy exercise'.  Loudon himself declared the machine ‘...to be to be one of the greatest boons that science has conferred on the working gardener in our time'. 
Jane Loudon (John's wife) also makes reference to Buddings's invention in her Ladies' Companion to the Flower Garden of 1849 where she states that:
A substitute for mowing with the scythe has lately been introduced in the form of a mowing machine, which requires far less skill and exertion than the scythe... It is particularly adapted for amateurs, affording an excellent exercise to the arms and every part of the body.
The first advertisements were aimed at the wealthy, leisured middle-class market and depicted a well-dressed gentleman in white trousers, coat-tails and a top hat. However, actually using the early mowers made strenuous demands upon its operator. The machine was very heavy and the clutch had to be held in position to maintain the drive, while a firm downward and forward pressure had to be sustained to keep it moving and cutting.
One of the most liberating aspects of the machine was that it allowed the grass to be cut at a sociable hour. Scything had been done either first thing in the morning or at dusk when the grass would be dewy, which made it much easier to cut and produced a smoother result. The new machine could be used at any time and in most conditions, but was best when the grass was dry.
Ferrabee and Budding did not have the capacity to market the mower effectively, so in 1832 they sold a licence to J.R. & A. Ransomes of Ipswich to produce and wholesale the mower. Ransomes were already well established as producers of heavy agricultural equipment. The range of mowers produced was increased, with 16-inch and 22-inch models on offer, and by 1840 more than 1,000 mowers had been sold. Budding died in 1846 from a stroke, so never saw the full potential of his invention. He is also to be remembered for inventing the adjustable spanner.
The Budding model soon became adapted to suit various maintenance needs. Larger machines with wider cutting cylinders were developed to replace the scythe and offer more efficient management of expansive lawned areas. These machines were pony- or horse-drawn and guided by an operator. The animals were equipped with special overshoes known as ‘horseboots', to minimise the damage to the turf.