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People at the cutting edge: lawnmower designers

Article Index

  1. People at the cutting edge: lawnmower designers
  2. Mr. Shanks and the pony
  3. A power struggle
  4. Post-war boom
  5. Future cuts
  6. Endnotes, sources and further reading
  7. All Pages

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...' [1]  

The first mowing machine

Printed illustration of a gentleman pushing a lawnmower designed in 1830 by Edwin Beard Budding.Illustration from The Gardener's Magazine of a gentleman pushing a lawnmower designed in 1830 by Edwin Beard Budding. Image courtesy of the Garden Museum.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.'[2]. Operators had to be watchful, however, that the lawn was free from stones and that it was dry.

Child with children's lawnmower made by Webbs in the 1940s or 1950s. Photographed by Marilyn Elm. RHS Harlow Carr collection.A children's lawnmower, made by Webbs in the 1940s or 1950s, RHS Harlow Carr collection. Photograph copyright: Marilyn Elm and RHS Harlow Carr. 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. [3]

Budding further claimed that ‘Country gentlemen may find, in using my machine themselves, an amusing, useful, and healthy exercise'. [4]     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'. [5]

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.[6]

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.

Set of 4 horseboots, Harlow Carr collection. Photograph copyright: Marilyn Elm and RHS Harlow Carr.Set of four horseboots, the RHS Harlow Carr collection. The leather boots were fitted over a horse's hooves and were fastened with straps and buckles. Photograph copyright: Marilyn Elm and RHS Harlow Carr.


 

Mr. Shanks and the pony

The soles of two different horseboots in the RHS Harlow Carr collection. Photograph copyright: Marilyn Elm and RHS Harlow Carr.This photograph show the soles of two different horseboots in the RHS Harlow Carr collection. Photograph copyright: Marilyn Elm and RHS Harlow Carr.One of the first notable examples of the larger machines was created by Alexander Shanks for his client Mr W. F. Carnegie of Arbroath in Scotland. With two and half acres of land, Carnegie had found his existing Budding machine insufficient for his needs and instructed Shanks (‘a very ingenious mechanic') to construct a similar machine with a 27-inch blade on it, which could be pulled by two men or a pony. (The saying ‘to go by Shanks's pony' is believed to derive from the use of these pony machines).  With this machine, it was possible for Mr Carnegie's gardener to cut the whole area, once a week, in eight hours. 

Shanks's Balmoral advertisement, including a donkey-drawn mower on the left, and a horse-drawn mower on the right. Image courtesy of the Garden Museum.Mid-19th century advert for Shanks's lawnmowers, showing mowing at Balmoral Castle. Image courtesy of the Garden Museum.Shanks went on to develop a 42-inch machine with sufficient weight to also act as a roller. It was able to cut the area in two and a half hours. The machine was trialled at the royal estate at Balmoral. Queen Victoria was one of Shanks's first customers and he used the name of the estate to advertise his wares.  The machine was also sold to Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire in 1846, where it was claimed that it saved labour by up to 70 per cent. It was exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851 and later in Paris, where Napoleon III ordered one. 

Silence is golden

Green's 'Silens Messor' lawnmower, designed around the mid-19th century. Photograph copyright: Marilyn Elm and RHS Harlow Carr.Green's 'Silens Messor' lawnmower, designed around the mid-19th century. Photograph copyright: Marilyn Elm and RHS Harlow Carr. Around 1850, further technical advancement brought a shift from Budding's very noisy cogs and gears to lighter and quieter chain-driven machines, which promised not to scare the ponies. These were developed by several manufacturers, notably by Thomas Green and Son of Leeds. The company started out as an iron foundry, but soon established a world reputation as manufacturers of lawnmowers, with premises in London and Dublin.

‘Green's Patent Noiseless' was in constant use in royal gardens and so popular was the demand, that a painting was made of the Greens on the train taking the mowers to their destinations. Their ‘New Monarch' was used for tennis courts and Green's 18-inch ‘Silens Messor' (‘Silent Reaper') was another favourite.

Multum in Parvo lawnmower being demonstrated at RHS Harlow Carr. Photograph copyright: Marilyn Elm and RHS Harlow Carr.Multum in Parvo lawnmower being demonstrated at RHS Harlow Carr. Photograph copyright: Marilyn Elm and RHS Harlow Carr.A variety of smaller machines were developed in the 1860s, partly for more specialised mowing needs in the large parks, but mainly for the suburban villa gardener. Ransomes introduced the ‘Anglo-Paris' mower for small gardens and for ladies, and in 1867 the successful ‘Automaton' with its steel ball bearings, sold over 1,000 in the first season. Ransomes developed the ‘Little Gem' in 6-inch and 8-inch widths, to rival Green's 6-inch ‘Multum in Parvo' (‘Much from little').

Other design advances were the American ‘Archimedean' (1869), which cut and scattered the grass, while two engineers in Manchester, Frederick Follow and John Bate, patented the first side-wheel machine, the ‘Climax' (1869) that was lightweight and cheap to produce.

In America, a Mr Worthington patented a horse-drawn ‘mower unit' in 1914 that linked three side-wheel machines together on a frame. This could cut large areas of grass, such as golf courses. In 1920, Ransomes obtained a licence to produce these units in Britain, where they became known as ‘gang mowers'.



 

A power struggle

The growing development of urban public parks and sporting facilities fuelled the need for efficient, mainly wide, mowing machines, and the popularity of the pony machines continued well into the 20th century, at places such as the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where they remained in use until the 1960s. However, some inventors looked to new ways of powering the machines.

Advertisement for the Leyland Steam Lawn Mower and Roller, designed in the 1890s. Image courtesy of the Garden Museum.Advertisement for the Leyland Steam Lawn Mower and Roller, designed in the 1890s. Image courtesy of the Garden Museum.In 1893 James Sumner, a Lancashire blacksmith, patented a steam-powered mower, manufactured by the Leyland Steam Motor Company, which was to become British Leyland.  In 1897 two models were offered for sale, the largest costing £90. However, the development of the internal combustion engine and petrol-powered mowers won through.

Ransomes produced one of the first in 1902, used by Cadbury's at Bourneville. Charles Henry Pugh Company Ltd. from Birmingham followed. In 1901 the firm had turned its attention to motor cycles, taking in the Atlas Chain Company and using its initials ATCO as a trade name. By 1921 they produced the ATCO motor mower.  Just 900 of the 22-inch machines were made, each costing £75.

1920s or early 1930s advertisement for an ATCO lawnmower. Image courtesy of the Garden Museum.1920s or early 1930s advertisement for an ATCO lawnmower. Image courtesy of the Garden Museum.Within five years, annual production had accelerated to tens of thousands. Prices were cut and a range of sizes was available, making the ‘Standard' the first truly mass-produced motor mower. ATCO introduced the first after-care service for its customers, with service branches being established in 1922. The machines were light, and this made transportation for servicing much easier.

Other makers entered the market, such as Dennis Brothers of Guilford, J.P. Engineering of Leicester, and Qualcast, with models costing less than £15. Electrically driven mowers were tried out at this time, but the most striking technical advance came with the introduction of the first successful rotary mower, the Rotosythe, introduced in 1933. Developed by Power Specialities of Maidenhead and later acquired by J.E. Shay of Basingstoke, it utilised a disc or blade that spun horizontally under a safety hood and proved useful on rough, coarse or wet grass.


 

Post-war boom

After the Second World War many potential customers were living in new housing developments with smaller gardens. Technology had advanced, and companies that had given their energies to the war effort, were keen to present some new models to an eager market.

In 1946 Green's Monitor was one of the first, using a freewheel mechanism which was a ‘great advance to ease of mowing', together with a two-piece rear roller for easier control in turning. It used modern materials such as pressed steel plates and tubular steel for handles, which at this time were formed into a continuous loop to give ‘ the easiest and most comfortable position for mowing'. Production continued well into the 1950s, by which time most lawnmowers had become generally inexpensive and reliable. The introduction of plastic components in the 1960s reduced costs still further.

Floating on air

1965 advertisement for the Flymo lawnmower. Image courtesy of the Garden Museum.1965 advertisement for the Flymo lawnmower. Image courtesy of the Garden Museum.Probably the most notable 20th-century development in lawnmower technology was the introduction of the hover mower.  Inspired by the ‘hovercraft' invented by Christopher Cockerell in 1956, Karl Dahlman, a Swedish lawnmower manufacturer, developed a rotary mower that needed no wheels and could float on a cushion of air in any direction.

The new mower was introduced at the 1963 Brussels Inventors Fair. It was produced by Flymo at their Newton Aycliffe factory in County Durham, and was marketed in 1965 with the slogan ‘It's a Lot Less Bovver With a Hovver'.  The early machines were blue and white, turning orange in 1977.  The Flymo revolutionised grass cutting and the attitudes associated with it. It was cheap, light, easy to manoeuvre and convenient, which suited the spirit of the times.


 

Future cuts

Today, the cylinder, rotary and hover mowers, electric or petrol-powered, still find favour, with the names of Hayter and Mountfield being added to the list of familiar manufacturers. Specialist strimmers, trimmers and brushcutters have been developed to tackle rough-grass operations, using a fast-rotating nylon line, braided wire or blade. The German company Stihl, and the Swedish Husqvarna are both leaders in this field. 

Large ride-on lawn tractors, made by companies such as McCulloch and Toro, are popular with those looking for easy maintenance of extensive garden plots. A less hands-on approach, however, is now possible thanks to battery-charged machines that use sensors to navigate their way around the lawn. They boast low power consumption and are heralded as quiet, recycling, mulching mowers that return nutrients to the lawn. Such mowers can be programmed to cut at any time of day or night, and don't need constant supervision.

This latest mower development has brought lawn maintenance a long way from being ‘an amusing, useful and healthy exercise', as claimed by the original inventor Edwin Budding. But it seems assured that as long as the British love of the lawn exists, the means to maintain it will continue to be a source of interest to future lawn keepers.



 

Endnotes

1) From an agreement of 18 May 1830, between Edwin Budding of Thrupp, machinist, and John Ferrabee, ‘of the same place', engineer (Baren).

2) Loudon, The Gardener's Magazine, October 1831, p.611.

3) Loudon, The Gardener's Magazine, February 1832, p.35.

4) Loudon, The Gardener's Magazine, February 1832, p.35.

5) Loudon, The Gardener's Magazine, October 1831, p.612.

6) Loudon, Mrs. Jane, The Ladies Companion to the Flower Garden (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1849), p.197.

Sources

Baren, Maurice, How It All Began in the Garden (Smith Settle, 1994).

Drury, Elizabeth & Philippa Lewis, The Victorian Garden Album (Collins and Brown, 1993; Parkgate Books, 1996).

Fort, Tom, The Grass is Greener (Harper Collins, 2000.

Holmes, Caroline, New Shoots Old Tips. (Frances Lincoln Ltd. 2004).

Huxley, Anthony, An Illustrated History of Gardening (Paddington Press / RHS, 1978).

Loudon, J.C., ‘Machine for cutting Grass on Lawns and Grass-plots', The Gardener's Magazine, October, 1831, 611-612.

Loudon, J.C., ‘Budding's Machine for cropping or shearing the vegetable Surface of Lawns, Grass-plots, &c', The Gardener's Magazine, February 1832, 34-36.

Loudon, J.C., An Encyclopaedia of Gardening. (New Edition. Longman, Brown, Greens, & Roberts, 1859).

Loudon, Mrs. Jane, The Ladies Companion to the Flower Garden (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1849).

Owen, Jane and Diarmuid Gavin, Gardens Through Time (BBC Books, 2004).

Senecki, Kay N., Old Garden Tools. (Shire Publications Ltd.,1979 ; second ed. 1987; reprint 1993).

Thompson, Robert, The Gardener's Assistant. (New Edition.Thomas Moore FLS. Blackie & Son Ltd., 1878).

Thompson, Robert. The Gardener's Assistant. (New Edition. William Watson F.R.H.S. The Gresham Publishing Company, 1900).                       

Further reading

Links to related web sites

British Lawnmower Museum

Garden Museum (formerly known as the Museum of Garden History) 

The Hall & Duck Trust 

Old Lawnmower Club 

Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Harlow Carr

Examples of early Budding-type mowers can be seen at:

Milton Keynes Museum

Museum in the Park, Stroud, Gloucestershire

Science Museum, London

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