by popular television presenter Adam Hart-Davis
and the Lawnmower
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A lawn is a patch of grass that is always cut short. Two hundred years ago lawns were rare, because cutting grass was such hard work; at Blenheim Palace 50 labourers were employed full time looking after the pleasure gardens and the lawns. They used to cut the grass every ten days in summer, a line of scythesmen or ‘mowers’ starting early in the morning when the dew was on the grass, for the scythe worked better when the grass was wet. Even skilled scythesmen left swirls or sear marks on the grass, because the scythe was swung in a half circle, and the blade was often serrated.
In Britain today, the majority of houses have some sort of lawn, and large houses may have acres. Public parks have huge lawns, and cricket pitches, golf courses, tennis courts and football fields have all become practical. The difference has been brought about mainly by the lawnmower, invented by Edward Beard Budding of Stroud in Gloucestershire.
Edward Budding was born late in 1795, the illegitimate son of a farmer. He began to work for a carpenter, but moved into the iron foundries, and became a freelance engineer because he was good at solving engineering problems. Between 1825 and 1830 he developed a pistol that was allegedly better than Sam Colt’s revolver of 1835. In 1843 he improved the carding machine, with the help of George Lister.
He designed new types of spanner and lathe. But his great triumph was the mowing machine, which he invented in 1830. According to legend, he was working at the time in Brimscombe Mill where a rotary cutter was used to trim the nap from woollen cloth. The idea came to hime that a similar machine could be built to cut the nap off lawns. He went into partnership with John Ferrabee, whose job was to sort out the patent, the business, and the marketing, and together they produced a 19-inch mower with a wrought iron frame. One of the first machines went to Regents Park Zoological Gardens, where the foreman Mr Curtis said “It does as much work as six or eight men with scythes and brooms… performing the whole so perfectly as not to leave a mark of any kind behind.”
The patent, No. 6081 of 1830, is clear and specific: the invention is ‘a new combination and application of machinery for the purpose of cropping and shearing the vegetable surface of lawns’, and the drawings show the precise construction. The main roller at the back provided drive via gears to the cutting cylinder, and there was a second roller in the middle for adjusting the height of the cut. The grass cuttings were thrown forward into a tray. Later versions were made with an additional handle in front to pull, with wider frames, and so on, but the basic design remains essentially unchanged to this day.
The patent also says: ‘Country gentlemen may find in using my machine themselves an amusing, useful and healthy exercise.’ In one sense that was the power of Budding’s idea, for it enabled ordinary people to cut their own grass; they did not have to pay men with scythes. That’s why so many people have lawns today.
By 1832 Ransomes of Ipswich were selling Budding machines. Their advertisements said: ‘The machine is so easy to manage, that persons unpractised in the art of Mowing, may cut the Grass on Lawns, and Bowling Greens with ease.’
Meanwhile their instructions were rather simpler than those of many of today’s gadgets: ‘…take hold of the handles, as in driving a barrow, …push the machine steadily forward along the greensward, without lifting the handles, but rather exerting a moderate pressure downwards…’
More that a thousand were sold in the 1830’s but alas Mr Budding died of a stroke in 1846, so he probably didn’t reap the reward from his sharp idea. His partner John Ferrabee owned the Phoenix Iron Works in Thrupp, just outside Stroud, and that is where the first machines were made.
Editors note: Until recently we were showing a picture that purported to be that of Edwin Beard Budding. I am indebted to the Budding Foundation for advising that there are no known pictures of him extant. Unless, of course, you know better?