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The history of lawn mowers

LawnStarter reports on the history of the lawn mower, from the early days of scythes through today's robotic mower marvels.

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Green robotic electronic grass mows a lawn next to bushes.

zedspider // Shutterstock

The history of the lawn mower is really the history of cutting grass, and that starts with a scythe. In roughly 200 years we've gone from back-breaking yard work to mowing in comfort aboard riding mowers.

The sound of lawn mowing has changed over the centuries, too, from the thwack of a scythe cutting blades of grass, to the roar of gas-powered push lawn mowers, to the whisper of robot mowers. 

Who invented the lawn mower? Edwin Budding is credited with inventing the first lawn mower in 1830. Budding's reel lawn mower revolutionized lawn care in England and then the U.S. and the world. (More on Budding and his mower in a minute.)

Besides Budding, the history of the lawn mower includes a hall of fame of inventors who rolled out reel mowers, rotary mowers, self-propelled mowers, riding lawn mowers, and robo mowers. This article from LawnStarter will cover all that and much more below.

Inventing a Better Way to Mow Grass

The history of lawn mowers showin in infographic.

Juan Rodriguez

If you think pushing a lawn mower is tiresome, imagine wielding a scythe to keep your grass from growing out of control. Wielding a scythe was back-breaking but arm muscle-building work. 

And the grass blades cut with a scythe were anything but even and trim. Even those skilled at handling a scythe would leave behind swirls or sear marks

Another option? Animal mowing. Hungry livestock sometimes helped to keep grassy areas from growing out of control. Everything old is new again, and that includes animal mowing, which is trending again in some parts of the U.S. 

Scythes and animal mowing – that's how lawns were kept trim from around the 1100s till the 1800s in Great Britain and the early U.S. 

There had to be a better way to cut grass.

The invention of push lawn mowers, which includes reel lawn mowers and more modern-looking rotary lawn mowers, made it easy – and much more affordable – for anyone to mow their lawn. 

Reel Lawn Mowers

What is a reel lawn mower and how does it work?

Reel lawn mowers are typically man-powered, with blades on a horizontal axis that cut like scissors. This scissors-like cut is healthier for the lawn

1830: The reel lawn mower was invented by an Englishman, Edwin Beard Budding.

Budding received a patent for his invention that featured: 

  • A large roller. It was quite heavy.
  • Gears and knives. These blades were based on ones used in textile mills to make the textiles smooth.
  • A cylinder. This turned the gears and knives. 
  • A grass-catching tray. The grass was thrown forward, so the tray could be on the front.

The first purchasers of Budding's invention included the London Zoo and Oxford University. Before long, Budding's lawn mowers were used on the Royal Grounds.

1842: Scotsman Alexander Shanks manufactured the first pony-drawn lawn mower. Similar horse- and pony-drawn lawn mowers remained in production until 1939. Not included in the price of the mower: leather boots to prevent hoofprints on the lawn.

1859: The first block chain mower (no, not that kind of blockchain …) was invented by Thomas Green and Sons of Leeds & London. The block chain design allowed for a quieter machine that was much lighter due to the absence of cast iron gears. 

Green's quieter lawn mower was hugely popular. More than a million were sold. 

1868: During the Civil War, Connecticut resident Amariah Hills spent the war years developing an American version of the lawn mower. His  "lawn-mower," as Hills called it, received a U.S. patent.

Hills' lawn mower featured:

  • A spiral cutter. This was more efficient.
  • An open cylinder chamber. This made it easier to check the operation of the lawn mower.
  • Height adjustment. Maybe the English wanted all their grass to be the same height, but Americans wanted to be able to mow grass at different heights. (This was a big advance, as the optimum height varies for different grass types.)
  • A better handle. Hills' lawn mower was designed to be used by one person (not pulled by a horse nor needing two people to push-pull the mower), so a smoother-operating handle mattered. 

1870s: In Richmond, Indiana, Elmwood McGuire designed and manufactured what became a commercially successful human-powered push mower. Richmond was once known as the Lawn Mower Capital of the World when 10 Richmond companies produced two-thirds of the world's reel push mowers.

Rotary Lawn Mowers

What is a rotary lawn mower and how does it work? A rotary lawn mower has rapidly rotating blades on a vertical axis, cutting grass to a pre-set, adjustable height. Rotary mowers can be gas-powered, corded-electric, or run on batteries (that will need to be recharged). 

Rotary mowers may have a bag to collect grass clippings, or you can blow the cut grass onto your lawn for raking later. Some rotary mowers are mulching mowers, which cut your grass and mulch the trimmings, saving you the effort of bagging your grass clippings, while also fertilizing your yard as you mow.

1899: John Albert Burr, a Black inventor whose parents had been enslaved, received a U.S. patent for a rotary blade lawn mower. It made him rich. Burr's reel lawn mower had to be pushed.

1929: William Beazley patented a power rotary lawn mower in America. It created a precise, short cut. But the engines were quite heavy.

1939: Leonard Goodall, a man with one leg, struggled to mow his large lawn in Warrensburg, Missouri. He developed a rotary power lawn mower, which he called a "vertical crankshaft mower." He received a patent for it, and then additional patents in 1940, 1942, and 1946. His company made him wealthy, especially when he sold it in 1952 (though he did not change his lifestyle).

1953: The first lightweight engines were mass produced (by Briggs & Stratton).

1957: 80% of the lawn mowers sold in the U.S. were rotary.

Gas-powered Lawn Mowers

1902: Gas-powered lawn mowers became commercially available. Sold by Ransomes of Ipswich, these lawn mowers featured the newly developed internal combustion engine. 

1919: Gas-powered lawn mowers were manufactured in the United States for the first time. Edwin George, who had just retired as an Army colonel, took the engine from his wife's washing machine and put it on wheels.

1921: The first mass-produced gas lawn mower was manufactured by the Atco company.

But neither gas-powered lawn mower sold a lot, in large part because there weren't that many places where you could get gas. People fueling their cars often had to buy their gasoline in cans at pharmacies and blacksmith shops.

Then came the Depression. People struggling to get by preferred to push their own mowers rather than buy gasoline.

After World War II came all those Levittowns. In the post-war years, as Americans moved to the suburbs, gas stations followed, and gas-powered mowers swept the nation. 

1954: Toro took the lead in the sale of power mowers.

Self-propelled Mowers

American homeowners increasingly wanted a mower that motored on its own. All the person behind had to do was steer. 

1922: The first self-propelled lawn mower was introduced by the Ideal Power Mower Co. But it didn't catch on. In 1943, the company was sold.

1954: The Bunton Co. of Louisville, Kentucky, developed a self-propelled lawn mower, one using the new technology of rotary blades. This time self-propelled mowers took off like a rocket.

1955: Sears Craftsman, the leading brand for self-propelled lawn mowers, sold 1.5 million of the grass cutters.

By 1959, self-propelled mowers outsold the ones you push by 10-to-1

Riding Lawn Mowers

People moving to the suburbs wanted to care for their lawns in comfort. Riding lawn mowers made cutting the grass a breeze. (Talk about comfort: Standard features now include cupholders.)

1904: Ransomes did it again by developing the first gas riding lawn mower, which was sold to Cadbury Chocolates and Bournville House to maintain their employees' sports field.

Early riding lawn mowers were heavy. A ride-on sold by Ransomes to maintain a sports field in Birmingham, England, weighed 1.25 tons and stretched 8 feet long. 

1921: "World's first riding lawn mower" was an advertising campaign introduced by the Ideal Power Mower Co. in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It didn't catch on.

1954: Cecil Pond hated mowing the lawn as a kid, so after he served in the war and married his high school sweetheart, he decided to make a riding lawn mower. He introduced it at the Chicago Trade Show, and it electrified the crowd. He started his own company, Wheel Horse, which couldn't keep up with demand.

Meanwhile, Pond loved mowing lawns. He would not only mow his lawn, but also ride over to mow the lawns of his neighbors.

Lawn Tractors

Many riding mowers are so heavy that they are designed to do other things. A "lawn tractor" is a common alternate usage. There are also forklifts, snow plows, snow blowers, rototillers, and leaf vacuums.

Zero-turn Mowers

1955: Max Booth Swisher of Warrensburg, Missouri, rolled out the "Ride King," the first zero-turn lawn mower. Key features of the Ride King:

  • 360-degree changes were possible.
  • Front wheel was the drive wheel.
  • The motor drove the front wheel in the direction the operator wanted to go.
  • The steering wheel could be turned all the way to reverse. 

Zero-turn mowers are hugely popular for large lawns and with commercial lawn care companies. The ability to turn on a dime, so to speak, makes it much easier and quicker to mow lawns. More lawns mowed equals more money earned.

Battery and Electric Lawn Mowers

Electric corded and battery-powered lawn mowers are becoming more common. Here's why: They're quieter, don't pollute the air like gas-powered lawn mowers, and require less maintenance (like oil changes). 

The downsides? 

  • Cost. Eco-friendly lawn mowers can be as much as double the price of gas mowers.
  • Power. Few battery-powered mowers are as powerful as gas-powered mowers.
  • Run time. Battery-powered mowers must be charged, usually after 45-60 minutes. 

Eco-friendly mowers are getting a big boost from California's Green Lawn Care Law, which bars the sale of gas-powered lawn mowers, blowers, and string trimmers manufactured after Dec. 31, 2023.

As a result, manufacturers are making and selling more battery-powered, corded-electric, and reel lawn mowers across California and beyond. Other states and some cities are following California's lead with similar bans or have otherwise placed restrictions on gas-powered lawn care equipment. 

Robot Lawn Mowers

1972: S. Laurence Bellringer received a U.S. patent for a new type of mower he called "The MowBot:"

Key features of the first robot lawn mower:

  • No operator is needed.
  • A boundary wire is sensed by the robo mower and it turns away.
  • A battery provides the power.
  • No fumes are created.
  • No steering mechanism is used. A robot mower simply turns away from the boundary wire and moves in a different direction.
  • No one has to be there to operate the mower. You put the boundary wire around the area to be mowed, turn on the battery, and let it work. It's kind of like having servants mow the lawn while you sit in the manor house sipping tea.

The MowBot was followed by robot mowers that:

  • Don't need a boundary wire.
  • Can be programmed to map a path to mow.
  • Use solar power (1995: Husqvarna rolled out the Solar Turtle robo mower).
  • Can run 24/7, recharging from the sun. (Yes, you can mow your grass while you sleep. Robot lawn mowers are that quiet. They won't wake you or your neighbors.)
  • Can run in the rain. (But don't mow your grass in the rain with any type of lawn mower.)

2022: Toro introduced the GeoLink Solutions Autonomous Fairway Mower for golf course customers.

2024: Electric Sheep debuted its AI-powered lawn care and landscaping robot for commercial use.

Future of the Lawn Mower Business

According to the Market Analysis Report of Grand View Research, a global market research company: 

  • $10.2 billion of lawn mowers were sold in North America in 2022.
  • The market will grow 6.4% per year.
  • Forecast: $21 billion will be spent on lawn mowers in 2032.

Buy a Lawn Mower or Hire a Lawn Mow-er?

The history of the lawn mower has been driven by technology, but you have a choice who pushes that mower. You could do it yourself, or hire someone else to push or ride a mower to keep your lawn looking great. 

Or, you could go old school and rent a couple of llamas or sheep every week or two.

 

This story was produced by LawnStarter and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.