Coming Of Age: History of Mowers

Features - Equipment

From one man who was inspired by a carpet cutter to more than two dozen commercial manufacturers today, the lawn mower has come a long way.

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November 22, 1999

In the early 1800s, when homeowners in England were preparing for weekend visitors, they didn’t rely on their local landscape contractors to keep their yards looking trimmed and green. After monitoring the sheep grazing on their backyard turf for days – and cleaning up after them – the homeowners would then get out a long pair of shears or a sickle and diligently trim up their landscapes.

“It was a very labor-intensive process,” said Keith Wootton, president of The Old Lawnmower Club, Milton Keynes, England. “Sheep worked better than cows because they ate more grass and didn’t leave as much mess. If the sheep didn’t do the trick, the homeowner would then have to wait for the grass to grow long and get it slightly wet so that it would be easier to cut with the scythe. In the winter, homeowners wouldn’t bother to have visitors because it was too much work.”

Homeowners would have to continue this grueling process until 1830, the year that marked the creation of what is today a comfortable, profitable, environmentally safe commercial machine for landscape contractor use.

A BLAST FROM THE PAST. Working in a cloth mill in 1830, Edward Beard Budding, an engineer from Stroud, Glouc-estershire, England, was inspired by the machine that trimmed rough carpet tufts after weaving and sheared the nap on velvet to make it smooth.

“As he watched the workings of the machine, which was essentially a cutting cylinder or bladed reel mounted on a bench, he thought it could cut grass if he could make it self propelling and turn it upside down,” Wootton noted.

Mounted on a cast iron wheeled frame and featuring a large rear roller with a cutting cylinder that rotated very close to the lawn’s surface, Budding’s gear-driven machine was produced at Phoenix Foundry, Thrupp Mill, Stroud, with the help of owner John Ferrabee.

“The cast iron gear wheels on these machines transmitted power from the rear roller to the cutting cylinder,” Wootton said. “Overall, these machines were remarkably similar to modern mowers, just a great deal heavier because they were made of cast iron. The handles were the only wooden features. Quite often it took two men to move the mower across the lawn, one to push and the other to pull, which is why they were nicknamed ‘man-and-boy machines.’”

By 1832, J.R. & A. Ransome of Ipswich, England, obtained a license to manufacture Budding’s machine. For the next 20 years, according to “A Bicentennial Celebration,” a published history of The Ransomes Co., the company produced between 70 and 80 machines annually.

MORE TO CUT. The Victorian era encompassed the second half of the last century and leisure time became a part of daily life, Wootton pointed out. Many of the towns in England developed more open spaces, including parks and lawns, so people could enjoy their time outdoors.

“Sports became much more popular at this time, and they needed good turf for play,” Wootton said. “And these grounds were becoming better quality because lawn-mowers were becoming cheaper and easier to purchase. Since those who played sports and leisured outdoors didn’t like the idea of being gardeners and doing the work, they started to hire somebody else to do it.”

By 1841, when Alexander Shanks of Arbroath built a 27-inch pony-drawn reel lawnmower, horses were doing the work. Shanks’ larger model, a 42-inch horse-drawn mower, appeared in 1842.

Sidewheel machines were invented in the 1870s with cast iron wheels at each side, which drove the cutting cylinder directly by means of ratchets inside the castings. They didn’t have a metal rear roller and were light and inexpensive to make, Wootton said.

“They weren’t used in English gardens much, but were popular in America where the grass was coarser than in Europe,” he explained. “They were used in places that didn’t need as good of a quality of cut.”

According to the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, Alexandria, Va., America was building 50,000 lawnmowers annually by 1885.

A two-ton, 40-inch steam-powered lawnmower became the first experimentation with motorization when built by James Surner of Leyden, Lancaster, England.

“By this time, horses were pulling mowers at 6 mph,” Wootton said. “Even the smaller steam engines placed on top of mowers in 1895 and 1896 proved too heavy for horses to pull so the idea didn’t last.”

A Better Mousetrap
It was the mid-1980s, when a light bulb went in over Joseph Berrios’ head.

The owner of JEBERRIOS Landscaping, Coral Springs, Fla., had had enough of the large, belt-driven walk-behind mowers.

“I was pushing this mower toward a hill,” Berrios recalled. “As I went to climb it, I became so frustrated that I stopped and told myself there had to be something better out there. This machine was hard on the operator. It had no reverse, and climbing hills was a nightmare.”

Berrios' search for a more user-friendly machine was fruitless.

“I visualized the machine in my head and knew I’d be happy if I could find it,” he said, “but I couldn’t. So I decided to make it.”

Berrios’ first attempt at his dream machine was a mechanical version that worked well, but was unmarketable, according to the Bunton Co.

So Berrios focused on using hydraulics. One year later, Berrios met a representative from an Indiana-based company called White Hydraulics.

“He told me that because my motor distributes 10 gallons per minute I needed two of this type of pump,” Berrios said. “I said, ‘I’ll take them.’”

After some more fidgeting, and almost three years from that hot day behind the mower, Berrios finished the first dual-hydraulic, zero-turn radius walk-behind mower in 1989.

By that time, Berrios said, Herb Bunton was ill and no one from the company would come see his creation. That’s when he heard the name Dane Scag, then president of Scag Power Equipment.

“Dane agreed to meet me,” Berrios explained. “I brought out the machine and within two minutes, Dane said, ‘This thing is going to sell like hotcakes.’”

Scag Power Equipment began manufacturing the product in 1990.

“I just wanted to create something that would make my job easier,” Berrios said. “I didn’t invent the lawnmower, but I think I invented a better mousetrap.”

– Nicole Wisniewski

The first petrol engine mower was developed by J.E. Ransome, the youngest grandson of Ransomes’ founder Robert Ransome, and designed by W. J. Stephenson-Peach in 1896. Commercial manufacture of the product commenced in 1902 and petrol engine mowers led the market until World War I, Wootton said.

During the 1920s, gang units, usually three, five or seven sidewheel mowers hooked together in a V-shape and towed behind a horse, tractor or car, became popular for mowing horseracing tracks and large areas, Wootton said. Toro’s 1924 version for the golf market was a 12-foot-wide cutting machine, with five 30-inch mowers mounted behind a tractor, and it mowed three times faster than the horse-drawn method, said Rick Cairns, product manager for Toro, Bloomington, Minn.

In 1937, Toro reduced that machine for the landscape contractor market and came out with the 76-inch Professional, which was a cross between the small, maneuverable walk-behind machines and the larger gang units. The machine was still being produced through the 1970s, Cairns said.

The post-World War II boom era blessed the lawnmower market with a flurry of unprecedented growth as companies needed to find new markets for peacetime products.

“Lawnmowers were a big thing after the war,” Wootton explained. “These people built bombs, airplanes and tanks. When they came back they had all of this engineering skill and were looking for new things to make. Suburbs were starting to form and that meant wider yards, bigger gardens and greenscapes.”

THE BIRTH OF THE ROTARY. In 1935, Leonard Goodall and his wife had problems with the buckhorn plants outside their coffee shopt in Warrensburg, Mo., according to said Stan Byers, a Bunton Distributing Co. employee from 1974 to 1993 and president of Byers’ Gold, Louisville, Ky., from 1993 until 1997.

“Since the Buckhorn plants would grow faster than the grass, Goodall couldn’t cut them with the reel-type mower he had,” Byers explained. “So he attached an electric motor to the top of a deck and affixed sharpened steel blades to the motor shaft. Not only did the machine cut the Buckhorn plants, but it did a pretty good job of cutting grass.”

To give the machine more power, Goodall helped himself to the 7/8-horsepower, two-cycle gas engine that operated his wife’s Maytag washing machine, and created the first direct drive rotary mower, Byers continued.

“This machine was perfect for cutting Kentucky bluegrass because, unlike the reel mowers that cut it too low, it left the 3-inches of turf necessary to keep bluegrass growing,” Byers enthused.

Thirteen years later, the Bunton Distributing Co., was formed in Louisville, Ky. to distribute Goodall rotary mowers.

“The rotary mower became a success because it was easier to maintain than the reel-type mower,” Byers said. “The reel is a very specialty-type item. It cuts golf greens down to 1 inch. But you have to constantly sharpen the reels and blade knives. To sharpen the rotary, you take the blade off and sharpen it. Maintenance time was cut in half with the Goodall mower.”

The rotary mower inspired Bunton’s 1954 claim to fame: the wide-area, self-propelled, walk-behind mower.

According to OPEI’s “Brief History of Lawnmowing,” between 1953 and 1959, the power rotary mower was outselling the reel mower by a 9-to-1 ratio.

“Reel-type machines had completely faded in popularity,” noted Dane Scag, president of Great Dane Power Equipment, Elm Grove, Wis. “They were on a horizontal axis. As the blade went around, it cut like scissors. It was probably a very fussy machine. If the grass was too tall, it wouldn’t cut well and if there were too many sticks and stones, the blade was easily ruined.”

ON THE BANDWAGON. If a lawnmower can turn completely around within its own length without veering out of its dimensional box, it is called a true zero-turn mower, as defined by Ken Raney, advertising manager, Excel Industries, a manufacturer of Hustler Turf Equipment, Hesston, Kansas.

“We produced the first zero-turn radius riding mower with independent drive-wheel steering and a belt drive,” Raney remarked of their 1964 Hustler product.

Today, most manufacturers credit the zero-turn radius mower capability as the most significant invention in lawnmower history.

“Zero-turn radius is a superior way to mow grass,” Raney said.

From The Grasshopper Co.’s birth in 1969, it has concentrated solely on producing zero-turn mowers, said Patsy Penner, marketing coordinator for the Moundridge, Kan.-based company. “Zero-turn mowers are so efficient,” Penner explained. “You’re never wasting any motion on that machine. You can maneuver into any area. Before when you would have to shift gears or turn the steering wheel, you spent a lot of time positioning the mower. The zero-turn mower changed that.”

Another key invention during the 1970s that works hand-in-hand with the zero-turn capability today is the hydraulic drive.

“Ever since HydroGear created a good, inexpensive hydraulic transmission to put on mowers everybody wanted it,” remarked Howard Price, president of Howard Price Turf Equipment, Chesterfield, Mo. “It eliminated the belts and the clutches.”

Ferris Industries came out with the single hydrostatic walk-behind mower in 1987, heavily promoting the “No More Belts” approach to mowing, said Bill Shea, vice president of sales and new product development at Ferris Industries, Munnsville, N.Y.

The first dual hydraulic, zero-turn radius walk-behind mower did not appear until 1990 when Joseph Berrios, a retired Florida landscape contractor, came up with the invention, giving Scag Power Equipment non-exclusive rights to his patent, Dane Scag explained.

After the birth of the zero-turn mower and hydraulics, the landscape contractor market became fiercely competitive. Many new lawnmower manufacturers joined the game, including Dixie Chopper, Coatesville, Ind., in 1981; Exmark Manufacturing, Beatrice, Neb., in 1982; Ferris Industries, Munnsville, N.Y., went from producing milking machines for cows to lawnmowers in 1986; and Encore Manufacturing Co., Beatrice, Neb., in 1988.

“There’s only so many landscape contractors out there,” said Rick Curlett, director of marketing for Exmark Manufacturing, “and we are all out there screaming, ‘Look at us.’ Within one or two years of a new product introduction, everybody’s got a version. At least it forces everybody to do what they do a little bit better.”

The lack of patents in the commercial market provide an example of how many manufacturers are working on similar ideas at similar times, said Dick Tegtmeier, president and CEO of Encore Mfg. Co.

“When you drive a blade with a belt and pulley or hydraulics and an engine there’s not much you can do,” he pointed out. “Sometimes it’s just how you get there that matters.”

RULING THE MARKET. Today, the zero-turn radius mower is continually being improved upon as different lawnmower manufacturer inventions attempt to redefine the “true” zero-turn capability.

“The future is the zero-turn radius mower,” said Arthur Warren Evans, sales manager at Dixie Chopper. “It takes about 30 years for any change in design to really take a hold, so zero turn definitely has another 10 or 20 years of growth. In what form transmission or engine it will come in, I don’t know.”

Another current trend is to offer supreme cutting capabilities in a more compact package, said Bob Walker, president of Walker Mfg. Co., Ft. Collins, Colo.

“To fully utilize the zero-turn radius technology, we went to a compact version of the machines,” Walker explained. “Concept-wise, it has proven to be significant in our area of the market. Face it, if the machine is too big, zero-turn radius is no great advantage. It’s all about size coupled with maneuverability. Before, walk-behinds were used where bigger riders couldn’t fit. The compact rider trend has changed that. According to OPEI figures, the sale of walk behind mowers has grown stagnant. They haven’t grown like the riders.”

Walk-behind mowers will never vanish entirely from the market, however, according to Scag.

“Sure, with a compact mower you can fit more in a trailer, maneuver in tighter places, and they’re less costly,” Scag explained. “But there are contractors out there that don’t want their workers riding all day. They think walkers are less costly and more productive and that’s all they buy. Others think riders are more productive because of the fatigue factor walk-behind units cause on their workers. Either way, you have to make them both to survive in this business.”

Today, rider comfort continues to be an issue with landscape contractors. This year, Ferris Industries introduced a rider with independent suspension to smooth out some of the rough terrain for the operator and in 1997, Hustler introduced a motorcycle-style steering system.

LOOKING AHEAD. While some manufacturers think the future will inspire anything from remote control mowing to computerized mowing to solar-powered units to laser-type cutting, others feel that there will be a need to return to the simple basics, mainly for cost reasons.

Sometimes technology gets ahead of practicality, Walker pointed out.

“Landscape terrain is too complicated for computerized control,” Scag explained. “The problem with building bigger, more complicated machines is that they become more and more expensive – almost too expensive for a landscape contractor to afford. And laser technology is so expensive that it just won’t succeed in this industry.”

Scag did, however, give some clout to the production of a chemical growth retardant that is intended to cut down the number of times turf needs to be mowed.

“The ones that chemical companies are playing around with now are working in un-even patches, so contractors still have to mow the grass anyway,” he said. “If they can come up with one that will produce a uniform appearing lawn then that may work and lawns won’t have to be mowed as often.”

Some manufacturers said that the Environmental Protection Agency will have an increased role in the way they make lawnmowers in the future.

“We pretty much make it how they say it now,” Tegtmeier said. “I think there will be tighter rules and regulations. We haven’t heard the end of the emissions and noise level problems.”

The author is Assistant Editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine.