The evolution of the lawn mower

In the beginning, there was grass, and the sheep ate the grass. The grass was short, and it was good.

But not very efficient. So, until the 1830s, the few landowners who had turf lawns and wanted to keep them trimmed used scythes or shears to chop turf to acceptable heights.

Then, Englishman Edwin Budding observed a cutter used in cloth factories for removing the nap from fabric. What if he took the same concept and built a machine that would cut grass?

In the 170 years since Budding created his grass-cutting contraption, the lawn mower has evolved from a heavy, hard-to-maneuver machine into a diverse family of equipment with assorted features and differing levels of speed and cutting precision.

The invention also transformed the look of residences, parks and fields around the world. Manicured lawns were no longer limited to the estates of aristocrats-with the simple and affordable cutting machines, most middle-class homeowners could maintain healthy and attractive lawns to enhance their properties.

Budding's brainstorm Around 1830, gardeners typically used scythes to trim turf. For the best results, the job had to be done when the ground was wet with dew-early in the morning or late at night. A less-than-careful effort might leave telltale, unattractive marks from the scythe.

When Budding's idea became a reality, it freed the workers to cut turf at more convenient hours. Budding and his partner received a patent in 1830 for his lawn mower.

"Country gentlemen may find in using my machine themselves an amusing, useful and healthy exercise," Budding said in his patent documents.

The machine was crude by modern standards. It consisted of a rear roller and a cutting cylinder in front. Gears sent power from the rear roller to the cutting cylinder. It was difficult to use-in many cases, two persons were needed: one to push, one to pull.

In time, others expanded on Budding's inspiration. There were machines that could be pulled by horses or other beasts of burden; models using chains instead of gears to drive the cutting unit, and sidewheel mowers, in which the wheels themselves drove the cutting cylinder.

By the 1870s, lawn mowers had become so simple to use and reasonably priced that they were becoming more common in American landscapes.

Power Lawn mowers were only as effective as the strength and stamina of the person or animal pulling or pushing the machine. That began to change in the 1890s, as inventors and manufacturers looked at ways to bring engine power to lawn mowing.

A steam-powered mower was introduced in the 1890s, but it was heavy, noisy and hard to control and maneuver. Just after the turn of the century, gasoline-powered machines became available and unlocked the door to productivity.

Powerful engines could push or pull more blades and provide a better cut. Gang mowers-several cutting units pulled by a tractor-became common for cutting turf in parks and on golf courses. As cutting widths and productivity expanded, riding mowers became commonplace. Cutting units could be found at the front of a rear-engine mower, or at the rear of a tractor-driven unit.

Engine power also made rotary blades more feasible on mowers. Engines could provide the power to spin the rotary blade fast enough to cut the turf effectively. Rotaries became more popular after World War II, as engines became cheaper and more powerful, and the accelerating migration to the suburbs meant more people had larger lawns to maintain. Rotary machines were cheaper to make and maintain.

Other innovations Manufacturers have continued to strive to make mowers that are easier to use, more comfortable and provide a better cut.

Machines are available with hydraulics that put more power and precision in a landscaper's hands. Mowers can mulch grass clippings and spare workers the chore of raking and cleaning after the lawn is cut. Units with pneumatic tires have a light footprint and allow mowers to traverse delicate ground such as golf greens.

By using levers instead of a wheel to steer a mower, zero-turn mowers allow you to maneuver around obstacles and cut turf in areas that more conventional machines can't reach.

Manufacturers are continually studying technological developments to see how they can build a better mower.

The future If you're wondering what you might see in the lawnmowers of the future, keep your eyes on the road. Many of the improvements in lawn equipment stem from the automotive industry.

"We have to wait for the automotive industry to come up with the innovations and improvements," says Peter Whurr, vice president of product management for Textron Turf Care and Specialty Products. "We do not have the huge volume they do. Lawn mowers are built in the hundreds as opposed to the thousands."

And, as automobiles have incorporated more computer technology into their systems, so will lawn mowers.

"Computing is becoming incredibly fast and cheap," says Dana Lonn, director of the Toro Co.'s Center for Advanced Turf Technology. "Breakthroughs in satellite technology, such as global positioning systems (GPS) and remote imaging, will allow you to sense exactly where turf needs to be mowed."

That will not only improve the efficiency of your work force, but also lessen the effect on the environment

"You will use technology to help you do only what you need to do only where it needs to be done," says Lonn.

Satellite systems will also be able to enhance equipment maintenance and anticipate breakdowns.

"There is more and more talk about zero down time," says Bob Tracinski, business communications manager for John Deere's Worldwide Commercial & Consumer Equipment Division. "The trend is toward design durability in equipment that gets so much use."

He says a 'black box' equipped with a computer chip can be installed in a mower to monitors parts susceptible to wear and breakdown. When a part begins to show signs of fatigue or damage, the chip can transmit the information to a GPS satellite, which can notify a dealer.

"The dealer can get a new part out to the job site before the operator even knew there was a problem," says Tracinski.

The same technology will deter theft because the satellite will be able to detect where every piece of equipment is. It will allow landscape companies to map the most efficient ways to go from job to job, which will reduce crews' down times.

"The technology is doable," says Tracinski. "It's just a matter of getting the cost down."

Quiet and comfort Lawn mowers of the future will be environmentally friendlier, more comfortable, easier to use and have safety features better integrated into the design.

Manufacturers will place greater emphasis on ergonomic design.

"With the labor shortage in the landscaping industry, people need to work longer hours, and they want riding equipment that is more comfortable to operate," says Tracinski. "That means features like higher-back seats and lower noise levels, controls properly placed, things color-coded, easy on-and-off switches."

Companies are continuing to pursue alternative fuel sources for mowers to reduce air and noise pollution. Concerned about the effect that emissions from lawn mowers and other lawn and garden equipping are affecting the atmosphere, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is toughening emission standards for small engines such as those used on lawn mowers.

"You'll see significant changes in this area," says Lonn. "Mowers will have fuel cells instead of gasoline or diesel engines."

Batteries and fuel cells will progress to the point that they will be able to provide enough power to trim turf without rousing the neighborhood from its sleep.

"The noise would be so low that you wouldn't even know a landscaper was out there working," says Whurr.

For example, Metallic Power (Carlsbad, Calif.) has agreements with Briggs Stratton, Toro and Textron for development of vehicles that use its zinc/air fuel cells. Units powered by fuel cells may be available in the next several years. They will be quiet and emission-free and should have enough power to fit well into regular maintenance operations.

Tracinski says that the industry is working to make that do not get in the way of a landscaper's job safety features an integral part of the lawn mower.

"There is a tendency for some commercial operators to bypass safety issues to increase productivity," says Tracinski. "Companies try to build in safety in such a way that it is not seen as an obstacle to productivity."

In the same vein, manufacturers are striving to make lawn mowers simple to operate even for someone with no experience or mechanical background.

"The labor shortage means it's not always possible to have someone with a knowledge of mechanics, or even speak English," says Tracinski. "We are working to make the controls easy to operate and learn, so that a worker is ready to mow immediately.

A robotic herd Computers will also create smarter machines such as robotically controlled mowers.

"They're out there in their infancy," says Whurr. "You could be up on the porch putting your feet up while the mower does the job itself."

Manufacturers need to resolve several safety issues before machines can be sent out on their own. But they are close.

"We're not that far away from having completely autonomous machines," says Lonn. "A machine will know where it is, will know how to avoid collisions. You can plan ahead what it is supposed to do."

Instead of five workers each riding a mower on a job, one worker with robotic controls could operate four or five mowers at the same time, much like a shepherd watching a flock of sheep.

And the robots will eat the grass, and it will be good.

What goes around comes around.

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