In a fine example of nominative determinism, the lawn mower was the creation of a British gardener named Budding. As foreman in an English textile plant, Edwin Budding was familiar with a new rotary shearing machine used to cut nap off cotton cloth. In the 1820s, he wondered if the machine could be adapted to shear his own garden. By 1830, in Stroud, Gloucestershire, Budding was ready to patent his machine “for cropping or shearing the vegetable surface of lawns, grass-plots and pleasure grounds.” The device was a nineteen-inch roller mower that employed the principle of a set of rotating cutters operating against fixed ones—a rather straightforward adaptation of the method for shearing nap at the textile factory where Budding worked.
One popular grass-cutting method in Budding’s time was the centuries-old technique of scything. It required that grass first be dampened to give it “body” against the blow from a scythe. Consequently, Budding stressed that his mechanical mower would cut dry grass. And he advertised in 1832 that “Country gentlemen will find in using my machine an amusing, useful and healthful exercise.”
To his disappointment, country gentlemen were unimpressed with the rotary lawn-mowing invention, preferring to take their exercise by swinging a scythe. Large, horse-drawn versions of Budding’s mower were tried on British country estates in the 1860s. But gardeners and estate owners objected to hoof scars (which had to be patched up) and horse droppings (which had to be picked up). The horse-drawn rotary mower was no real time-saver.
When the cost of hand-pushed rotary mowers began to drop, around the 1880s, their popularity increased among average home owners in Britain and America. The mowers became the preferred way to cut grass, despite several attempts by inventors and manufacturers to introduce steam-powered mowers.
The first major improvement over the manual rotary device was developed in 1919 by an American army colonel, Edwin George. Installing the motor from his wife’s washing machine in a walk-behind, roller-blade lawn cutter, George produced the first petrol-powered lawn mower. It was the advent of inexpensive mowers in general, and especially of the petrol powered invention of Edwin George, that helped popularise the obsession of manicured lawns among the middle class.