Today, an odd story about an invisible technology.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I'll bet you've never
thought about the invention of lawn mowers. I
hadn't either until I read an article on lawns by
Margaret Culbertson. Our homes, golf courses, and
institutions sit on thousands of square miles of
close-cut grass. We clearly haven't had all those
lawns any longer than we've had means for mowing
them. Lawns never would've become such an American
institution without lawn mowers.
So I went looking for the history of lawn mowers.
What I found was a surprise. Almost nothing has
been written about this machine that takes up such
a huge part of our lives.
Lawns themselves took form in the 1700s. The French
formal garden was a closed space with carefully
tended grassy patches. When the British got their
hands on that idea, they changed it radically.
British estates had lawns that opened into nature.
A lawn flowed away from a house, out into the
To do that, the English invented the sunken fence
-- a trench lined on one side with a vertical stone
wall. It kept animals in but it was nearly
invisible. It created the illusion that the house
was simply part of nature around it.
Jefferson studied those English lawns. Then he
built the idea into Monticello and the University
of Virginia. We had the space we needed for lawns
in America, but tending them was a labor. Grazing
animals did some mowing. The rest had to be done
with a sickle or a scythe.
In 1830 an English inventor, Edwin Budding, created
the first lawn mower -- much like the hand-pushed
mower you may've once used. Do you remember the old
rotating helical blades?
The lawn mower caught on fast in America. Yet
history has had very little to say about that key
invention. In 1874 Beeton's Dictionary of
Gardening already wrote it off as "too
well-known to need description."
I earned my allowance in 1940 pushing a mower and
trimming the lawn with a sickle. That's the year
Leonard Goodall invented the rotary power mower and
transformed lawn-mowing utterly.
Today we burn a half billion gallons of gas a year
powering rotary mowers. We pour tens of thousands
of tons of chemicals on our lawns. Lawns reflect a
200-year-old Romantic dream of fusing ourselves
with nature. Yet that very dream now poses a major
threat to the nature it so lovingly celebrates.
What a crowning irony! We so want the loveliness of
nature that we put nature under assault to have it.
We lay ourselves open to that sort of thing when we
take our technologies for granted -- when we let
them slip into invisibility.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Culbertson, M., The Lawn Goodbye, Cite,
(Incomplete citation -- approximately Vol. 30 or 31,
1995.) Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture
Librarian, also directed me to the source material,
Bormann, F.H., Balmori, D., and Geballe, G.T.,
Redesigning the American Lawn. New
Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1993.
Scott, F.J., The Art of Beautifying Suburban
Home Grounds of Small Extent. New York:
Appleton & Co., 1870.
Jackson, K.T., Crabgrass Frontier: The
Suburbanization of the United States. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Goodall, L.E., the Rotary Power Mower and Its
Inventor: Leonard B. Goodall. Missouri
Historical Review. Vol 86, No. 3, 1992, pp.
Geelhoed, B.E., Business and the American Family: A
Local View. The Indiana Social Studies
Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2, 1980 pp. 58-67.
An original Budding lawn mower, London Science
Museum, (Photo by John Lienhard)
View of the new lawn mowers in the
December, 1896, Scribner's Magazine