Object lesson No 61

11th May 2001 at 01:00
What is it with men and lawns? Why does their competitive streak go wild over stripes in a piece of grass? Whatever the meaning of this gardening stereotype, it took root in 1830, when a Gloucestershire engineer called Edwin Beard Budding invented the lawnmower. Sunday afternoons were never to be the same as the clank of cast iron mingled with the smell of cut grass and the sweat of the two men required to operate the heavy machines.

Not that the noise pollution was new. Middle-class Regency families often whinged about the sound of a neighbour's gardener sharpening his scythe. By Victorian times, this was no longer cutting-edge technology (although a bowling green in Aberdeenshire was kept immaculately scythed until the 1970s). Everyone wanted a lawn and an easy way of achieving a close shave.

Budding had been inspired by visiting a local cloth mill, where he saw a bladed cylinder mounted on a bench to trim fabric. He realised the gardening potential of the device and set to work with his partner, John Ferrabee. Gear wheels linked a large rear roller to the cutting cylinder, which turned when the machine was pushed forward. The pair patented their design and, not being the sort to let the grass grow under heir feet, allowed other companies to make mowers under licence.

By the 1850s, chains instead of gears were used to transfer power to the cutting cylinder. Eventually sidewheels replaced the weighty rear roller, creating machines that were light, cheap and popular all over the world. They were followed by steam-powered mowers and, by 1900, petrol-driven ones.

After the First World War, people moved out of the cities to scatter their grass seed in the new suburbia. Along came Charles H Pugh and his Atco motor mower, 900 of which were sold in 1921 for pound;75 each. Five years later, tens of thousands were rolling off the production line at a much lower price. The Atco Standard was the world's first mass-produced mower.

Hover mowers and those sit-on machines took even more of the "bovver" out of cutting grass, while the British Lawnmower Museum in Southport (01704 501336) boasts a solar-powered robot mower. And for those whose competitive streak is no longer satisfied by simply cutting the grass, there's the British Lawnmower Racing Association, whose members thrill to driving a screaming, bucking, almost out-of-control motor mower at up to 35mph. Weedy types need not apply.

Stephanie Northen


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