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May 27, 2024 49 mins

We learn who invented the lawnmower, how lawnmowers evolved, and why we even have lawns in the first place. Hint: it has to do with castles in the Middle Ages.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to tech Stuff, a production from iHeartRadio. Hey there,
and welcome to tech Stuff. I'm your host, Jonathan Strickland.
I'm an executive producer with iHeart Podcasts and how the
tech are you of? So it's Memorial Day here in
the United States, and that means we're off and I'm
currently out of town as you listen to this, but

(00:26):
I wanted to bring you an episode anyway. So this
is an episode that actually aired just a couple of
years ago. Fifteenth, twenty twenty one is when it originally published.
It's titled How Medieval Warfare Led to the Lawnmower? And yeah,
this is one of those examples of me going back
in order to tell a story and just keep going
back over and over again to kind of find out, well,

(00:49):
what's the genesis for this technology, and arguably, in the
case of the lawnmower, it's medieval warfare. I hope you enjoy,
and I hope for those of you in the United
States rating that you have a happy and safe holiday.
I'll chat with you again at the end. While I've
been recording shows from my home for nearly a year now,

(01:14):
I still occasionally get reminded about how things can be
different from when I was working in the office. For
the most part, things are kind of like this. This
is the normal now. However, at the office, there is
no chance that my dog will be barking in the
background while I record, and so far, I think I've
mostly avoided having him show up on episodes of Tech Stuff,

(01:38):
but only because I've edited around it. Keep telling him
if he wants to be on a show, he should
get his own podcast, but I'm also scared that if
he does that, he'll get way more popular than me.
You're also not likely to hear other extraneous noises at
the office because there our studios or recording studios are
all in rooms that don't have a window to the

(01:58):
outside world built into them. Though you can still occasionally
pick up sounds of folks who are chatting in the
office outside the studios, because well, at least in the office,
we used to be a pretty chatty lot. So if
you listen to any of the stuff shows, if you
listen very carefully, you might occasionally hear the sounds of

(02:18):
people talking outside that studio room. That's because there are
desks and stuff just on the other side of those doors.
But one noise that has been a particular issue for
me while working at home has been the sound of
the landscape crew that's working on the courtyard outside the
townhouse I live in. They always seem to show up

(02:42):
just as I'm getting ready to record. And then I thought, Hey,
how about I talk about the history of lawnmowers and
how they work. That could be a great topic and
turn that frustration I feel into an episode. So let's
begin with some etymology, which I am now being told
is not the study of bugs, but rather the origin

(03:05):
of words. So we think of a lawn, you know,
as a grassy area like a yard, typically covered by
turf grass in fact, and that is somewhat kept in
an orderly fashion, partly by cutting the grass fairly low.
But where does the word lawn come from? Well, the
word derives from a Middle English word of lone, meaning

(03:29):
an unwooded field or an open space in the woods,
like a glade. Thanks Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, now y'all
might know. Now, back in my college days, I studied
medieval literature, including Old and Middle English texts, and so
immediately I thought of our old pal Jeffrey Chaucer known

(03:51):
for composing the Canterbury Tales, though then he thoughtlessly went
off and died before he finished writing them. But he
also wrote a poem called Parliament of Fowls that mentions
a londe, which hey, that poem also references Valentine's Day
later on, and since we just had Valentine's Day, this
episode is now timely. So the whole poem is far

(04:14):
too long for me to read. It's like seven hundred
lines long. But I will give you the little bit
of it that's about the lounde. And the passage goes
like this, and then a londa upon the Hilla of
Flores was set. This nobler goddess Natier of branches were
here Hollis and herbores. He wrought after her craft, and
here measure. Now, this passage goes on a bit longer,

(04:38):
but honestly, I would just be indulging my own love
of medieval English lit, so I'm going to cut it off. There.
What that passage means in modern English is and in
an opening in the woods, on a hill covered with
flowers sat the goddess Nature. Her home was made of
branches and arranged according to her art. So it's a
pretty little passage. And here Londa refers to something you

(05:02):
might encounter if you were walking through the countryside, through
the wooded forests of old England or old France, and
then at one point you encounter an opening in the
forest where there aren't any trees. So how did it
come to mean the word lawn that we use today? Well,

(05:24):
to understand that, we have to talk about war. Yes,
just as many a homeowner has suspected lawn care and
warfare go hand in hand. Okay, So you got your
big medieval big wig types. You know, you got your
kings and your lords and your earls and whatnot. And

(05:45):
occasionally these types would lead large groups of warriors to
conquer other medieval big wig types, something like a, Hey,
those guys over there got it pretty good, so why
don't we go over there and take their stuff and
make it our stuff? And so the world turns upon
such thoughts. But it's not enough to conquer the people

(06:08):
who live on the other side of the hills or
river or ocean or whatever. You got to hold on
to the land that you've claimed, right, and that means
creating fortifications, preferably in places where you can get a
pretty good look at your surroundings to make sure no
other medieval big wigs get the same bright idea you got.
And then they come to take your stuff, and it

(06:31):
used to be someone else's stuff, because you know, there's
always a bigger fish, as it were. So you build
up your forts or your castles as it were, to
protect your assets. Your castles are your defense system where
you can pull back if necessary if enemies come to call.
But you can't really be on the lookout for the
next bully if you can't see the armies for the trees, right,

(06:53):
and so it gets to chopping. You chop, chop, chop
all those trees down around your fortifications so that you
can see folks from a long way off if they're approaching,
and you can prepare if there's an imminent attack. It
also helps if you know, you don't leave trees around
for people to cut down and turn into stuff like
battering ramps. So there's that element as well. So rather
than wooded fields, you have grassy ones. And this is

(07:16):
the origin of the lawn though back in those days
the lawns weren't exactly you know, pristine, So to maintain
the lawns. You'd either have livestock go out to the
fields to graze, thus cutting back the grass by eating it,
as well as fertilizing the land on occasion, you know,
when nature called, or you could have laborers go out

(07:38):
to the fields with hand tools like scythes and sickles
to cut back the grass manually so that it wasn't
too high. A sickle is a handheld tool that has
a handle, typically made out of wood, and on the
business end, you've got a curved blade sticking out from
the handle, making kind of like a almost like a half moon,

(08:01):
you know, it's sort of crescent shaped, and the blade
is also typically at an angle relative to the handle,
sort of how a razor has an angle to it
for the purposes of shaving. A scythe is similar, but
it's much larger. It's a two handed tool. The grim
reaper carries a scythe, and cutting with either a sickle

(08:22):
or a scythe involves making horizontal passes, typically at the
base of the grass, and you cut in an arc
from one side to the other, and big arcing swings,
so semi circular swings, and those swings only go in
one direction. The blade is sharpened on the inside curve,
not the outside curve, and you're typically going right to

(08:46):
left because the handle for the forward hand on a
scythe is meant to be held with the right hand.
The left hand is meant to hold the scythe further
back on the handle, So in other words, this is
yet another right handed tool. Scything can actually be pretty efficient.
There are actually there's some great videos on YouTube of

(09:07):
people who have really gotten skilled with scything and they
can make short work of an overgrown lawn, like they
can cut that stuff down quickly. I suggest to check
it out. It's just neat to watch. And the angle
of the blade determines how short the side will cut
the grass using a sythe with a good blade angle,
a skilled wheelder can cut the grass very low and

(09:32):
pretty efficiently too, and you would have the bottom part
of the blade actually making contact with the ground as
you swing the scythe from right to left. They also
tend to have to rake up the yard afterward to
gather up all the trimmings. We're usually looking at fields
that have, you know, grass that's quite high, like maybe

(09:54):
a foot high or maybe taller, so you need to
have something to rake up all the the clippings that
you've left behind. I've seen a lot of videos of
folks using sides in order to cut back on, you know,
relying on fossil fuels, and to make use of the
trimmings in various ways from compost to making hey while
the sun shines. In some videos, I've seen folks use

(10:17):
sides more effectively than someone who is using a mechanical
push mower or a weed whacker, though power mowers do
tend to be more efficient than a scythe. So a
push mower, like a mechanical one where there's no motor,
it's just from human power that versus a scythe, you

(10:38):
might actually see someone be more effective with the side
than with the push mower. A weed whackers, same thing,
the push mower that has a motor on it, those
tend to win out in the end. So it really
does start to make you wonder, however, why the heck
did anyone think to invent the mechanical lawnmower in the
first place. If a scythe can be as efficient, why

(10:59):
would any oneever think about making a mechanical invention that
does effectively the same sort of thing. The first lawnmowers
were purely mechanical, relying on gears and blades that were
mounted on a drum like cylinder. And if those aren't
more efficient than a scythe why would you bother? And

(11:20):
the answer is drum roll please vanity. See. While in
the medieval era soldiers wanted to get a good view
of what might be coming at them throughout Europe, particularly
in France and England, the strategic usefulness of castles gradually
declined in the Middle Ages, largely because of advancements in artillery.

(11:42):
Cannons could make very short work of castle walls and
so warfare began to change and castles weren't part of that.
But you still had all these hoity toity types who
liked the idea of a well maintained lawn. Again, mostly
in France and England. That's really where this idea took hold,
and this was definitely an issue of vanity, particularly when

(12:04):
it came to showing off your prestige. Lawns are not
natural environments. When you get down to it, they can
be environmentally unfriendly. They represent a much more limited biome
than a natural grassy or wooded area. It's an artificial construct.
It's really an example of humans cutting back nature to
suit our own esthetics. And really it was only the

(12:27):
hoidy toidy types doing this, because maintaining a lawn was
a lot of work. Not that the hoiity toidy types
were the ones doing the work, mind you, but they
were the ones who could afford livestock or laborers who
would trim back stuff for them. So from manor houses
to inhabited castles you had the practice of maintaining these

(12:49):
large grassy areas. Now, some of that sensibility would also
find its way over to the New World where it
really took hold. Now, the grasses in the New World
were different than those found in Europe. But when settlers
came to North America, they brought with them livestock, and
apparently the livestock really liked the grass in America so

(13:10):
much so that they ding dang durnate it all. So
to keep the livestock from starving, the colonists were importing
grass seeds from Europe and North Africa, including grass is that,
if you were to go by their names, sound like
they come from America. Kentucky Bluegrass, I'm looking at you
you ain't from Kentucky. Thomas Jefferson was said to have

(13:32):
taken up the goal of creating a manicured lawn at
Monticello after he visited France, and George Washington had a
similar desire to turn his estate of Mount Vernon into
a mirror of European standards. And certainly the idea of
a well kept lawn managed to really take hold in America,
becoming something of an obsession really, which we'll cover a

(13:53):
little bit later in this episode. And certain sports definitely
helped things along, for which we can largely thank the sky.
Scottish sports like golf and lawn bowling were brought over
by Scottish immigrants to America and they became popular pastimes
for those who had the leisure to pursue such things.
But to play lawn games, you got to cut the grass,

(14:14):
Otherwise you're going to spend more time trying to find
the game equipment than you get to play with the
darn things. Now we're going to come back to the
evolution of the lawn, particularly in America, and just a
little bit as that history ties into a lot of
other interesting stuff and includes some heavy duty connections to
other elements of American society, in addition to feeding an

(14:35):
entire industry dedicated to lawn care and maintenance. But let's
get back to our early history of lawnmowers. Okay, So
by the nineteenth century, lawns were the rage in England, France,
and starting to be in America. But as I said,
unless you had livestock or the cash to pay laborers,
you probably couldn't maintain a lawn on your own. You

(14:57):
certainly couldn't do so to the immaculate standard of the aristocracy.
The wealthy would spend a lot to get that perfect lawn,
even going so far as to hire people to use
handheld shears to cut grass down quite low, and to
avoid the patterns that you would see if you used sides,
because cutting grass in those arc swings would leave behind

(15:19):
patterns in the grass, and that was considered esthetically unpleasing.
And then we come to an Englishman named Edwin Beard
Budding born in Stroud, Gloucestershire, in seventeen ninety five. Butting
started off with some strikes against him. His parents were unmarried,
his father a farmer, and in England that put him

(15:40):
at a fairly low social standing class in England was
a very important concept still can be while over there
he had the whole working class versus posh and all
that sort of stuff. So he started off in carpentry,
but he switched over to working at iron foundries. The
Industrial Revolution was well underway in England at this point

(16:02):
and the demand for iron tools and machinery was very high,
and through experience Butting built up and understanding of engineering
and problem solving, he would end up inventing several things
or making his own version of some existing machines. But
obviously the one we want to really look at is
the lawnmower. Budding got the idea for the lawnmower when

(16:23):
he saw a device used by textile mills to trim
back the fibers that stick out from the surface of cloth,
also known as the nap of a cloth, and with
some textiles the goal is to fluff the nap out.
You use little combs or prickly flowers even to pull
some of those threads out, and then you comb it

(16:44):
a certain way, which can make the cloth softer to
the touch and better at doing stuff like trapping heat.
But sometimes you just wanted a very smooth piece of cloth.
Something that wouldn't get caught easily on rough surfaces. So,
for example, you might want a carpet that could withstand
more use as long as it did you know, catch
on shoes and stuff. So you would want to shear

(17:08):
the nap. You'd want to cut that nap close to
the cloth. And in earlier days this job was done
by skilled tradespeople who would use giant sets of shears.
I mean these things were massive in order to cut
the nap off the surface of the cloth as efficiently
as possible. But by Butting's time, some genius whose name
is lost to history came up with the notion of

(17:30):
building a mechanical device that has blades arranged around a
drum or cylinder in a type of helix shape. The
drum or cylinder rotates, and by running the surface of
the cloth near this helix of blades, the blades could
trim back the nap on the surface of the cloth.

(17:50):
Add in some rollers and some other elements to pull
the cloth along, and you cut yourself a machine that
can trim the nap back on cloth evenly, consistently, and efficiently. Aha,
said Budding. What if I took that same basic idea
and flipped it around a bit so you could trim
back grass with rotating blades along a cylinder, And in

(18:10):
eighteen thirty that's just what he did, securing a patent
number six zero eighty one in fact for his invention.
I'll explain more about it after this quick break. Butting
saw an opportunity to create a device that could consistently

(18:33):
and reliably cut grass a specific length, so, in other words,
you could adjust how tall the grass would be and
without leaving those marks behind that you would get if
you were to cut grass with scythes and such. Also,
the lawnmower wouldn't poop on the lawn, unlike livestock. It
would be particularly handy for parks and sporting grounds where

(18:57):
the well to do could gather for their leisure time
and for something orderly and neat, which very much fit
in with the sensibilities of the elite of nineteenth century Britain.
So Edwin Beard Budding built a wheeled machine out of
wrought and cast iron. It had a pair of wheels.
It also had a pair of rollers and a forward

(19:18):
roller and a back roller, as well as the blade
mounted cylinder that did the actual cutting. So imagine you've
got a mechanical device has a small roller in the front.
This is the thing that can be adjusted so you
can control how close to the ground you're cutting the grass.
Behind that roller, you've got your horizontal cylinder that's got

(19:39):
the curved blades arranged in a helix around that rotatable cylinder,
so it rotates along the horizontal axis, is what I'm saying.
To either side of that are the wheels of the lawnmower.
That provides stability, allows you to actually aim it and
push it along the ground. And then in the rear

(20:00):
you have a big roller. It kind of looks like
a more narrow and slightly smaller version of a steamroller,
if that helps you imagine. This Buttings design also incorporated
a tray to catch grass clippings. The tray was in
the front because the way this machine worked, it would
propel the clippings out, shooting them out toward the front

(20:22):
of the machine. That way, you wouldn't have to follow
behind the lawnmower with a rake or something like that
to rake up the clippings. And it was that rear roller,
the big steamroller type thing in the back that connected
to the bladed cylinder through a gear drive. That's where

(20:42):
you've got a series of gears that fit together to
transfer the rotational motion of the roller that's pressed against
the ground. So as you push the lawnmower forward, the
roller rolls because it's making contact with the ground, and
it transfers that rotationational motion to the cylinder or the

(21:03):
drum if you prefer, that's got the blades on it.
And all of this was made out of iron. Now
this meant the person who was pushing the mower had
to use a pretty good amount of force because you
weren't just pushing hard enough to move the mower itself,
which being made out of iron, was pretty darn heavy,
but also to power that drive train of gears that

(21:25):
would transmit the rotation to the cylinder, and each step
of that process, each gear connection, means that you're losing
a little bit of the amount of energy you're giving
to the system to stuff like friction, So it means
you have to push even harder to get things going.
But still, Butting showed that the same general principle that
worked for cutting back the nap on cloth could in

(21:48):
fact be used to cut grass. He patented his design
in eighteen thirty and in that patent, Butting sent his
invention represented, quote a new combination and application of machinery
for the purpose of crop or shearing the vegetable surfaces
of lawns, grass plats and pleasure grounds. Country gentlemen may
find in using my machine themselves an amusing, useful, and

(22:11):
healthy exercise. End. It's interesting to note that a lot
of the basic designs introduced by Budding would stick around
throughout the ages with mechanical push mowers, and the ones
that we have today have at least some resemblance to
the one that Budding was making back in the mid
nineteenth century. Now the new ones are more elegant in

(22:34):
design and they're made of much lighter materials, but the
general principle behind the operation remains pretty much the same.
Budding formed a partnership with an engineer named John Ferrabee,
who owned a company called Phoenix Ironworks. Faerbe had the
manufacturing rights to produce Budding's design and fronted the costs

(22:55):
to develop the prototype, and one of the earliest lawnmowers
that the pair reduced went to the London Zoo, and
another one became the property of Oxford University. By eighteen
thirty two, word had already spread that Budding's machine could
create great results, and demand was soon outpacing Farabe's capacity

(23:16):
to produce lawnmowers, and Farabe then began to license the
design to other engineers, to other ironworks owners, including Ransoms
of Ipswich, a company that was already in the business
of producing plows for farmers. They advertised the new lawnmower
invention saying, quote the machine is so easy to manage

(23:39):
that persons unpracticed in the art of mowing may cut
the grass on lawns and bowling greens with ease end quote.
In other words, they were kind of positioning this as
something of a leisure activity for the upper class. That
you know, mowing the lawn with a side that was

(24:00):
a low class thing to do. That was for laborers.
You wouldn't see people of the upper classes do that.
It was beneath their station. But mowing with this exotic
machine that was something befitting a person of high station.
And it was, as a matter of fact, pretty simple
to operate these things. You just grabbed the handle of

(24:21):
the mower and you pushed it forward kind of like
a cart. You would exert a little bit of a
downward push as you did, so it took far less
skill than scything did. And by framing the activity of
mowing a lawn as a means of taking exercise and
being out in nature, the companies were slowly shifting the
perception of caring for a lawn in general. And this

(24:42):
would also help later on, as the lawnmower would be
marketed toward the middle class, when the prices would eventually
come down. Now, when I say the demand was outstripping supply,
we have to remember that manufacturing in the eighteen thirties
wasn't nearly as efficient as it would be a century later.
So I don't want to give you the impression that

(25:04):
the lawnmower became the must have Christmas gift of eighteen
thirty two or something. When Butting passed away in eighteen
forty six because of a stroke, the lawnmower was a
successful invention, but it was not yet a household item,
so it wasn't like Budding had become a millionaire. In fact,

(25:25):
he died before really seeing his invention get adopted around England,
France and America. By the eighteen sixties, Farrabe's Iron Works
had produced around five thousand lawnmowers, and that included a
small range of designs which mainly had to do with
the width of the lawnmower. A wider lawnmower can obviously

(25:48):
cut a wider strip of grass, which means you don't
have to do as many passes on a lawn or
a field in order to complete a job, but it
also means that the lawnmower gets heavier. Some of the
designs incorporated a second handle on the lawnmower. This one
would be toward the front of the machine, which meant
you could actually pull it along behind you instead of

(26:11):
pushing it in front of you. One design I saw
had the handle on a hinge so you could swing
the handle so you could swing it toward the rear
of the machine and make it a push mower, or
you could swing it to the front of the machine
and make it a pull mower. Butting's design inspired others
to make their own adjustments. In eighteen forty two, Alexander Shanks,

(26:33):
an inventor from Scotland, made a version of the lawnmower
that could be hitched to a horse or pony, which
allowed him to make even larger lawnmowers that would be
far too heavy for a person to push or pull
on their own to prevent the horses from damaging the grass.
Let's say that you were cutting the grass on a
golf course, something that was very common in Scotland or

(26:55):
tennis courts. Well, they would put little leather shoes on
the horses who hooves, so the horse would be wearing
booties in order to mow the lawn. In the eighteen fifties,
inventor Thomas Green made some adjustments of his own to
the lawnmower design, and one simple tweak was that he
added a rake to help lift grass blades up a

(27:16):
little bit for cutting, so that way you didn't end
up with any missed bits. But in the late eighteen
fifties he made a much more substantial change. He created
a chain drive for the mower's blades instead of the
gear drive that Butting had created, and by removing the
need for so many cast iron gears and replacing them

(27:37):
with a chain, he made the lawnmower's design simpler and
importantly lighter. It was also apparently less noisy, as Green
called his lawnmower the silence messor for silent running. By
this time, thirty years after the invention of the lawnmower,
word had reached America, and in eighteen sixty eight an

(27:59):
inventor from can Etiquette named Amariyah Hills received a patent
for improvements to Budding's lawnmower design, which included changing out
a cylinder covered in blades to an open spiral cutter.
So just imagine a helix of blades, but you no
longer have them mounted on a cylinder. It's almost like

(28:20):
it's just two blades in that mount to wheels on
either side that can turn. He also allowed more fine
tuning for the cutting height and changed how the handle
attached to the frame of the mower, and his design
would go on to become a very popular mower in
the Northeastern United States, sometimes called an Archimedean mower because

(28:41):
the blades resembled the classic archimedean screw. Many of these
machines saw use in parks and for maintaining stuff like
golf courses and tennis courts and the like, but over
in America they would also be sought after because of
a few other big factors, and one is the growth
of the suburbs after the Civil War in America, and

(29:02):
as the US was having its own boom and industry,
cities were becoming more industrialized in general, and many people,
at least many wealthy people, the people who could afford it,
moved out of the cities and settled in surrounding areas
near the cities, forming the suburbs. And like the French
and English aristocracy a century earlier, many of them saw

(29:25):
a well maintained lawn as something of a status symbol.
So there was a general movement toward cutting lawns, which
must have pleased Amariah Hill as it represented a demand
for those Archimedean mowers. And in eighteen seventy Frank J.
Scott's The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of small

(29:45):
Extent hit the presses. This book, which is six hundred
and eighteen pages in length, if we don't include all
the advertisements. At the end of the book, it goes
to what I can only describe as ex cruciating detail
regarding how to make your lawn look absolutely magnificent, and further,

(30:08):
you are a monster if you don't do it. You
can read the whole thing over on the Smithsonian Library's
website if you would like. If you want to skip
to the juicy stuff, go to page one hundred and seven,
chapter thirteen, the Lawn. The chapter opens up with a
couple of references to poetry, followed by this passage quote,

(30:29):
A smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far
the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of
a suburban home. End quote boom, mic drop. You don't
mow your grass, you are an affront to beauty. Now
I'm being a little, you know, facetious here, but Scott

(30:50):
was arguing that in an age in which companies were
laying down train tracks or streetcar lines, more people from
far and wide were passing through different neighborhoods and then
judging those neighborhoods based on their esthetic beauty or lack thereof.
And isn't it more American to be proud of your
community and to show it off with distinction. So rich

(31:14):
suburbanites ate that stuff up man, and so lawn care
started to be a big business. It was boosted more
with related inventions such as Joseph Lessler's lawn sprinkler, which
could attach to a garden hose. Lawns need a good
deal of water to remain healthy. That we're kind of
touch on that again in a bit. And this was

(31:35):
a way where you could water your lawn without having
to do a lot of backbreaking work in the process.
And again, the concept of lawn care being connected to
exercise and being out of doors was a big part
of all this too. So while America's obsession with lawn
care began to take root, so to speak, we had
other stuff going on at the same time. Sometime around

(31:56):
eighteen ninety or so, inventors began to incorporate the next
logical element for lawnmowers steam engines. Yes, steam powered lawnmowers
were a thing briefly, and why not. Steam engines had
already been used for trains for decades, So why not
strap a big old boiler to a mechanical lawnmower and

(32:17):
make the boiling water do all the work. So here's
how these things worked. In general. You had your boiler,
which is the name suggests, is the container holding the
water that gets boiled off to produce steam. The boiler
is pressurized, so the steam can't just escape. It has
to go through a specific route, and typically you would
have a valve that would allow steam to pass through

(32:40):
under really incredible pressure. So a furnace heats the boiler up,
the water starts to boil off, and the steam builds
up and passes through valves to a cylinder that has
a piston in it. The steam forces the piston down
the length of the cylinder until the piston passes an
exhaust valve, whereupon the steam escapes the cylinder, the piston

(33:02):
returns to its starting position, and the whole thing can
happen again. Attaching mechanical elements to the piston via a
piston rod allows you to transfer that mechanical motion to
other components, such as the wheels and the cutting blades
of a lawnmower. And bang, now you don't have to
push it yourself or hitch it to a horse or something.

(33:24):
You just got to fill up the boiler from time
to time. You got to keep that furnace going and
keep it really hot. And you know, you just got
to not explode, which is something that can happen if
pressure builds up in a boiler and the steam has
nowhere to go. But hey, a boiler explosion is a
small price to pay for a well manicured lawn right. Okay,

(33:45):
I'm clearly getting snarky again, but these lawnmowers did work,
and I've seen some that looked like the result you
would get if you crossed a locomotive with a mechanical
push mower along with a riding lawnmower. You would sit
in front of the boiler, which would be mounted at
the rear of the lawnmower, and you would use controls
to steer yourself as you rode along and moved down

(34:07):
a lawn or field, and the steam engine provides all
the oomph to the wheels and the blades. It's neat,
if a little intimidating. These things were huge, and they
had to be because if you're using steam, you need
to have a big boiler to hold enough water so
that you got the oomph for your engine. These clearly
were not intended for the average homeowner, or even the

(34:30):
upper middle class or lower upper class homeowners. These were
more for larger, more regularly level areas. They didn't do
well if there were hills or anything like that, so
these were more frequently used for something like a flat
landscaped park or a sporting area like a golf course,

(34:51):
or maybe a tennis court. They also didn't stick around
for very long. And when we come back, I'll talk
about the development of the gas powered lawnmower, which would
take the steam of its predecessor for a couple of
good reasons. But first let's take another quick break. Before

(35:18):
I get into more modern mowers, I should mention another inventor,
this one named John Albert Burr. He made changes to
the classic cylindrical lawnmower design so that the gears wouldn't
easily get gummed up with lawn clippings. Essentially, they figured out, hey,
if we cover these gears up so that the lawn
clippings can't get in the gear works, then you're not

(35:40):
going to have as many jams as you try and
mow your lawn. He also created a mower that would
allow landscapers to mow more closely to the edge of
walls and buildings to get a neater cut. Also around
this time, improvements in manufacturing meant that companies could mass
produce lawnmowers, which also meant the costs of production dropped,

(36:01):
and that meant companies could drop the prices of those machines,
and that meant more people were able to afford lawnmowers,
and in American in particular, that meant booming business. As
the idea that a well kept lawn was an important
component of being seen as an upstanding member of society
it had really taken hold here. So this combination of

(36:23):
elements led to a lot more people buying lawnmowers. And
when I say that, remember I'm still talking about the
mechanical push mower style devices. Well, the steam powered lawnmowers
appeared on the scene in the eighteen nineties, but by
nineteen oh two, Ransoms, the company I mentioned much earlier
in this episode, is one of the first two license

(36:44):
Budding's lawnmower design for production. Well, they created the first
lawnmower that used an internal combustion engine for power. This
was a ride on mower and it was a big one.
So this was not a push mower. This this was
a gigantic monstrosity. In fact, the images I've seen of
this thing make it look like there's a gentleman in

(37:05):
a jacket and tweed hat who is taking a printing
press out for a ride or something. It's a machine
with big, heavy chains, enormous rollers, a large container in
front to catch clippings and whirling blades of destruction underneath.
It looks pretty awesome, I think, and almost unreal. It
certainly isn't what I think of when someone says lawnmower

(37:27):
to me. The internal combustion engine was the death knell
for steam powered lawnmowers. While Ransom's ride on mower was huge,
the switch to an internal combustion engine would lead to
smaller lawnmower designs, and you didn't need an enormous boiler
like you would with a steam powered one. Nor did

(37:47):
you have to stoke some sort of furnace to keep
things going. You just needed some petrol in the fuel tank. Now,
I've talked about how internal combustion engines work and other episodes,
so I'm not going to go in to all that
detail here, but I will say that the early versions
of the motor powered lawn mowers really in other forms,

(38:08):
seem to be based on that cylindrical helix design along
the horizontal axis, the same sort of design that Butting
had proposed way back in eighteen thirty. So these were
not the rotary mowers that we would see much later,
not yet, but the advances in internal combustion engines, which
would both make the mowers get smaller and more powerful.

(38:29):
As various engineers made improvements to the engines that eventually
did lead to the design of a different kind of lawnmower.
So instead of that horizontal axis cylindrical approach in which
the blades would rotate around that horizontal axis, the internal
combustion engine allowed for a lawnmower with a vertical axle
upon which you would fix a horizontal blade. So the

(38:51):
rotating vertical axle would rotate this horizontal blade close to
the ground in a really fast circle, and you've got
your rotary lawnmower. A lot of different engineers and companies
experimented with creating rotary lawnmowers for a few decades actually,
but most of them weren't really that successful because the

(39:12):
engines being used just weren't up to turning something that
way in an efficient manner, so you couldn't cut very
well with them. But by the nineteen fifties it had
become a viable approach to lawnmower design. And now we're
going to get into some interesting and some upsetting parts
of history. Okay, So we laid out how the aristocracy

(39:35):
used lawns as a way to show off their wealth
and their sensibilities. And we talked about how those ideas
filtered from France and England to America and how Frank
Scott promoted them with his authoritative approach on appealing to
wealthy suburban families. So let's talk about some big issues
in the United States that made lawns a sort of

(39:56):
symbol of the haves versus the have nots. And this
it was also going to have a lot to do
about racial discrimination. Back in eighteen seventy when Scott's book
hit the scene, his target demographic was the white suburban homeowner.
The suburbs were where you typically find the upper middle
class or maybe the lower upper classes, and these communities

(40:19):
were predominantly white, and frequently that was actually a selling
point that real estate agents would market to potential clients.
It was, without a doubt, a racist perspective, the idea
that a community is preferable because there are no people
of color living there. That's just gross, all right. So
flash forward to the nineteen forties. The United States enters

(40:43):
World War Two and sends more than sixteen million Americans
to serve During the war, more than four hundred thousand
of those Americans died in action, and another six hundred
and seventy thousand were wounded. At the time, racial segregation
was still very much in practice even in the military,
and the number of black people serving in the US

(41:04):
military actually represented a lower percentage than the demographics of
black people relatives to the general US population at the time,
But there were still thousands of black soldiers and volunteers
who were active in the theater of war, including soldiers
on the front lines. Back home, the United States government

(41:26):
passed the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of nineteen forty four, better
known as the GI Bill. The purpose of the bill
was to create a support system for soldiers returning home
that included important infrastructure like the construction of hospitals, but
it also included the chance to go to college tuition
free up to five hundred dollars, which, hey, how about

(41:49):
those college tuition increases, y'all. They could also secure low
interest mortgage offers on homes through banks because the government
was backing those loans. So these soldiers, some of whom
had been overseas for years, were to be given some
assistance upon returning home to make up for the fact
that they had to leave their lives, their loved ones,

(42:11):
and their livelihoods all behind. And that bill meant that
millions of returning soldiers would be able to buy a
home for the first time in the suburbs and follow
the American dream of a white picket fence and a
well manicured lawn. That is, they could do it if
they were white. While the bill ostensibly offered benefits to

(42:33):
all returning veterans, regardless of race or gender, in practice
it was far more common to see those benefits go
to white male veterans, and black veterans also frequently found
it really hard to secure a loan from a bank
for a mortgage, even with the guaranteed government backing that

(42:53):
came from the GI Bill. And so the suburban home
and along with it, the American lawn became sort of
an extended marker for segregation and racial discrimination. Now did
this mean that all white people who enjoyed maintaining their
lawn were racist for doing so, No, of course not. Rather,

(43:14):
they were privileged and that they had more opportunities to
secure a home in the suburbs and a lawn to
maintain than people of color had and that's also to
point out that there were black people moving into suburbs
and having lawns, but from a systematic point of view,
they were doing so by overcoming obstacles that their white

(43:36):
neighbors just didn't necessarily face. The post World War II
era saw an economic boom, and along with developments like
color printing, radio, television, we also saw a boom in advertising.
And you better believe companies that were making lawn care
products and machinery, including lawnmowers, were leaning heavily on promoting

(44:00):
the idea that a neat, orderly lawn reflects well on
homeowners and that the products they were selling would help
you achieve that dream of homogeneous perfection. That plays a
part in it too. The US in the nineteen fifties
was an era of conformity. There was an intense pressure
to create the ideal of perfection. Honestly, when we look

(44:23):
at stuff like how people will manufacture these perfect photos
for their social media platforms like their Instagram, to me,
it feels like it's that same mentality coming back into play. Sure,
your life might be as shambles, but dang it, your
lawn looks nice and so to the outside world. You're
just fine. Now, maybe I'm getting a bit too off

(44:44):
target here. Let's get back to lawnmowers. So by the
nineteen fifties we started seeing the rotary style lawnmowers that
ran on gas hitting the market. This is where we
get that iconic starter cord, the pull cord that can
foil us as we try to get that little bit
of fuel that's been pumped into the engine to catch

(45:04):
on before giving that cord a big riper three to
try and get the engine to start. And I don't
think I've ever talked about how a poll start or
rope start engine works. So let's just cover that super quickly,
shall we. All Right, So inside the lawnmower, you've got
a reel and you've got a cord wound around that reel.

(45:26):
The end of that cord is attached to a handle
that's on the outside of the lawnmower. That's the part
that you grip and pull. Attached to the real inside
the lawnmower is a spring. So pulling the cord will
cause the spring to extend and it wants to contract,
So that's the force you're feeling. The tension you feel
is the spring trying to contract again, so when you

(45:48):
let go of the cord, it goes back into the
you know, the lawnmower because that spring is compressing well.
Also attached to the reel is the clutch of the engine,
and as the turns, it transmits rotational energy to the
crank shaft. If the crank shaft turns quickly enough, a
pair of magnets connected to a flywheel begin to move

(46:11):
outward due to centrifugal force, and once they extend far enough,
the magnets affect the ignition module so that it generates
a spark and that sets off the combustion in the
engine's cylinders, and once that gets going, the engine can
take over. From there it can continue that cycle of
sparking the spark plugs, assuming that there's fuel left in

(46:32):
the tank to ignite due to those sparks. So a
gas powered rotary lawn mower typically uses the engine to
provide power to the blade, of course, but also frequently
to at least two wheels to make it a little
easier to push around. They require less physical effort to
use than the mechanical lawnmowers that have been around for
more than a century, but they also require fuel, and

(46:55):
they also give off emissions through the burning of that fuel.
Now folks have been calling out lawns more recently for
lots of different reasons, including environmental and socioeconomic concerns. A
lot of water is used on lawns, which often can
be seen as very wasteful, and there's always stories about

(47:15):
communities that have water restrictions due to drought, and some
jerkfaces using precious water to water their lawn because for
some reason that's more important than everyone else having access
to water. Some folks use stuff like herbicides and pesticides
in order to maintain their lawns, which can sometimes cause
chemical runoff that can get washed out and join the

(47:37):
water cycle. That's bad news. And of course there's the
fact that lawns are not natural ecosystems. They represent a
less biologically useful surface. And then the fact that the
very concept of lawns dates back to this aristocratic notion
of showing off your wealth. So might we one day
see a world in which the manicured lawn is really

(47:58):
an oddity and people move to maybe a more natural
and thus disorderly approach. I don't know, but I sure
hope so, because then my HOA won't be on my
case if I don't get to the grass cutting on time. Well,
I hope you enjoyed that episode, that episode from just
a few years ago of how medieval warfare led to

(48:18):
the lawnmower. As I said, it's always fun for me
to do those kinds of episodes where I'm looking at
sort of long tail influence of how an invention comes
to be. It turns out the stories about technology rarely
have a very simple beginning, middle, and end. It's usually
far more complicated than that, which irritates my brain because

(48:39):
I love story structure. So the fact that reality doesn't
conform to the three act structure or even five acts structure,
I find incredibly vexing. But I hope you enjoyed this episode.
I hope you're having a great week so far, and
I'll talk to you again really soon. Tech Stuff is

(49:02):
an iHeartRadio production. For more podcasts from iHeartRadio, visit the
iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your
favorite shows.

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