Tackling the Grass Mower Challenge

How inventors tried to create the first successful grass mower in the late 19th century.

Scything

This 1865 Winslow Homer painting ("The Veteran in a New Field") depicts the way mowing used to be done.

Image courtesy the Farm Collector staff

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Years ago, no one but wealthy estate owners worried about having a well-trimmed lawn, and those who did had slaves or servants that did the cutting by hand. The only grass cut by farmers was for the hay they needed to feed their horses and cattle through the snowy winters. When grass around the farmhouse needed to be cut, the farmer turned sheep or cattle onto it.

For centuries, grass for forage was cut with a sickle or a scythe, raked by hand and then pitched onto a wagon or a cart for transport to a barn or stack for storage. This labor-intensive process assured that only a bare minimum of hay was put up – just enough to feed the farmer’s animals. In fact, a 2- or 3-acre patch, about the size of my so-called lawn, was probably a big hay field in those days.

A challenging proposition

When farm mechanization began during the early 19th century, machines for reaping grain took priority, although a few inventive individuals turned their attention to the problem of cutting hay.

At first, inventors tried to duplicate the action of a scythe. Several of these wicked-looking contraptions had a series of curved blades fastened around the perimeter of a horizontal wheel that was turned by gearing from ground wheels. One had what looks like a big circular saw blade. None of these were successful, but at least they showed the way not to go.

When Cyrus McCormick and Obed Hussey were perfecting their reapers in the 1830s, they both used a reciprocating toothed blade. Hussey devised the pointed guards that separated the stalks and against which the moving blade made a sheer cut. Most early grass mowers used a similar system.

There was an alternative school of thought, however. William F. Ketchum, Buffalo, New York, patented one of the first finger-bar-type mowers with an endless chain of saw-tooth cutter blades loosely riveted to one another in such a way that the blades themselves made up the chain, which was moved in one direction by a ground-driven sprocket at the inner end, along the rear of the cutter bar, around an idler sprocket and back along the front, cutting toward the inner end. Apparently not a success, Ketchum’s later, more successful mowers used a reciprocating knife driven by a wooden pitman stick from a crank wheel, as did most other mowers.

Entering the market

In 1879, James O. Brown, Benton, Maine, patented what he considered to be an improved chain-type cutter bar in which spring pressure kept the chain tight, while allowing it to give a little if an obstruction was hit, thus preventing breakage.

Brown kept improving his endless chain cutter bar and at some point decided to manufacture a mowing machine of his own. Brown Endless Cutter Co. was formed in Boston during the 1880s to make the machine, which was touted on the cover of the company’s catalog as being “Light Draft, Easy to Ride, Simple, Durable, Noiseless and Entirely New.”

Inside the little book, Brown points out that his invention was “the first really radical improvement that has been made in such machines” with “All former improvements of mowers (being) simply in minor details.”

The “many points of advantage presented by the Brown endless cutter mower” were listed. “There is no pitman rod. The mechanism is simple, easy to run and easy to keep in order. The cutters are actuated by simple gearing instead of by a crank motion, thus insuring steadiness of operation and easy riding. The cutting being all in one direction, inward toward the wheels, the cutter bar can be made very light. This same consideration also greatly reduces the side draft. It cannot clog. It will not pull up the grass by the roots. The cutters can be sharpened as easily as a jack knife. It makes no difference at what angle the cutter-bar is elevated. It runs with less noise than any other machine.”

‘Never saw any work better’

As was the custom, the catalog featured several customer testimonials, all from Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire, all extolling the mower’s virtues. A Massachusetts man wrote: “We are running the Brown Endless Cutter this morning in a new seed piece cutting from 2-1/2 to 3 tons per acre of very fine hay, and snarled and tangled in every possible way, and it is working completely. I had supposed I must cut it with scythes, as we had no other machine that would do it.” Another said that, “We have had experience with all kinds of mowing machines, including the Wood, Buckeye, Champion and others, and never saw any work better.”

The superintendent of a Boston farm ended his letter with this: “It (the Brown endless cutter) must be accepted by all practical men as the right principle, and will be received by all first-class farmers as one of the greatest improvements since the introduction of mowing machines.” Another user wrote that, “The principle I think is right, and I am confident it will be universally used in the future.”

Not a hot seller

In spite of the confidence expressed in these letters, Brown’s endless cutter never caught on and Wood, Champion and the others soldiered on with their pitman drives and reciprocating knives.

Inventors didn’t give up on the continuous chain cutter idea, however. In addition to Brown’s, I counted 22 patents for such cutter bars between 1870 and 1973, including two by Sperry-Rand Corp., which at that time owned the New Holland hay machinery line.

I’ve never seen a Brown mowing machine (nor any of the chain cutter bar machines, if any of them were actually manufactured), but I’ll bet one or two of them are lurking out there somewhere. If you ever run across a more-or-less conventional-looking mowing machine, except that the gearbox is on the right wheel instead of the left, you’ve probably found a Brown mower. If you do find one, or if anyone knows of such a mower, I’d be glad to know of it. FC


Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.