Tackling the Grass Mower Challenge

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


| July 2015



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

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.