The man who invented the steam-powered lawnmower

The man who invented the steam-powered lawnmower

In 1893 the horticultural world experienced a major breakthrough with the launch of the first systematic, automatic… steam-powered lawnmower.

What a feat of engineering! And I like to think some distant members of my family played a role in its development.

Early lawnmower history

Until the arrival of the lawnmower grass had to be cut by scythe. This was a skilled job that could take several workers many hours. The alternative was to graze it. On large estates the sheep would be cleared off the lawn when guests were due, and the poor gardeners would then clear up behind them. Literally, a crap job.

Edwin Beard Budding

Edwin Beard Budding

Then in 1830, Edwin Budding, an engineer from Stroud in Gloucestershire, invented the lawnmower. Budding had seen how wool manufacturers would use a long spiral cutter over a roller to smooth the cloth’s nap, creating a more even surface and giving it a better finish. He recognised how the technology could be applied to the lawn.

Budding’s lawnmower was a heavy piece of kit made of cast iron. It required two gardeners to operate – one pulling from the front, the other pushing at the back.

The first attempt to apply some horsepower to the job was in the mid 19th century when Alexander Shanks & Co. of Arbroath in Scotland produced the horse-drawn mower. This proved popular on golf courses and sports grounds, though the horses’ feet left large indents in the grass. To deal with this lawn boots would be fitted over the hooves of the horse to help spread the weight.

Steam-powered lawnmower

And then came the steam-powered lawnmower. It was designed by James Sumner, manufactured by the Lancashire steam Co., and distributed by the Stott Fertilizer & Insecticide Company of Manchester.

James Sumner's motorcycleJames Sumner (1860-1924) had had a long-held interest in steam power. He was the son of a blacksmith in Leyland, Lancashire. In 1886 he built a steam wagon capable of carrying four tons. And five years later he fitted a popular tricycle (the “Salvo sociable”) with a small twin-cylinder, oil-fired boiler. He took it for a spin and ended up being fined for speeding – he was travelling at a racy eight miles per hour.

Sumner invented his paraffin-fuelled, steam-powered lawnmower in about 1893. It won the silver medal (the highest award) at the Royal Lancashire Agricultural Society’s Show in 1894. And another top prize at the Manchester Royal Botanical Society Show at Old Trafford the following year.

The Stott company that acted as distribution agent for Sumner was best known at the time for its insecticide and fertilisers. These were marketed under an ingenious family of names: “Kill-M-Right”, “Feed-M-Right” and “Smoke-M-Right”. Trawling through gardening paper ads, it would seem that “Kill-M-Right” was their most popular product.

They claimed it was a “certain cure for Blight, and all Insect Pests, without injury to plants”. Given the Victorian’s love of nasty chemicals, it is perhaps best not to enquire too deeply about the effect on the gardeners using it!

Sales challenges

But back to the lawnmower. Despite its awards, Sumner’s machine was a tough sell. It weighed a tonne and took several hours to get up a head of steam. Production numbers were low as it was hand-built. The Stotts took out large, expensive adverts in the Gardeners Chronicle and exhibited it. On 20th May 1896 an advert in the Derby Mercury proclaimed, for instance, that a two-day exhibition would be held of Sumner’s patent steam lawn mower on Derby County Cricket Club. “All interested are particularly requested to attend. All communications to be addressed to ‘The Stott Fertilizer & Insecticide Co at Barton House, Manchester’.”

It is amazing to compare photographs of Sumner’s mower and the powered mowers being sold only 20 years later and pictured in the 1925 edition of The Gardener’s Assistant.

Perhaps it was the costs of trying to market the steam-powered lawnmower that did it for the Stott Fertilizer & Insecticide Company. That same year it went into liquidation. Sumner had already moved on to greater things. In 1895 he had built a crude steam car, powered by one of his lawnmower engines.

He has been out with it several times this year (having managed to escape prosecution this time), and can run at ten miles an hour on fairly level roads with four persons aboard.” Autocar magazine, April 18th 1896

Sumner moved into manufacturing steam-power wagons at a works in Leyland in 1895. And, yes, that’s the origin of British Leyland.

Sumner went on to build steam-powered wagons like this vehicle and his company eventually became part of British Leyland.

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About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden history blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.