Before the mid-19th century, manicured lawns were found only among wealthy aristocracy, often as a part of the gardens on a large estate. Reel lawnmowers simplified the task of cutting and maintaining a grass-based lawn. Design changes and improvements in early mowers have led to modern powered and pulled mowers.
The concept for a reel lawnmower was developed in the early 19th century by Edwin Budding, a British engineer working in a textile mill. Budding noticed that the idea behind the machine that sheared the nap on velvet could be converted to cut grass to a uniform height, thus automating a process that had been done using scythes and shears. Budding began commercial production of his lawnmowers in the early 1830s.
In 1870, Elwood McGuire designed a lighter, more maneuverable push mower that was mechanically simpler than earlier reel mowers. By 1885, McGuire was manufacturing and shipping more than 50,000 mowers per year.
The development of steam and petrol engines at the end of the 19th century seemed a natural fit to making the task of cutting grass easier. Early non-human-powered reel mowers were drawn by horses. In fact, those early horse-drawn reel mowers were similar to modern reel mowers pulled by tractors on many golf courses. The first gasoline-powered reel mower was manufactured in 1919 by Edwin George.
The advent of the reel mower brought well-manicured lawns to people of more modest means. Before the invention of mowers, maintaining a lawn required a staff of gardeners who cut the lawn using clippers or scythes. Maintaining uniform height was difficult and required substantial skill.
The history and development of reel lawn mowers led to later development of more common modern rotary mowers. Rotary mowers have fewer moving parts and are less expensive to manufacture than powered reel mowers. Reel mowers are still used, however, on smaller lawns and on larger areas where a combination of the width of a tractor-pulled mower and the sharp cuts of the reel blades result in more healthy lawns.