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Battle hymn of the suburbs

Gardening godsend or aural blight: No garden tool divides us like the lawnmower.

January 19, 2006|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

EVERY city has its soundtrack. Venice has the slapping of water against stone, New York has car horns, Madrid has the vroom of mopeds. Here in our green, green city, one sound dominates life. No matter where you are, Bel-Air or Bellflower, you hear it intermittently from 7 a.m. to nightfall. It's there on Christmas, on the Fourth of July, on Halloween and Thanksgiving, and every day in between. It's the lawn mower.

If you want to buy one, read on. If you'd rather see it banished to the moon, keep reading too. No garden tool is so loved by operators and hated by bystanders. Why do they roar? We asked engineers. How much of the yellow tinge do they add to our smog? We asked regulators. Which ones are best? We asked Consumer Reports. Are they safe? We asked the Consumer Safety Products Council. What color is most popular? We asked Toro. Where are they going? We asked Honda, Toro and Home Depot. Where did they come from? For that, we went to the British Lawnmower Museum of Southport, England.

First, says the museum's curator, Brian Radam, we should get the terminology right. Lawn mowers are used on lawn. We may think that we have lawn, but most of us don't, says Radam. We have "cut grass." We don't have lawn mowers, we have "grass cutters." Lawn, he says, is the product of grass being trimmed by the scissors action of an old-fashioned reel mower whose turning cylinders make a comforting click as they are pushed around the garden.

At their most elaborate, they have many reels, which might be turned by motors from Rolls-Royce, or Daimler. These machines groom the most famous sports grounds in the world. At their most modest, lawn mowers are the little unmotorized push-jobs beloved by environmentalists and the chronically nostalgic. These do our front yards.

As for our gas-powered grass cutters, "the type that you use is a rotary mower," Radam says. Its blade whirls in a helicopter action, lifting and thrashing grass. To Radam's mind, this damages the grass and the cut is inferior.

The original lawn mower was the invention of Edwin Beard Budding. As a young engineer, he worked in the textile industry in the English West Country. He noticed that grass had to either be grazed by livestock, or cut by scythe. However, at the mills, nubs were trimmed off fabric and carpet by running a bladed reel over the newly woven cloth. Adapted for grass, this kind of technology meant that meadow could be cut with scissor-like precision. The perfectly smooth lawn was born.

The original mower was so heavy that it took two men to turn it. As the Victorian machine evolved, there were horse-drawn versions, then steam-driven ones, then gasoline, and later electronic. However, in 1939, the Missourian Leonard B. Goodall exchanged the carpet-cutter design for a single blade, which whirled like a helicopter propeller underneath a protective shell. Golf course groundskeepers paled at the thought of their tender blades of grass being threshed and bruised, but by the 1950s, gas-powered rotary mowers were the American standard for home gardens.

To the chagrin of English purists, Americans insisted on calling these new machines "lawn mowers." The first serious critics of the mowers weren't concerned about bruised grass, but cut people. An epidemic of mowed toes, along with injuries caused by flying objects hurled out of the discharge chutes, followed the introduction of the machines.

Estimates as to the numbers of lawn mowing accidents in the U.S. ranged from 140,000 to 160,000 injuries per year in the 1960s and '70s. Since the introduction of foot guards, brakes and shut-off systems, the latest calculations are close to 20,000 injuries per year from walkbehind mowers.

Not all the improvements were welcomed. A handlebar sensor that shut down the mower every time an operator stopped to empty a clippings bag or move a hose required so many restarts that homeowners started over-riding the safety feature. Honda turned around and designed an engine whose blade can be stopped while the engine is left running.

Flying objects

According to Peter Sawchuk, the engineer who tests mowers for Consumer Reports, a remaining danger is flying objects. Operators should check the discharge chute before turning on a mower. One knock on the side of a garage door and the chute that directs the bottle cap out of the mower at more than 100 miles per hour might be aiming up instead of down, at the operator instead of the ground.

In our darkest moments, some of us wouldn't mind maiming neighbors using lawn mowers, or, more typically their mow-and-blow teams. There is nothing quite so rude at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning as the 90-decibel roar of a gas-powered lawn mower. There is no improvement in earshot.

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