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25 Years of Innovation: Lawn Tractors

Did you ever think you'd need a cell-phone outlet on your lawn mower? Times have changed!

<p>This rear-engine riding mower from Wheel Horse (now owned by Toro) set the tone for the '70s. In the years since, front-engine mowers have come to dominate the riding market — 1.2 million were shipped in 2001.</p>

This rear-engine riding mower from Wheel Horse (now owned by Toro) set the tone for the '70s. In the years since, front-engine mowers have come to dominate the riding market — 1.2 million were shipped in 2001.

Photo by Robert Laberge

Add up all the lawns in America and you get a patch of grass roughly the size of Kentucky. No wonder an $8.3 billion-a-year industry has grown up around lawn care and maintenance. Over the past quarter century, progress has picked up speed. In the 1970s, state-of-the-art meant anything with a motor. Today, you don't have to settle for a walk-behind mower that you have to push (self-propelled, please!), or a garden tractor without a cell phone outlet. If innovation keeps to its present pace, soon you'll be vaporizing your grass with laser beams — that is, if it isn't genetically engineered to never need cutting at all.

The Past

To appreciate the state of lawn-care technology in the '70s, think back to how a freshly mowed lawn from that decade looked. Whether cut with a mower or a riding tractor, chances are it was done in a straight pattern, the rows marked in clippings that missed the bag. Tractors like the one pictured here, besides being more polluting and harder to maneuver than today's models, had about half the horsepower and none of the creature comforts. They could be dangerous too, resulting in thousands more injuries a year.

Photo by Getty Images

The Present

Today's lawn mowers can cut in tight, undulating patterns (crop circles, anyone?), and they leave behind no clippings, unless you specifically set them to do so. Besides performing better, modern mowers are safer, stronger, more comfortable, and a lot easier on the environment.

Photo by Getty Images

The Future

Tomorrow's lawn care equipment won't just be different — it may be obsolete. That's because geneticists are working on "no-growth" grasses that never need cutting. If that's not enough, some experts hint at the possibility of photosensitive varieties that glow in the dark. In the meantime, mower manufacturers are still busy designing new ways to cut grass. The German company Wolf-Garten has introduced this prototype of a laser mower called the Zero.

Photo by Getty Images

Great Mow-ments in History


Edwin Beard Budding patents the reel lawn mower in England, replacing scythes as the grass-cutting tool of choice.


The first internal combustion engine ride-on mower is introduced.

1919Col. Edwin George uses the engine from his wife's washing machine to create the first gas-powered walk-behind mower.


The manufacturing company Coldwell rolls out the first electric mowers.


First U.S. patent issued for a rotary mower. The rotating action requires fewer blades than a reel mower, and they stay sharp longer.


John Deere develops the residential lawn tractor.


FlyMo, the first hovering lawn mower, is brought to market.


Astroturf is invented.


Texas A&M's Cooperative Extension makes mulching popular with its "Don't Bag It" campaign.


The U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association is founded. Drivers like Mowdacious and Weedy Gonzalez hit speeds of 60 mph.


Alvin Straight, 73, rides a mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his estranged brother — an event depicted in the 1999 film The Straight Story.


Introduction of the first robotic lawn mower.

Photo by Getty Images

Where to Find It

Tractor manufacturers:

The Toro Company

Bloomington, IN


John Deere

Moline, IL



Minneapolis, MN


Hovering lawn mower:


Robotic lawn mower:

Friendly Robotics

Coppell, TX


United States Lawn Mower Racing Association:

Glenview, IL


Lawn mower historians:

Andrew Hall

The Hall and Duck Trust

London, UK

James Ricci

Reel Lawn Mower History & Preservation Project

Haydenville, MA



Professional Lawn Care Association of America

Washington, DC


Outdoor Power Equipment Institute Inc.

Old Town Alexandria, VA