When James Sumner first developed his steam-powered mower in 1893 it was met by the lawn mower profession with some anticipation and was even classed as a novelty. Although rivals, Shanks and in particular Thomas Green, were known for developing other successful steam powered equipment, it was not until 1902 that they ventured into production of their own versions of the steam lawn mower.
Shanks produced two models. The largest with a width of 42in weighed 1½ tons and could be used as just a roller if required. The smaller model was a pedestrian machine. Like the Sumner machines, both Shanks mowers were oil-fired, oil being preferred to coal because it fired a lot faster.
A disadvantage of oil as fuel meant that the boiler working pressure was much higher, about 200psi, which created a need for a larger lawn. On some models this was overcome by introducing a multi-tubular boiler, containing as many as 200 small bore pipes. Greens produced three sizes of coal-fired steam lawn mowers of 24in, 30in and 36in widths. Greens had a patent on their boilers, their idea being to transfer the heat from the fire via an inverted funnel within the centre of the boiler. This system proved successful and they went on to produce a conversion steam unit suitable for use on horse-drawn mowers.
Enter the internal combustion engine. In 1896, on the other side of the Atlantic, WJ Stephenson-Peach produced a prototype internal combustion-engined lawn mower. Later, in about 1906, CoIdwell were to sell these machines commercially. Ransomes of Ipswich, in 1902, were the first company to patent and commercially produce petrol engine-powered lawn mowers. Their patent was for a large 42in machine which was also a combination roller with the operator sitting over the rear roller. Steering was by a worm drive which turned the rear roller. The centre roller drove via a reduction gear direct from the engine by roller chains which enabled the machine to turn in very tight corners. The mowing apparatus was a complete unit attached in front of the drive roller on two pivots that could be adjusted in height (this is now known as a floating cutting cylinder).
Ransomes' design was invariably copied and later was improved by both Green and Shanks. A pedestrian machine of 24in had a conventional mowing unit, as found on most pony-drawn mowers of the period. The engine used was a Simms of German extraction. In his day Simms was a very competent engineer, originally working for Daimler. He used a high tension magneto which in those days was regarded as a very advanced method of ignition. Ransome’s showed one of their first machines at a motor fair in Birmingham.
This machine was brought by Cadbury Chocolates for use on their sports ground
at Bourneville and gave many years of good service before being part-exchanged
for Green's version in 1920. Within a year Ransomes had purchased a licence to
build their own engines to Simms' design. They named this engine the Orwell after
the river Orwell which runs through Ipswich. The engine on the 42in machine was
a water-cooled model (by the thermo-syphon system) rated at 6bhp.
Although this system required a greater volume of water it proved successful as
Ransomes sold their machines to many countries with hot climates. By 1905 they
had exported machines as far away as the Municipal Council of Shanghai in the
east and the Buenos Aires Hurlingham Club in the Royal patronage. Back home
that same year, the Ransomes' new 30in pedestrian model underwent trials against
a Leyland steam mower. Held at Eaton Hall, Chester, the seat of the Duke of
Westminster, these trials concluded that the steam mower was no match for the motor mower.
Towards the end of 1905 HM King Edward VII was given a demonstration at Buckingham Palace, resulting in two 30in machines being duly purchased for the 1906 season. In 1903 Greens brought out a motor mower based on the ideas of Ransomes but of a lighter construction. By 1904 Shanks had also joined the field with a 42in and 36in ride-on combination roller-mower and their mowers to the King of by 1906 they had sold one of Spain.
Up until the First World War motor mowers were generally classed as a luxury and with prices in the £85 to £150 range they were well beyond the pocket of most people. The mechanical nature of these mowers meant that the operator had to be trained, hence most of the early operators tended to be chauffeurs. For these reasons the bulk of lawn mower sales remained with the hand-pushed and animal-powered machines.