If you have a manual push mower today, it most likely incorporates design elements from black American inventor John Albert Burr’s patented rotary blade lawnmower from the nineteenth century.
John Albert Burr patented an improved rotary blade lawnmower on May 9, 1899. Burr created a lawnmower with traction wheels and a rotary blade that was not easily clogged by lawn clippings. John Albert Burr also improved lawn mower design by allowing them to mow closer to building and wall edges. You can view John Albert Burr’s U.S. patent 624,749 here.
An Inventor’s Life
John Burr was born in Maryland in 1848, making him a teenager during the American Civil War. His parents were slaves who were later freed, and he may have been a slave until his 17th birthday when he was freed. He didn’t avoid manual labor, however, as he worked as a field hand during his adolescence.
However, his talent was recognized, and wealthy black activists ensured he could attend engineering classes at a private university. He used his mechanical skills by repairing and servicing farm equipment and other machines for a living. He relocated to Chicago and worked as a steelworker. He was living in Agawam, Massachusetts, when he filed his patent for the rotary mower in 1898.
“The object of my invention is to provide a casing that completely encloses the operating gearing so that it does not become choked by grass or clogged by obstructions of any kind,” the patent application states.
Burr’s rotary lawnmower design helped to reduce the vexing clipping clogs that plague manual mowers. It was also more maneuverable, allowing for closer clipping around objects like posts and buildings. His patent diagram clearly depicts a design that is widely used in manual rotary mowers today. Home-use-powered mowers were still decades away. Many people are returning to manual rotary mowers like Burr’s design as lawns become smaller in many newer neighborhoods.
Burr kept patenting improvements to his design. He also created devices for mulching, sifting, and dispersing clippings. Mulching power mowers, which return nutrients to the turf rather than bagging them for compost or disposal, may be part of his legacy. In this way, his inventions saved labor while also benefiting the grass. He possessed more than 30 US patents for lawn care and agricultural inventions.
Later in Life
Burr relished the benefits of his success. He received royalties for his inventions, unlike many inventors who never see their designs commercialized or lose any benefits. He liked to travel and give lectures. He lived a long life and died of influenza in 1926 at 78.
Recognize the inventor who made mowing the lawn a little easier the next time you do it.