What if I told you that you could get a workout equivilent to an hour on the treadmill and a sun tan better than any flourescent tanning bed while also getting some fresh air, catching an earful of chirping birds, enjoying the smell of fresh-cut grass, and getting your lawn mowed – all at the same time?
Enter the old-tech device that, like the sewing machine, is a mechanical marvel of the industrial age. The device I refer to is the Reel Mower. The reel mower was a staple of childhood for those of us who have been around long enough to remember black & white television. Unlike it’s successor, the rotary mower, the reel mower had no gas or electric motor, and was powered entirely by the effort of its’ human operator who pushed it across the lawn. Called the Reel Mower after it’s large spinning blade reel, it was customary in the burgeoning suburbs of the 60’s and 70’s to find kids out wheeling one of these things around the lawn as part of weekly chores before they could go play on a saturday morning.
Back then, although it had no engine, the mower was very heavy with parts constructed of thick steel and with large wooden rollers along the back and often also having heavy wood or iron handles with oaken grips shaped to the contour of your hands. Pushing that thing around on the lawn was truly a workout. It’s no wonder there was no childhood obesity problem to speak of back then!
A few years ago, I saw that local hardware stores and home improvement stores were starting to carry reel mowers again, after decades of offering only gas-powered rotary mowers. Feeling a bit eco-minded, and maybe nostalgic too for the whir of the blades and smell of fresh-cut grass without the roar and stench of a gas engine, I decided to buy one.
The first thing I noticed, was how remarkeably light the new mower was. Thanks to the use of plastics and modern lightweight metal alloys, my new reel mower could easily be lifted with one hand, and pushing it was hardly a chore! The second thing I noticed was something I had forgotten in my nostalgia, probably the ultimate reason why the reel mower was made obsolete by the rotary mower. Unlike the rotary mower that cuts by spinning a blade at high speed and effectively “whipping” the tips off the grass, the reel mower relies on the grass being pulled up by the reel against a stationary cutting blade that, like scissors, shears the grass cleanly between the reel and the blade. The flaw in this design is that grass that is too tall, does not properly draw up against the blade and instead gets pushed over and left unshorn. This is why when we were kids, the mowing wasn’t finished until you took the Dandelion Whip and cleared out any stray grass or weed stalks that were too tall for the reel mower to cut.
Okay, well, so that was a minor inconvenience, easily remedied by doing a “first cut” of the season with a gas powered rotary mower, and then continuing with an every other day or every third day regimen of mowing with the reel mower. And so it goes, that I have given up sweating indoors on a treadmill while watching TV and breathing stale air in favor of the comforting whir of the reel (think Edward Scissorhands), the invigorating scent of fresh cut grass, and the sun’s warmth tempered by a cool breeze. And although there’s no motor and no electricity, no memory chips, hard disk, or CPU, the mechanical workings of this device are sufficient to pique the interest of my inner geek. I can’t wait for it to break so I’ll have an excuse to open it up and see how the gears and such all work together to turn human energy into a beautiful lawn.