“Reel Lessons” — The Right Tool for the job, and examples from the History of Technology

Not long ago, I bought myself a Scott’s reel push mower.

I’ve always wanted one, and I found one for $20 at our Habitat for Humanity Re:Store. It looked new, but had zero grease in the gears and wasn’t properly set up. One side wasn’t tight enough to cut grass.

Many people older than me wax nostalgic personally about these mowers. I don’t. My dad or grandfather never had one. A friend’s grandfather did, however, and I remember watching him with it. He was every bit the archetype: mustache, suspenders, and a straw hat that one could wear to the bank or church. He had a beautiful lawn. Perhaps the one bit of nostalgia I experience weekly is the SILENCE while I’m mowing. Wonderful.

Since refurbishing this one I’ve learned that (for me at least) it’s the TOOL that produces a beautiful lawn. The inertia necessary to keep the reel running at exactly the right speed necessitates that you fill gopher holes, flatten out lumps, and excise the buffalo grass and other aggressors who shoot up to the sky fibrous growths that bear seed. The reel mower cuts more cleanly — grass blades don’t experience the browning on the tips that occur from high-speed shredding. The reel mower doesn’t require a monoculture lawn, but it does require similar sorts of grass.

This reminds me of one of my favorite lawn care jokes: An American is visiting an English manor and strikes up a conversation with the groundskeeper. He says “How do you get your lawn to look so perfect?” The groundskeeper says, “Well, you plant grass seed. Then you water it. Then you roll it for about 500 years.”

But I digress. So it’ll take me a few years to make my lawn perfect. As it is, the reel cuts the grass more cleanly, and it inspires me to make the lawn of my friend’s grandfather. If nothing else, the tool has changed me to mow more often. And plant grass seed, now that Autumn is coming.

Back in the mid-90s, my University of Tulsa colleague Prof. Steve Jones was preparing to write a book called “The Internet for Educators and Homeschoolers.” Way back there at the beginning of the Internet, he asked me to help, and I delved into researching innovative approaches in use in different parts of the country. One of the topics that surfaced was how in history the right tool was sometimes kept private for commercial gain. The example I mentioned was the obstetrical forceps. Widely used in childbirth, it was originally a Doctor’s own invention in the late 16th Century. The lore is it was kept secret to his own family of doctors for over 150 years, before being brought into the public domain — by what you could describe as “an industrial spy” who watched from a skylight. But I digress….again.

Much like terraforming Mars, making a lawn or deciding how to build a house, we make choices to use certain tools that constrain our choices. I say often, “if you all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

The challenges we face today have the potential to remake our world. It’s a good time to reexamine our approaches to see if we’re truly using the best tools for the job.

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