Biography of John Albert Burr

Black American Inventor Improves Rotary Lawn Mower

lawn mower mowing grass

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If you have a manual push mower today, it likely uses design elements from 19th Century Black American inventor John Albert Burr's patented rotary blade lawn mower.

On May 9, 1899, John Albert Burr patented an improved rotary blade lawn mower. Burr designed a lawn mower with traction wheels and a rotary blade that was designed to not easily get plugged up from lawn clippings. John Albert Burr also improved the design of lawn mowers by making it possible to mow closer to building and wall edges. You can view U.S. patent 624,749 issued to John Albert Burr.

Life of an Inventor

John Burr was born in Maryland in 1848, and was thus a teenager during the Civil War. His parents were enslaved and were later freed, and he may also have been enslaved until Emancipation which happened when he was 17. He didn't escape from manual labor, though, as he worked as a field hand during his teenage years.

But his talent was recognized and wealthy Black activists ensured he was able to attend engineering classes at a private university. He put his mechanical skills to work making a living repairing and servicing farm equipment and other machines. He moved to Chicago and also worked as a steelworker. When he filed his patent for the rotary mower in 1898, he was living in Agawam, Massachusetts.

The Rotary Lawn Mower

"The object of my invention is to provide a casing which wholly encloses the operating gearing so as to prevent it from becoming choked by the grass or clogged by obstructions of any kind," reads the patent application.

John Albert Burr's lawn mower patent, 1899
John Albert Burr's lawn mower was patented in 1899. US Patent and Trademark Office / public domain 

Burr's rotary lawn mower design helped reduce the irritating clogs of clippings that are the bane of manual mowers. It was also more maneuverable and could be used for closer clipping around objects such as posts and buildings. His patent diagram clearly shows a design that is very familiar for manual rotary mowers today. Powered mowers for home use were still decades away. As lawns become smaller in many newer neighborhoods, many people are returning to manual rotary mowers like Burr's design.

Burr continued to patent improvements to his design. He also designed devices for mulching clippings, sifting, and dispersing them. Today's mulching power mowers may be part of his legacy, returning nutrients to the turf rather than bagging them for compost or disposal. In this way, his inventions helped save labor and were also good for the grass. He held over 30 U.S. patents for lawn care and agricultural inventions.

Later Life

Burr enjoyed the fruits of his success. Unlike many inventors who never see their designs commercialized, or soon lose any benefits, he received royalties for his creations. He enjoyed traveling and lecturing. He lived a long life and died in 1926 of influenza at age 78. 

By the 1920s Burr was able to see the commercial success of his inventions. H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Next time you mow the lawn, acknowledge the inventor who made the task a little easier.

Sources and Further Information

  • Ikenson, Ben. "Patents: Ingenious Inventions How They Work and How They Came to Be." Running Press, 2012. 
  • Ngeow, Evelyn, ed. "Inventors and Inventions, Volume 1." New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2008. 
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Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "Biography of John Albert Burr." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 29). Biography of John Albert Burr. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Biography of John Albert Burr." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).