Ingenuity builds a lawnmower that floats on a breeze

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Back in the early 1960s a backyard tinkerer in Sweden began playing about with a garbage-can lid and a propeller. Karl Dahlman had a small hovercraft in mind when it occurred to him that he could make the blade do double duty and cut his garden grass as well.

The net result was the world's first lawnmower that floated around on a cushion of air. It was an idea that earned the Swede a gold medal at a Milan, Italy, industrial fair for his "inventive genius."

About a decade later, a professional inventor in West Germany, Eugene Zinck by name, turned his attention and skills to the tiller and came up with a new approach: a tiller with a double row of counterrotating tines.

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The net result of both of these ideas is two unique garden-aid products that have now hit the American market. The Flymo mower, invented in Sweden, perfected in Britain, and tested worldwide, is soon to be American-made in Kansas City. The Zinck Gardener rotary tiller is made in West Germany but powered by An American- made Briggs & Stratton gasoline engine. It is being assembled in Stockbridge, Mass., and ultimately will be totally manufactured on this side of the Atlantic.

I tried out the no-wheels lawnmower a year or two ago when a small consignment of the floating machines was sent over to test the US market. The grounds manager of the estate where it was being tried out praised it for its versatility and the remarkable ease with which it could be moved around, particularly on sloping banks.

In my hands it worked like a breeze, which is only appropriate for something that floats on air. There simply was no friction and the lightest push would propel the featherweight mower several yards on a level lawn.

Cutting height can be adjusted from 3/4 inch to 2 1/2 inches and, significantly, it can lose a quarter of its air cushion over a dropoff without losing cutting height. This means, for example, that lawns can be trimmed right to the edge of a path that is lower than the lawn without any danger of scalping.

On steeply sloping banks the simplest mowing method is to pull the floating mower up and down the bank on the end of a piece of rope. Or, as I once saw, the mower can be moved back and forth across the bank on the end of a rope rather like a pendulum in a clock. From this you realize that it is as simple to move the mower sideways as it is to push it forward.

Some indication of the air-cushioned mower's acceptance is seen in worldwide sales -- 50,000 in 1977, almost 700,000 last year. At present only gasoline-powered models are available in the US but electrically operated Flymos are being considered for later introduction. Suggested retail price in the US:

When Eugene Zinck patented his counterrevolving-tines tiller, he did what some good inventors often do. He put it on the shelf and turned to inventing something else. Fortunately, his son Wolfe saw no point in letting a good idea collect dust. So he took his father's patent to the US and got Black & Decker to bring out a small hand-held electric cultivator. Then he built some full-size tilling models and put them in the Cologne, West Germany, garden show. That's where Stockbridge businessman Jay McBrian saw it for the first time last September and promptly brought the machine back to the US for testing.

It was at Stockbridge last week that I tried my hand at tilling with The Gardener, to give it its correct name.

Stony western Massachusetts soil isn't the simplest medium to plow, but after a few minutes of trial I felt comfortable with it. By lifting up slightly on the handle, the machine travels forward; if you press down on the handle, the machine moves backward. Leave the machine alone and, all things being equal, it will go nowhere because the counter-rotating tines work against one another to hold it in place. That's the theory, anyway.

From the gardener's point of view, the machine breaks up the soil somewhat more finely than a conventional rototiller. Its forward-back plowing action means that the soil can be turned over by using an action that is similar to vacuuming a carpet. On the other hand, you can plow in long straight rows if you wish.

One approach is to till down the length of the garden and then reverse up the same row, eliminating your footprints in the process.

It is decidedly easier to turn corners with this machine than with conventional tillers, and it does a good job of turning in weeds and other green matter. But it does not till to the same depth that most tillers do in one pass. For the same reason, I doubt if it would turn in, say, a 12-inch- thick mulch of leaves with the same facility as one of the better types of rear- tined tillers.

To sum up, The Gardener rotary tiller, in my opinion, is superior to front-tined tillers and has some advantages and some disadvantages when compared with the rear-tined models. Nonetheless, its retail price (currently around $ 470 assembled and $440 in kit form) gives it a decided edge over most rear-tined machines.

The Flymo mower is being made available at outlets throughout the country. Or you can write to Flymo, Bellevue, WA 98005. For information on the tiller write: Gardening Naturally, Inc., Industrial Park, Route 102, Stockbridge, MA 01262.

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