The History of the Hedge Trimmer
Hedge trimmers have been needed for as long as hedges were first used to delineate fields
and to protect crops and animals from excessive sun, wind, driving rain or snow.
Hand shears were the weapon employed for centuries, but in the innovative 19th century
there were many attempts to invent labour-saving devices for use out in the fields, and some
of these are enshrined in patents. Then in the 20th century, the populace started to acquire
gardens and a whole new requirement arose.
The timeline of key years in hedge trimmer development is shown below.
1854 Leonard Wood of Idaho proposes a device whose travelling wheels carry it alongside
the hedge but also drive gearing that activates the ‘nearly vertical’ cutter wheel and the
horizontal cutters. Like all devices of its period this relies upon horse-drawn propulsion, or
later, steam power, but hand-held devices are a long way off.
1865 A. Selover patents a wooden construction which still relies upon a saw but has
adjustable clamps and screw rods to control the height and width of the cut.
1871 James and Oliver Vannosdall patent another framework device.
1890 Andrew Fox of Dayton Ohio invents a machine with a base unit with an inverted V
hood shape and a series of cutters at the front edge. This is beginning to get closer to the idea
of multiple blades that we see today.
1891 Robust Elliot patents what he calls a ‘portable’ device but it is a truly scary-sounding
unit of torture which requires the poor operator to be fastened to an endless traveling cable,
supported at either end of a field and ‘kept in motion by any suitable power’. This
demonstrates that it would take the invention of small lightweight motors and frames for
there to be a modern hand-held device.
1922 The Little Wonder company of the UK launch a hand-cranked hedge trimmer. This is
the first of the modern-day hand-held reciprocating-blade devices as we know them. It stays
in production right through to the 1950s and becomes a rapid hit not just with horticulturalists
but with pasta makers! The razor-sharp blades prove to be ideal for delicately slicing the
hand-made strands. In 1935 the company was bought out by Schiller of the USA and moved
there: they still manufacture in 3 US plants.
1940 Little Wonder launch the first single-blade reciprocating electric hand hedge cutter.
1945 They add the first double-blade reciprocating cutter.
1955 They bring out the first-ever petrol-engined model.
Thereafter, the post-war development of these machines is reminiscent of that of chain saws:
the same manufacturers began to bring out smaller, lighter trimmers based on the new alloys
and using 2-stroke motors for the petrol models. There was a greater emphasis on electric
motors from the start, in volume sales terms these being essentially garden devices rather
than remote outdoor machines like chainsaws.
One very notable brand in hedge trimmer history is Black & Decker, which was a leader in
popularising this new electronic gadget with homeowners. As early as 1962 they brought out
a version with a self-contained battery power pack. However it would take further
developments in battery technology before truly satisfactory performance could be achieved.
In the modern market, the cordless sector is firmly established, with B&D and other brands
including Bosch, Makita, Einhell and Ryobi offering a range of sizes and power levels.
Black & Decker’s pre-eminence in electric drills led them in the 1970s to bring out
attachments which included a hedge trimmer unit, but it was not as versatile as a bespoke
McCulloch, one of the chainsaw pioneers, diversified into hedge trimming in the 70s.
Nowadays they are owned by Husqvarna, the world’s largest producer of outdoor power
products, and you can buy their various models under the names of Husqvarna, McCulloch,
Gardena and others. McCulloch continue to innovate in the petrol sector, with a fuel pump
for easy starting and very lightweight 5kg petrol machines. (Most are 6, 7 or more kg).
Leading gardening brand Gardena is the name for the cordless range, including long reach
An important new feature was invented by Echo, who created the first long-reach trimmer
that articulated to allow users to shape hedges in high and awkward places.
Today, many top-end models have pivoting handles that bend to allow
different angles to be more easily achieved when cutting.
The shape of things to come
Innovation never ceases: as recently as May 2011 a US Patent was granted to Techtronic
Outdoor Products Technology for a Multipurpose Debris Deflector. Most machines can
sometimes throw the waste at you or in all directions so this, and similar devices that are
beginning to appear, are welcome.
Such safety improvements are an important factor: for example it is now mandatory that both
hands have to be on the handles before the device can function. New cut-off devices have
appeared as a result.
Development in the petrol engine field has been spurred on by Governments, notably in the
USA. Two-stroke motors are light, do not require an oil tank, and have the advantage of
being able to operate at all angles including upside down. Their own downside is their poorer
emissions record when compared to a 4-stroke as used in cars.
Ryobi have brought out a ‘No Mix 4 cycle’ motor that meets the toughest (Californian)
regulations. It claims to work in all positions as well. Initially applied to string trimmers
(‘strimmers’), it will surely transfer to hedge trimmers.
Within the 2-stroke engine market, improvements are also being made. Back in 1998 Tanaka
claimed their new motors were 70% lower in emissions than previously. Briggs & Stratton
and other established makers are gradually working to lessen their carbon footprint and to
meet the much tighter State air pollution restrictions.
Outside the scope of this article, there is the continuing use of hedge trimming devices that
attach to tractors, and in the commercial farming and parkland sector these take care of the
vast majority of hedges.
Wherever they are in use, the hedge trimmers will continue to shape our landscape and it is
hard to see them going away in our lifetimes.