Two Kilowatt hours …
What can you do with two kilowatt hours (kWh)? Not a lot. You can heat the office for one hour if you are lucky, you can have 20 one hundred watt bulbs running (or 40 if you are wise), you can even run a tractor for, hmmmmmm let’s see…. I wonder how far you will get on 200 ml of diesel ? (one litre will give you 10-11 kWh). If you cut a hay meadow it will cut about 500m2; it will cut it quickly but that’s all it will cut. This is a rough calculation as it will very much depend on the tractor size, type of mower used, blade condition, thickness of the hay etc. I worked on an average of 8 litres/ha which should be equivalent to an 80 horse power tractor. Smaller tractors will take longer but will go further, bigger tractors will go faster but do less for the same amount of diesel.
However 2 kWh can be very productive if we forget the economics of cheap fossil fuel which will probably not be so cheap in the near future.
If we use two horses whose output in energy will be equivalent to 1.5 kW, then with a horse drawn finger bar mower which will require 1.5kW to pull it at a speed of 5 km/hr you will get 10,000m2 or one hectare done for your 2 kWh. Out of interest, a horse will work one journey which is about 7-8 hours, which means 7-8 hectares, although in practice probably half of this due to turning, resting, feeding and watering and other unforeseen circumstances.
Now we look at the medieval mower with his scythe, a man of great skill who earned his money by mowing for other people as well as himself. He would have had his own scythe tailored to fit his stature and method of work. He may have carried a small hammer and purpose built anvil with him to sharpen the forged steel blade. A day’s work would have been ten hours, or from sunrise to sunset, and in that time he could mow one acre, maybe two if it was thin and wet. So how much energy did he use? He would have had an output of approximately 200 Watts on average, which would be about 2 kWh for the whole day’s mowing. The equivalent meterage would be a minimum of 4000m2 possibly 8000m2, certainly more than the tractor but less than the horses. One can see why horses replaced men, although in small meadows and tight areas the man can hold his own. However, you would have to feed the horse and let it have grazing which would take away more precious land for the production of corn crops
He would rise very early to catch the dew on the grass as the blade would meet less resistance due to the lubricating nature of water and also because the cells within the grass would be full and tight thus aiding the blade to cut very efficiently. He would cut a swathe, which would usually be 21/2 times as wide as the length of the scythe blade. Periodically, maybe after 10-30 yards, he would take his fine sharpening stone and hone the blade so that it could cut afresh. By the time breakfast had arrived the blade would have needed peening, certainly by lunchtime this would be the case. Peening may have been the normal method by which the softer steel edge of the blade is hammered on a small portable anvil so that the metal is drawn outwards and made much thinner like a razor blade, the hammering would also case harden the steel edge. However to over peen would lead to disaster as the sharp edge could tear and fold under, making the blade next to useless. Serious damage could also be done by rocks, stones and small pebbles, but what mostly irritated the scythesman were the moles’ excavated soil and the meadow ant hills.
All these blades would have been hand forged and were probably in many different sizes and shapes as local custom dictated. It is not until 1555 that we find the first will from the Public Records Office of a scythe-smith named Richard Austen from Kent and there are only three further records in Warwickshire. Scythes at this time were probably made from Swedish iron that had been processed in Danzig before being exported into Western Europe in thin bars. Its other name was Spruce iron which may be a corruption of ‘Prussian’. This iron came from Swedish iron ore mines where the iron had the least amount of impurities and was therefore an excellent iron from which to make steel. The nearly pure and malleable iron would have been heated and worked for hours and hours and even days to produce a toughened steel suitable for making scythe blades; a very costly process, so scythes would be extremely expensive. Later it was found that if you cooked nearly pure iron ore in containers full of charcoal you made blister steel This allowed the carbon to seep into the steel but only skin deep and causing blistering. The next process was to fold the blister steel and fire weld it, this is then called shear steel. The more times you folded, the more layers of hard carbon steel and soft iron were made. Therefore 3 shear steel with its 17 layers was a better product for making knives, swords, scythes and other blades. It was, and is, also a costly way to produce this type of carbon steel and why with the advent of new cheaper foundry processes for making pig iron it has almost been forgotten. With the new blast furnaces harder carbon steel could be made by blasting oxygen through the pig iron to reduce the impurities and carbon (by this time pig iron was cheaper to make but had too much carbon which made cast steel, absolutely no good for making scythes, so blasting oxygen reduced the carbon to about 1%). With the advent of these new processes it appears the traditional scythe-smith gave way to the modern industrial scythe making: laminating hardened steel between softer steel.
In an English court in 1556 William Banks, an iron monger, had to claim an unpaid debt of six hundred spruce iron from the executors of the deceased Thomas Robynson. Imported Spruce iron would apparently seem to have disappeared by 1660 in England.
By the 17th century the number of wills left by scythe-smiths increased to seven and almost all of these were in Worcestershire and Staffordshire. In the 18th century there were nine, again almost all in Staffordshire. However by the 19th century there were only three, two of which were in Worcestershire. It is worth mentioning that all the above wills were proven in Canterbury prerogative court and therefore meant that the person usually had substantial wealth. There are sure to be many more scythe-smith wills in the county prerogative courts. Interestingly the decreasing number of wills proved at Canterbury in the 19th century could be due to the industrialization of blacksmithing. It is around this time that the English scythe blade seems to have changed to one that was mass produced, making it cheaper but much heavier than the hand forged blade.
Many people do not get on too well with the English scythe as it is heavy and awkward with a very bent shaft or snath. However the European scythes, especially towards the eastern side of Europe, still have hand forged blades which are much lighter and with finer snaths. These are excellent for mowing grass for hay but are equally useful for wheat, barley and oats as well as reeds if used with a bent willow or hazel cradle. These are very easy to install on a European type scythe; all you need is one yard of willow or hazel about half an inch thick which is fastened at the foot of the snath and bent around to the lower handle or thereabouts. The first mention of a cradle on a scythe that I have found appears in 1754 on a farm in Sussex however it is of an unknown type.
As for theft and assault with scythes, the English courts record many instances from the medieval period right up to the late 19th century. Theft in the 19th century usually ended in hard labour, varying from one week to, in one case, a maximum of eighteen months and in some cases transportation, up to ten years! In the 18th century there was one case of a public whipping.
So can the scythe have a useful application in a fossil fuel world? Actually it has never completely disappeared and with rising fuel costs many of the less affluent counties have returned to using the scythe. For small holders it is a very inexpensive tool to buy, a complete set can be obtained for less than £150 and with a bit of tuition, some perseverance and a bit of muscle power small meadows can be cut for hay with relative ease. Its use encourages hand and eye co-ordination, builds up a six pack and is actually a very therapeutic exercise. Learning to maintain sharp tool edges is also an enjoyable art.
Many blades are available but to start with two blades will be enough to cover most jobs. A 50cm ditch blade will cut unwanted weeds and quite surprisingly will deal with fairly thick woody stems and brambles are no big deal! A 60-70cm grass blade will suffice for cutting a hay meadow or your lawn.
Never cut more than you can deal with when making hay; it is best to cut a little, get that dry and stored, then cut some more. This will also give you a varied flower and grass structure, which in turn will give greater biodiversity. Meadows I cut in Romania were a patchwork of flowers in different stages of growth and flowering and in turn contained different insects.