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My First Epic Hack: The Lawnmower of Theseus

Much to my mother’s chagrin, my Dad always held the philosophy of “Use it until you wear it out.” It made some of our stuff look shabby, but it stretched dollars and made for good learning experiences. Minor problems on our old Snapper lawnmower consisted of re-sewing the grass bag’s opening so its elastic cuff would fit snugly over the chute, or having to coax the engine back to life come springtime. Then one day the engine seized. At this point I was around twelve years old, and past the point of just handing tools to Dad while he worked on something (though being the tool gopher is an important mill to be pulled through in and of itself), but now diving into the heady space of troubleshooting.

On this occasion it turned out the engine was a total loss, so instead of buying a brand new lawnmower, we just bought a brand new motor and installed it together. Screwing in the motor mounts and removing the tricky blade assembly were explorations in patience and ingenuity. Once replaced, our Snapper once again purred like a kitten and I was back to mowing the lawn.

Of course, there are rocks and sticks in New York soil, often invisible if you’re not looking properly and you happen to be twelve years old. Over time, the lawnmower blade hit these obstacles, turning them into projectiles that ripped holes into the plastic deck of the lawnmower. Before long, the deck was covered in so many little holes you’d have thought it had been through combat operations.

While riding my bike around one day, I came across a junked mower on the curb. It was just like our old Snapper, but with all sorts of other bells and whistles and a solid steel deck. It was summertime, heavy and hot as I pushed it up and down hilly streets back to our house.

Dad looked at it and instantly realized the potential. It was a higher quality machine, self-propelled rather than a simple push mower, and had a sturdy mount for the grass bag. An engine swap sounds easy on its face, but what we were trying to do was stick a round peg into an almost-round hole. Things just didn’t quite line up. We had to buy a shaft coupler to make it fit the drive mechanism on the new mower, and I even spearheaded the modification to the grass bag mount – a combination of hack-sawing notches in the deck then securing it with steel strapping and bolts.

We fired it up and off I went! No longer having to push the motor up and down our hilly yard, having a drivetrain doing it for me, and all for free! The feeling was exhilarating. We hacked the lawnmower! Not only did it make my job easier, but it made me proud to have been a part of this mechanical rehabilitation.

The engine eventually seized up on this one too though, but by that point I was a high school student, and Dad and I were both well-versed in solving this problem.

All said and done, that mower lasted over twenty years, but contained none of its original parts. Much like the Ship of Theseus, this mower held the disembodied spirit of me, Dad, and the mower itself, though none of its original physical components remained.

Dad passed away in 2003, and the mower was discarded when I became an adult and my mother could no longer mow the lawn herself. But to this day, I hold this story as an example of the ideals Dad instilled in me as a young maker and try not to forget the smell of grass and gasoline.

I’d be curious to know, what early hacks do the readers have? Did you fix the TV remote as a kid, or make an accidental but fortuitous discovery like Reed Ghazala’s circuit bending? Please tell your stories in the comments section.



In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens' educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

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