Election Section

Henry S. Peterson and the Berkeley Lawn Mower Invention

By Richard Schwartz, Special to the Planet
Thursday August 21, 2008 - 11:21:00 AM
Henry and Caroline Peterson's home at 2222 Dwight Way in 1886.
Henry and Caroline Peterson's home at 2222 Dwight Way in 1886.

Mr. Peterson, who lives on Dwight Way, has been offered $15,000 for his patent appliance for a lawn mover. The invention consists of a pan which is attached to the lawn-mower so as not to leave any grass on the lawn after it has been cut. Mr. Peterson perfected his invention and obtained a patent on it some two or three years ago. He has disposed of a two-thirds interest in the invention. 


The legacy of African-American inventor Henry Peterson has largely been lost save for this brief 1889 article from the Berkeley Advocate, the records of the United States Patent Office, and his obituary in the Berkeley Daily Gazette. But one might imagine the magnitude of his invention: The $15,000 he was offered for the final one-third interest in his lawn mower tray could have purchased five nice houses in those days. But even before they had access to such money, Henry S. and Caroline Peterson had already made a lasting contribution to the city of Berkeley. 

Henry S. Peterson and his wife Caroline arrived in Berkeley by 1872, in time to actually witness the laying of the cornerstone of the first building of the University of California, which was errected that year. 

Four years before Berkeley was incorporated, Henry Peterson and two others founded the First Congregational Church, according to the Berkeley Daily Gazette. The most well-known of the three founders was Dr. Samuel Willey, also a founder of UC Berkeley. On June 24, 1874, a Congregational church service was conducted by Reverend E. S. Lacy in a room at the Berkeley Hotel at the corner of Choate Street (now Telegraph Avenue) and Bancroft Way. Henry and Caroline Peterson were undoubtedly in attendance.  

On March 22, 1875, Reverend Edward B. Payne held the first service in the Congregational Chapel at Dwight Way and Choate Avenue in the first church building in Berkeley. Later, the congregation constructed a new building at Dana and Durant streets. 

Peterson is first listed in the Berkeley directories as early as 1876, two years before Berkeley incorporated as a city, and is listed continuously until 1899. According to the city directories, he worked variously as a gardener, laborer, and dairyman, all very typical trades in early Berkeley. His residence is listed on Dwight Way between Fulton and Ellsworth Streets from 1887 to 1890. Previously, he lived in the same neighborhood on Channing Way near Bowditch for at least five years. The area was composed of small farms and ranches, and was near Berkeley’s first commercial center at Shattuck Avenue and Dwight Way.  

Henry Peterson was born in New York in 1841. The 1880 Census indicated that 39-year-old Henry lived with his 42-year-old wife, Caroline, and his sister, E. E. Phelps, a 44-year-old widow.  

When Peterson applied for his patent on Oct. 18, 1888, his invention was a secret. Two Oakland investors, J. R. Wilson and W. F. Delainey, saw the potential of Henry’s grass catcher and offered him the aforementioned huge sum for a two-thirds interest in the invention. These two men maintained a close relationship with the inventor and acted as witnesses on the patent application. Henry S. Peterson was issued patent number 402,189 from the United States Patent Office on Feb. 30, 1889. According to the patent, Wilson and Delainey held a two-thirds interest, and one can assume it was in exchange for a previous payment to Henry Peterson. Just what Henry and Caroline did with their well-earned financial reward is unknown, save for the fact that they moved to a house at 2222 Dwight Way, appraised at three times the value of their previous home. But as Berkeley directories show, they lived for many more years in the comforts of the same east Berkeley neighborhood where they had lived for decades prior to Henry’s fame and success.  

In 1896, the Berkeley Advocate published a piece recalling all of the pioneers of the town who voted in the election of May of 1878 to form the city of Berkeley. They checked the Great Register to see how many of those famous voters were still residents who would still be registered to vote almost 20 years later. Stalwart Henry Peterson was among those 105 names. The article provides proof that Henry Peterson, by his voting, was a founding father of the city of Berkeley. 

The aging Henry and Caroline Peterson survived the April 18, 1906, earthquake. They witnessed the flood of refugees into the town. It could not have been easy for them as Caroline had been an invalid for some time. On Sept. 22, 1906, 63-year-old Henry Peterson died suddenly of heart failure while coming in the rear door of his home. He had been in declining health for a number of years, but his death was totally unexpected, and his wife was devastated by it. The couple had been Berkeley residents for more than thirty-three years. Henry’s obituary in the Berkeley Daily Gazette called him “one of the best known and pioneer residents of Berkeley.”  

Caroline Peterson lived only a few months longer than her husband. On Jan. 22, 1907, four months after Henry’s passing, the following appeared in the Berkeley Daily Gazette:  


Mrs. Caroline Peterson, a resident of Berkeley for thirty years, died Sunday at her home, 2322 Dwight Way, after a prolonged illness. Mrs. Peterson was widely known throughout her home town, and enjoyed the respect and good will of a host of friends.  

She was a charter member of the First Congregational Church of Berkeley. The funeral was held at 1:30 this afternoon from the Peterson home.