The Inventor of the Bicycle

Was Kirkpatrick MacMillan the creator of that most ubiquitous of two-wheeled machines? ALISTAIR DODDS has done the research…

On the family gravestone in Keir churchyard  Dumfrieshire, Scotland, the epitaph to Kirkpatrick MacMillan reads simply ‘Inventor of the Bicycle'. To many people this is fact, and indeed has entered most history books as such. The available evidence, however, does not substantiate this claim.

Did he invent the bicycle? Perhaps the real question should be ‘what is a bicycle?' Karl von Drais built a two-wheeled vehicle in 1817, which we know as the ‘Hobby Horse'. It relied on the rider striking the road with his feet for propulsion. But was this the true prototype?

In the 1860s Michaux or Lallement first fitted pedals and cranks to the front wheel of a two-wheeler to give simultaneous balance and power. This was almost certainly the first pedal cycle. If someone had applied treadle power to a two- wheel machine prior to this, then perhaps the honour should go to them.

I am sure few people would disagree with the basic definition of a bicycle as being a ‘two wheel vehicle which has been simultaneously propelled and balanced by the rider'. With such a clear definition it should be a simple task to look for an individual, a location, a date and a machine. The natural choice is of course Gavin Dalzell of Lesmahogow in 1845. The machine still exists and there is documentary evidence to confirm its maker and the date. Looking at the hard evidence alone

Dalzell is indeed the inventor of the bicycle, and until other hard evidence comes to light he should remain so.

The entire Macmillan legend is based on hearsay and misconception. The first research was carried out by James Johnstone and published in editions of The Scottish Cyclist during 1892. Unfortunately none of his original paperwork has survived. Most inquiries were in any case interviews with eye witnesses and relations 50 years after the supposed events of 1840.

The entire myth was compounded by Gordon Irving in his book The Devil on Wheels, published in 1939. This is largely a fictional account based on information from Kirkpatrick's son John. The fact that John was born in 1862 and was only 15 years old when his father died places even his account firmly in the area of hearsay.

Even supposedly established facts such as Kirkpatrick's age, place of birth and number of siblings were incorrect, suggesting that no reliable research had ever been undertaken. The 150th anniversary celebrations in 1990 caused me to rethink the whole story and to undertake fresh research.

After two years work, the only contemporary evidence which I could find related to the MacMillan family history including birth, marriage and death records. Indeed, the most significant information came from the decade Census returns starting in 1841. These official records showed much of the hearsay evidence to be false or at best unlikely.

One example of this relates to a statement by a contemporary witness, in a 1892 newspaper article, that Kirkpatrick succeeded to the Courthill blacksmith business on the death of his father. The 1851 Census describes Kirkpatrick as a blacksmith and his father Robert as a retired blacksmith (he died in 1854) showing this supposed statement of fact to be false.

More significantly, the 1841 census shows Kirkpatrick to be living in Glasgow as a lodger with a brother John. This fact helps to confirm reports that he worked in the Vulcan Foundry in Glasgow prior to taking over management of his father's business. It also fits in with the story that he received most of his education by attending night school when he was thirty years of age (in 1842): this would have been normal for engineering apprentices at this time. All of this appears to destroy the popular image of a simple country blacksmith working alone in a rural area of Scotland, building his invention. Instead we are left with a man living and working in a city which was famous as the principal engineering centre of the British Empire. If he invented anything, it seems more likely to have been during his time in Glasgow.

This brings us to the one piece of contemporary writing which has been generally held to be firm evidence for the existence of MacMillan's bicycle. The famous newspaper report of June 1842 in the Glasgow Argus reads as follows:-

Yesterday, a gentleman, belonging to Dumfries-shire, was place at the Gorbals police bar, charged with riding along the pavement on a velocipede, to the obstruction of the passage, and with having, by so doing, thrown over a child. It appeared, from his statement, that he had on the day previous come all the way from Old Cumnock, a distance of 40 miles, bestriding the velocipede, and that he had performed the journey in the space of five hours. On reaching the Barony of Gorbals, he had gone upon the pavement, and was soon surrounded by a large crowd, attracted by the novelty of the machine. The child who was thrown down had not sustained any injury; and, under the circumstances, the offender was fined only 5 shillings. The velocipede employed in this instance was very ingeniously constructed. It moved on wheels turned with the hand by means of a crank: but, to make it ‘progress' appeared to require more labour than will be compensated for by the increase of speed. This invention will not supersede the railways.

This article does not mention Kirkpatrick by name, does not mention the number of wheels used on the velocipede, and, in fact, describes it as being hand-driven. Most important of all in attributing this incident to Kirkpatrick is the fact that the rider is described as a gentleman.

In 1842 titles were important to people in a way that is perhaps difficult to understand now. Contemporary evidence shows a gentleman to be a professional person and always someone of good standing; it is at best unlikely that an artisan would ever be described as a gentleman, clearly ruling out the possibility of this being Macmillan.

Who the rider was, and what they were riding, will probably never be known. My research was intended to discover the truth behind the legend. The truth remains unknown and the premise that Kirkpatrick MacMillan invented the bicycle is a very unsafe one.

One final twist in the tale comes in the form of a photograph discovered by Alex Brown of the Scottish Cycle Museum. Illustrated is a man sitting on a three-wheeled velocipede which would appear to be powered by hand and possibly also by foot. The photo came from a Mr Norman Macmillan in Yorkshire, who claimed that the man is none other than MacMillan.

Was the legendary bicycle actually a tricycle? Was his the hand-driven machine in the 1842 report but driven by one of his two schoolmaster brothers in Glasgow? Both could be described as Gentlemen and both as coming from Dumfrieshire where they were born.

If this is indeed MacMillan in the photo, is it the face of a 29 year old in 1842? Photography was first discovered in 1839, making this date possible, though highly unlikely. The original of the photo appears to be lost and its provenance unknown. The mystery continues!