Natty gent with curious bicycle

JIM McGURN takes a look at how bicycles were used as fashion statements in the Victorian era.

Natty gent with curious bicycle. By pumping away on the lever by the handlebar, he could add arm power to his leg power at timely moments. Minor questions, such as what happened to his chain alignment when he steered, are not important.

Seen as a social document the photograph suggests a great deal about the Victorians' attitude to their technology. First of all, it's a studio shot. He'd dressed himself up for the purpose, and cuts a dapper figure as the proud possessor of a marvellous machine.

Thousands of Victorian cyclists went in for this kind of photograph, and not a few stood there straight-faced in charge of the most unbelievable machinery.

The point is that they themselves believed in it. Victorian technology was innovative and exuberant, and led to a bonanza of new ideas. The latest ingenious contraptions were reported week after week in the magazines, but it took time and practical experience before the public could sort out the useful from the crackpot.

Along with telephones, cameras and vacuum cleaners came automatic page turners, moustache guards (not to be confused with moustached guards) and aerial bicycles. Machines which make us giggle now were once the beloved offspring of a blissful relationship: that between a fertile technology and an irrepressible inventive urge.

Very few owners of impractical bicycles saw themselves as test engineers or public buffoons. Machines were not cheap, and on the whole cyclists took themselves very seriously. The gentleman in our picture had important questions of etiquette to consider while he pumped and pedalled along. Should, for example, gentlemen cyclists raise their hats when passing unknown lady cyclists? Our particular gentleman will have found this hat business complicated by a shortage of available hands, which may explain the absence of a hat on his head. Or he may have had recourse to the celebrated Automatic Hat Remover, an invention which (it is not often realised) led directly to the development of robotic arms for use in the manufacture of Japanese motor cars - yet another example of an invention intended for the bicycle but callously appropriated by the motor car industry.

The bicycle in the photograph is rather a late flight of fancy. The hand gear apart, it conforms to the consensus in design which began to be established in the 1890s. By 1900 there were few new ideas around and the development of the bicycle fell into a straitjacket from which it is only now escaping.