The Boneshaker

Cycle historian JOHN PINKERTON describes the Boneshaker to Simon Levermore.

‘There has been much discussion about who actually made the first front-wheel-drive bicycle,' says John Pinkerton. 'The Americans are trying to prove that Pierre Lallement was the original inventor. Although he was the first to patent a front-wheel-drive bicycle, in 1866, the first bicycle to feature pedals on the front wheel was produced in Paris by Pierre Michaux and his sons, in March 1861.

'According to a story in The Sun, it came about through pure invention when the Michaux family were making repairs to a hobby-horse,' says Pinkerton. 'They decided it would be a good idea to fit some cranks to it. They probably used cranks on grind­stones in their workshop.'

This velocipede, or Boneshaker as it was later called in Britain, was constructed in much the same way as the hobby-horse: wooden wheels with iron tyres and a framework of wrought iron. From the elegantly shaped frame, with its curves and changes in cross-section along its length, there was obviously a great deal of artistry in the construction. As Pinkerton says, 'Anyone who can do that by simply heating metal and hitting it with a hammer is a very skilled craftsman.'

A long flat spring supported the saddle and absorbed a lot of the shocks from the rough roads. The Boneshaker rider would sit cradled in the saddle, with their weight on the pelvic bones rather than on the crotch as was the case with the hobby-horse. The altered sitting position was brought about by the most important development from the hobby-horse design - pedals and cranks fitted to the front wheel.

This wasn't the first bicycle to have been mechanically propelled, however.  Macmillan's bicycle of about 1840 featured a treadle drive to the rear wheel, but his design never went into production. Putting pedals on the front wheel may appear at first sight a retrograde step, but it was a far simpler construction and it became popular. The obvious downside was the fact that the rider had to steer and power the front wheel, making the Boneshaker quite difficult to ride. 'Every press on the pedals pushes the front wheel out of line,' says Pinkerton. 'Almost as much effort is put into steering it as into pedalling.'

The Boneshaker also had a brake. This consisted of a metal lever, worked by a cord pulled by twisting the handlebars, which caused a wooden pad to press against the rear tyre. As Pinkerton says, 'Although it wasn't terribly effective, the noise of the brake pad scraping on the iron tyre is a great confidence booster.'

The front wheel axle ran in lubricated bronze bearings. Some Boneshakers were fitted with small lubrication tanks containing lamb's wool soaked in oil which would wick onto the bearings and keep them running smoothly. As early as 1869 ball bearings were manufactured and used on Boneshakers. In the same year a patent was granted for the production of a freewheel. There is a Boneshaker in an America museum with a ratchet freewheel in the front wheel. Whether this is an original fitting, or whether it's been added during restoration, is not clear. But, as Pinkerton points out, 'Because the brakes were poor, a freewheel Boneshaker was not a very good idea.'

Boneshakers had their drawbacks. They were heavy - sixty pounds would be a fairly lightweight machine - and the wheels were only about a metre high, limiting how far you travelled with each turn of the pedals. Starley and others produced what Pinkerton describes as 'transitional' machines, with the layout of a High Bicycle - very large front wheel and a small back wheel - but produced on the Boneshaker principle with wooden wheels and a heavy metal frame. Other than this, the Boneshaker design didn't change much over the course of its history.

One variant of the Boneshaker was the improved bicycle made by Peyton and Peyton in Bordesley, Birmingham. They produced a rear-wheel-drive bicycle, using long levers that ran backwards from two footplates and were pivoted to a rearward extension of the frame, with short rods partway along that were connected to cranks driving the rear axle. This came about near the end of the Boneshaker era, but it was complicated and expensive to produce and was soon made obsolete by the introduction of the transitional machines and the high bicycle.

'The Boneshaker design was relatively short-lived,' says Pinkerton, 'only running in production for a few years. Despite this, its effect on the evolution of the bicycle was dramatic. It established the cycle industry in Britain.' At the end of 1868, the Coventry Machinist's Company was formed to produce 400 Boneshakers for the French market. Coventry was chosen as there was an established workforce with a mechanical aptitude, who were able to produce good quality bicycles quickly. However, before the order was fulfilled, the French went to war with the Prussians and all the rich, young, athletic Frenchmen, at whom these Boneshakers were aimed, went off to fight for their country. The bicycles were sold in Britain and the industry grew quickly from that point - and with Starley on the scene, fresh innovations were just around the corner.