Extreme cycling in 1887

Innovations in cycling persist to the present day, but, of course, we would be nowhere without the valiant attempts of early inventors. JIM McGURN writes about some of the prototypes that never managed to cement themselves in history.

This picture depicts a monstrous example of the principle that bigger wheels give a smoother ride. The 'swing bicycle' was built by Nathaniel Brown of Emporia, Kansas in 1887. By pulling down on the levers, the riders made their basket swing like a pendulum, the effect of which (allegedly) was to propel the machine along. In order to turn corners, one operator had to pull harder than the other.

Another big-wheeled response to the terrible state of American roads was the monocycle, a popular design theme among amateur inventors. It consisted of a single wheel propelled by a ridersitting inside it. One version was the Wheelocipede from Troy, New York State. The rider paddled it along by pushing his feet against the ground and, according to the inventor, it was ideal for transporting 'sand and other building materials'. In 1869 a ten-foot monocycle from Pittsburg was reported as covering a mile in two minutes when powered by a team of five men occupying 'seats on the automatic horse...as comfortable as a carriage.'

Unfortunately, historical records give no idea of how this number of riders fitted in and stayed in. Apart from being unbelievably heavy, monocycles were unwieldy and were liable to run out of control going downhill. On some versions the rider was caged into the machine by friends before rolling off. Whether this was an advantage or disadvantage would depend on the type of accident.

The question of control doesn't seem to have bothered a Cincinatti gentleman who built a clockwork velocipede which was kept going by the rider winding it up with a key each time it was about to run down.

On the smallest of off-chances that I am accused of being anti-American, let me be equally patronising about some wayward European inventions. In 1878 Heer Haab of Switzerland patented a pneumatic powered velocipede which entailed the rider squeezing bellows with his feet. And in the same year the German Max Schmidt patented a 'riding car' which was powered by the rider jumping up and down on his seat. A complicated series of cogs transferred this potential energy to the rear axle.

British inventors tended to be more boring than this. They stuck to tricycles and quadricycles powered by treadles or hand levers. Many of them went so far as to make machines which actually worked, and sent in reports of their journeys to mechanics' magazines. In fact, many amateur inventors were earnest and talented people using the latest technology and ideas.

What eluded them was the simple concept of a two-wheeled machine with transmission to one of the wheels (in other words a bicycle). Until this breakthrough came along the inventors kept on sparking away, aware that a human-powered vehicle which could out-perform the horse would change the course of transport history.