A velocipede by any other name? by Colin Rowland

A velocipede by any other name? by Colin Rowland

Today I want to explore bicycles. Not quite in Jane Austen’s time period, I know, but as close as darn is to swearing, as my father used to say.

The invention of the bicycle is credited to Karl Freiherr von Drais, a prolific inventor in the Biedermeier period, which ran between 1815 and 1848 in Central Europe. His invention, which he called the Laufmaschine, or running machine in English, caused quite a stir upon its debut. It took the basic form of a bicycle, with two wheels, one behind the other and connected by a frame, with a seat in the center for the rider to perch on. This contraption was propelled by the riders feet. If you are familiar with the cartoon The Flinstones, it was moved in exactly the same manner as Fred’s car.

According to Wkipedia: “His first reported ride from Mannheim to the “Schwetzinger Relaishaus” (a coaching inn, located in “Rheinau”, today a district of Mannheim) took place on 12 June 1817 using Baden’s best road. Karl rode his bike; it was a distance of about 7 kilometres (4.3 mi). The round trip took him a little more than an hour but may be seen as the big bang for horseless transport. However, after marketing the velocipede, it became apparent that roads were so rutted by carriages that it was hard to balance on the machine for long, so velocipede riders took to the pavements (sidewalks) and moved far too quickly, endangering pedestrians. Consequently, authorities in Germany, Great Britain, the United States, and even Calcutta banned its use, which ended its vogue for decades.”

The name for the vehicle differed, depending where in the world you saw it. Its label in Paris wasVelocipede, while in England it was more commonly called a Dandy Horse, because it became popular with dandies, or a Hobby Horse in other circles. Of course, it was at first a toy for rich men, and stayed that way until the 1860’s, when improvements of numerous forms transformed this toy into a useful conveyance favored by the working class, men and to a lesser degree, women.

At the beginning of the decade two Frenchmen, Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement, enlarged the front wheel and added a crank with pedals to propel the machine forward.

This version of the bicycle has the distinction of being the first to be mass produced. During this time, others were experimenting with rear-wheel drive, the most famous of which was a rod-driven velocipede by Scotsman Thomas McCall in 1869. Coincidentally, that year saw the patent of wire spoke wheels.

The biggest problem with this design was the necessity of having the pedaling and steering via the front wheel. A couple of Englishmen solved this problem by putting a crank with pedals in the centre of the frame below the seat, and connecting it with a chain to a gear on the rear axle.  These were called safety bicycles, although the solid rubber tires they came with must have felt anything but comfortable. I have enough trouble sitting on a cushioned seat now, even with the softer air-filled tires on our bike.

The next big improvement was the invention of the pneumatic tire in 1888 by John Boyd Dunlop, and it was immediately adopted almost univesally. Finally, you could go for an hour’s ride and not have to worry about finding something soft to perch on while your derriere recovered!

This is the 1886 Rover Safety Bicycle. To me, it looks very similar to the bikes my older sisters rode in the early sixties.

By the turn of the century, most of the features we associate with current bicycles were a standard part of them in rudimentary form. In the late 1880s the rear freeewheel was invented, which allowed the rider to coast. This in turn led to the 1890s invention of coaster brakes. Dérailleur gears and hand-operated Bowden cable-pull brakes were also developed during these years, but they were not adopted as quick by the day’s casual riders.

Which brings me back to the obvious question: Why talk about bicycles when Jane Austen never saw them in her lifetime? I had a couple of reasons, the most pressing of which is my thoughts of introducing some form of the contraption into a future story. While she didn’t have any experience with this new form of transportation, they did come into being in the Regency period, so as far as I’m concerned, they’re fair game.


Here is the cover for part three of the Elizabeth Said, Darcy Said series, available today on Amazon:


This story explores Elizabeth’s first meeting with Mr. Wickham and Darcy’s reaction when his nemesis threatens her safety. I’ve been told it’s my best so far, so I hope you enjoy. I’m busy writing part four and hope to publish that in a few weeks.


Sharing is Caring!
Follow by Email

5 Responses to A velocipede by any other name? by Colin Rowland

  1. I’ve always wished bikes (in their earliest incarnations) were invented just a few years earlier. Can’t you just picture Mr. Darcy chasing down Wickham on two wheels? And I can just picture Elizabeth glancing furtively around to make sure no one was watching, then hiking up her skirts to go for a nice long ride.
    Thanks for this history and all the best on your new release!

  2. I have an old Elgin bicycle from the ’30s. I think it weighs more than I do. They have definitely made improvements over the years.

  3. I too had a bike like your sister’s back in the 60s. Everyone had a bike. Some even rode them to school. The school district had bike racks so they could park them during class. Those were the days.

    I see in the previous post they thought it sounded like a bug. It does. I wonder how many legs this creature would have? I have to admit, my first thought wasn’t of a bug. My first thought was of a dinosaur. I thought it should be part of the raptor family. Shudder. Maybe it would be their cousin and an herbivore. LOL!

    I wish you the best on the launch of this work. Blessings.

Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.