Today we bring you at least four firsts in bicycling history; courtesy of Pierre Lallament, French inventor. But, before we get there, we have to set the stage; and so we’ll start off with a bang. In April of 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted, spewing ash into the upper atmosphere. The climate change stemming from this eruption lasted for the next few years, and 1816 especially was known as “The Year Without a Summer.” Rainy weather kept the Shelly family indoors during a vacation at Lake Geneva, to pass the time ghost stories were composed, including Frankenstein. In New England, snow fell in the middle of July. The cost of foodstuffs skyrocketed in Germany, so much so that Karl Drais couldn’t afford the oats to keep a horse.
But Drais was a handy sort of fellow and so he sat himself down and invented his own horse. Kind of. Known in Germany as the Laufsmachine (“walking machine”). There being no patent law, the English and French copied the design; the only credit the inventor received was that its riders called it the Draisienne. Here’s good old Buster Keaton riding one in Our Hospitality
It proved especially popular amongst the foppish gentlemen of the upper classes, hence the nickname “Dandy Horse”. A few were imported to America; Charles Sumner rode one around Cambridge in a bright yellow overcoat, and was subjected to quite a bit of ridicule. A number of other inventors were also fooling with the idea of personal, wheeled transportation. Most of these were three or four wheeled contraptions, driven by cranks powered by using one’s hands to revolve an endless chain attached to rear wheels, and steered with one’s feet using footpads attached to the front wheel. They didn’t catch on.
Enter French inventor Pierre Lallament. In 1862, Lallament was struck with a brilliant idea. Why not attach the crank system to a two wheeled system, trusting a foot powered crank to rotate the wheels with sufficient velocity to maintain balance, and steer using the hands? Lallament only made $5 to $10 per week as a baby carriage maker in the French town of Nancy, barely enough to keep body and soul together. But, he saved up, and bought two small wooden wheels. He traded a local mechanic a “bit of money and a good deal of drink” for a serpentine perch upon which to sit. Working on Sundays and borrowing his employers’ anvil, he hammered out the pieces; cranks, forks, pedals and all the rest.
And then, on one Sunday afternoon in 1863, Lallament had before him the first “bicycle,” but damned if he knew how to ride the thing. No one had ever seen one before, let alone hopped on and pedaled around the yard. Over the next few months, he taught himself, riding up and down the long hall at the baby carriage factory. Then he taught his fellow workers to ride it. By July, 1863 Lallament was toodling down Nancy’s Boulevard Saint Martin. The first bike ride had taken place.
Lallament’s invention was rickety, and the wooden frame was uncomfortable. So he disassembled the whole thing, tossing away everything but the expensive wheels, and set sail for America in 1865, where he thought he might find a job where he could earn a few extra dollars to cover the costs of building a new prototype. He set himself up in Ansonia, Connecticut, found a job, and got to work. By the late fall, 1865, the prototype was ready, and Lallement took off for a ride on the back roads of Connecticut, the first American bike ride was underway.
Lallement headed out toward Birmingham, Connecticut (now part of Derby, Connecticut), on a four mile round trip ride. The route was muddy due to a recent rain, but except for a hill as one approached Birmingham Lallement had a fairly basic ride, and he reached the top of the hill with some effort but much triumph. Then he turned around to head back to Ansonia.
This meant gliding down the very hill he’d just climbed, and off he went. A slight problem existed, of which Lallament was not aware until he’d started on his way downhill; he’d neglected to invent brakes. Soon he was going at what was, quite literally, a breakneck pace. Up ahead was a wagon slowly pulled by two horses; Lallement yelled at the driver in French; the horses were whipped into a run, but it was too late for Lallement, he crashed into a culvert, flew over the handlebars into the mud, and cracked his head. He would carry a scar until the end of his days.
Brushing himself off, and in need of a stiff drink, Lallement rode into Ansonia, and stopped off in the local tavern. Inside were the cartmen, describing to the incredulous bartender how they were chased by a dark Devil, with human head and a body which was half snake, half bird, and hovering just above the ground. From the doorway, Lallement shouted “I vas ze debil.” When his explanation, hindered by a lack of English, failed to convince them, he gave them a demonstration.
By the late 1860’s Lallement had sold his American patents for10,000 francs, took a job at the Pop Manufacturing Company, and in the end died penniless in Boston in 1891, aged 47.
So there you have it; four firsts:
1.) First modern bicycle;
2.) First bicycle ride in the world;
3.) First bicycle ride in the U.S.
4.) First header
 For more on the Year Without a Summer, and its relation to the invention of the bicycle, check out Brimstone and Bicycles, from the New Scientist in January, 2005. Subscription is required.