On a Tachypodascaphe Built For Two

We here at Forgotten Stories remember when carpenter jeans and cell phones became popular simultaneously; the handy carpenter’s pocket proved just the place to store the phone. Dual fashion trends weren’t a stranger to the bicycle craze either, just at time the bicycle were becoming popular in 1869, long mustaches for men were en vogue, and the ladies took good advantage of the trend.

An inventive Parisian, M. de La Rue, perhaps because he lacked a nifty mustache, instead invented a tachypodascaphe to impress his female friends, which he took out on the Seine. Of course, inviting a proper  Frenchwoman to “Ride my tachypodascaphe” would produce a quizzical eyebrow at best, and a slap in the face at worst, so de La Rue nicknamed his creation “The Insubmersible.” Two pontoons, joined with four iron cross beams, supported a paddle wheel, which could be ridden just like a bicycle. In the event of poor weather, The Insubmersible came equipped with a sail. “As a pleasure craft, this ingenious contrivance will doubtless become popular,” said Frank Leslie’s  of April 24, 1869. We here at Forgotten Stories hope that happens soon, we’re looking forward to riding one.

Meanwhile, the British Army began exploring the uses of the bicycle in military applications. Unfortunately, the multi-cycle, manned by ten to twelve men who carried an ammunition storage cart behind them, proved unsuitable for military use.

*** – Update – We did a bit of hunting in the world of Latin, and Tachypodascaphe means “Rapid Foot Ship,” viz Tachy (Rapid) Poda (Foot) Caphe (Ship)


The Road First Travelled

On the weekend of September 11 and 12, 1879, forty wheelmen gathered in streets of West Roxbury, in Boston. It was the first ever wheelman’s convention, and the Boston Bicycle Club invited fellow clubmen from as far away as New Jersey, to join them in a 100 mile ride around the Massachusetts. Riding a “century” as it was called, was considered quite the accomplishment, and the gather was the largest congregation of wheelmen in history. Several of the men displayed club pride they wore their uniforms; the Worcester Bicycle Club stood out wearing all grey flannel, but were perhaps topped by the white shirts and bright blue stockings, set off with a matching polo cap, of the Hartford Club.

Each rider had his own sobriquet, and the President of the Boston Club, known as the Captain, sounded “Boots and Saddles” on his bugle. The ride began, the wheelmen proceeding two by two out of town. At the very first hill, one rider, known as “Froggie” ostensibly for his efforts to jump ahead of the other riders, attempted to show off; after getting his bicycle up to 15 mph, he struck against a rock, taking a header over the handlebars. The accident did little to dim his enthusiasm.

At Brook Farm, formerly a utopian  farm and the setting of Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, the travelers stopped for a brief rest, much to the delight of the farm’s current residents, the wards of the Martin Luther Orphan’s Home. A short while later they were off again, wheeling through Dedham. Conversations centered on the lousy nature of the roads; one rider contended that they wouldn’t get any better until Alderman started riding bicycles; a New Jersey man countered that they were  heavenly compared to the Jersey turnpike.

A picnic lunch underneath some pine trees inspired “Champagne,” so called because of his bubbly personality, to rhapsodize on the trees while his comrades lay on their backs looking up at the blue sky, “Massoit and Chickatabut and their swarthy warriors have danced beneath their branches, and here at their feet John Eliot learned the polysyllabic accents of the Indian maids and won the hearts of their brothers of the forest wilds by reciting in their own tongue the war songs of David.”

Again the men mounted up, and away they went.  Two wheelmen, “Ned” and “Muffin” riding side by side, began an impromptu “scrub race” when Ned noticed Muffin had advanced a little ahead, and he passed him, challenging Muffin to return the favor. For a mile the men flew down the road towards Readville, to the cheers of their companions. Ned, two lengths ahead of Muffin, put his legs of his handlebars as he coasted, signaling triumph; Muffin crossed his arms over his chest and pretended not to notice as he rode by.

Towards the early evening, the men ascended Blue Hill, those who made it to the top without dismounting earning the plaudits of their companions; then it was down to Sharon, Massachussets in the receding light of the setting sun.

Arriving at the town inn after a total ride of one hundred miles, the wheelmen cleaned themselves up, dusted off their clothes, and sat down at two long tables for a well earned supper. The conversation centered on past rides, comparisons of roads, and bicycle models, and some jests in the direction of “Masher” who was busily engaged chatting up one of the young ladies who worked at the inn. Songs were followed by dancing; but Masher’s request for a dance was refused by his chosen target, she insisted that her husband always got her first dance. Festivities done, the wheelmen retired to a much needed rest.

The next day was to be harder; they arose early, dusted and oiled their “steeds” and set off through South Canton, Baptist Corners, Randolph, South Braintree, and Weymount. By now, news of the ride had gone ahead of them, schoolboys cheered their passing, and fair maidens waved handkerchiefs out of windows.

At 1pm, the men arrived at Cohasset, settling in for a fish lunch at Kimball’s, complete with their  choice of apple or squash pie. Several of the men let their food digest while lounging in the warm sun on a rock.

There was still thirty miles to go until the ride finished at Boston, and rolling along at 12 miles per hour, aided by a downgrade, and accompanied by school bells in each village through which they passed, the men arrived; well satisfied with a ride well done.

Four Bicycling Firsts from Pierre Lallament

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.[1]

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

[1] 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.

The Colossus of Roads

“Bicycle riding is a good, healthy and invigorating exercise, and is especially valuable to those whose lives are sedentary. Boating, baseball and lawn-tennis are all excellent forms of recreation; but in the wide complexity of modern life there is plenty of room for the wheelman with his graceful iron steed.” – New York Tribune, September 21, 1883.

By 1883, the bicycle craze was already well underway. The velocipede had been introduced into this country in 1869, but had met with miserable failure, doomed by a combination of lack of comfort and horrible roads.

Over in Europe however, the evolution of the bicycle continued, and in the Summer of 1877, Colonel  Albert A. Pope of the Pope Manufacturing Company saw his first bicycle; imported by an English visitor to Newton, Massachusetts. At the time, there were a handful of bicycles in the United States, imported from England, and Pope saw big things in the bicycle. He was off to England on the next boat to learn how the things were made, and in early 1878, the Pope Manufacturing Company began turning out three models of bicycles; the Standard Columbia, the Special Columbia, and the Mustang; the latter designed for the younger bicyclist. For the safety conscious, the Pope Manufacturing Company also turned out the Columbia Tricycle.

Barely anyone knew how to ride the dang things, and so Pope set up a riding academy at the company’s corporate headquarters at 87 Summer Street, Boston.

Demand soon became insatiable, nor was it restricted to men; word trickled back that a daring “aristocratic lady bicycler” and a coterie of companions were enjoying the City’s pleasant streets. Nor were the streets particularly smooth, spills happened regularly.

Pope’s  took over the Weed Sewing Machine Company’s manufacturing buildings outside of Hartford, Connecticut. It became the biggest bicycle company in the world, turning out 50 machines per day, and the company imported leather, iron, steel, and horn in vast quantities.

Pope subdivided the factory into separate rooms. In one, blacksmiths worked pouring metal into specially crafted dies to form the forks which would attached the frame to the wheel; in the “perch shop,” the tubular backbones of the bicycles were bent into shape; and in other rooms the wheels were rolled out, the seats crafted, and the various and sundry parts of the bicycles were welded and lathed. Put together, the bicycles were inspected, and then sent off to yet another room, to be nickel plated and thus protected from corrosion. By the count of one visitor, it took 158 machines to make the 77 parts which went into the Standard Columbia.

Their riders loved their new contraptions, some even wrote poetry about them; bad poetry, but poetry nonetheless. Here’s a typical example by N.P. Tyler from 1879.

There were accessories too, including the first domestically manufactured cyclometer, which would tell the rider exactly how far he’d gone. Indeed, they began to roam far and wide over the countryside; to race each other in long and short distance races; and to try their skill at “no hands” competitions, all of which exciting details we here at Forgotten Stories will be describing over the next few days, so stayed tuned.

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