Bicycles, Tricycles and Flying Machines (1869)

Bicycles, Tricycles and Flying Machines

(From the Spectator)

It is not very difficult to understand the sudden popularity of the new exercise, – riding the bicycle or two-wheeled velocipede. Any new exercise not excessively tedious or dangerous and involving a little expense, is pretty sure of a welcome in Western Europe and America and this particular exercise had numerous recommendations. It requires some skill and activity, without demanding too much, the comparative degree of proficiency being as marked as in horsemanship or in rowing. It is graceful, or rather there always seems to be in it a possibility of grace, while there is a certainty of attracting attention and fixing it on the performer, which of itself would popularise any amusement with the French, and perhaps, the English mind. English skaters are not beyond noticing the effect their attitudes produce and bicycle riding, like skating, combines the pleasure of personal display with the luxury of swift motion through the air. The pursuit admits, too, of ostentation, as the machine can be adorned with almost any degree of visible luxury; and differences of price, and, so to speak, of caste in the vehicle can be made as apparent as in a carriage. It is not wonderful, therefore, that idle men sprang at the new idea, – we say new, for though the invention is old, it has been forgotten, – with a sense of relief, that the infection spread fast from Paris to America, England and, we believe, Russia; that a new trade suddenly sprang up which employs thousands, that the invention was quarrelled for by a legion of mechanicians, that a score of patent suits were introduced into the courts, – one of them in America will be a cause celebre, – that riding schools multiplied by the dozen, that there are races, matches, tournaments on the bicycle and that we have before us a popular history of velocipedes extending from dandy-horse of fifty years ago to the last new perfected Yankee notion. The bicycle is for the moment a rage, but nevertheless we doubt very greatly if it is more, if unimproved it will keep its ground, or become a permanent addition to our means of locomotion. Nothing of the kind succeeds unless it is useful, and the use of the bicycle is extremely problematical. The tricycle, admitting as it does of a resting seat, might have a great popularity, if only one difficulty could be overcome. Nothing is more wanted in modern life than a means of getting swiftly about on common roads without incessant expense, of going, say, thirty, or even twenty, miles without very great fatigue. Of all the drawbacks to country life, none have been more severely felt than the rapid increase in the cost of keeping a horse, an increase of at least 100%, within the last half century. Whole classes, like the poor clergy, Dissenting ministers, poor doctors and many more, who want to move about freely, are chained to a narrow circle, because they cannot afford to keep for six days in the week a vehicle they want for only two. Mr Lowe’s budget will, in all tolerably populace places, remove much of this inconvenience, as very small innkeepers will be able to keep cheap vehicles for hire – a gig, for example, might be let for 2s 6d a day. If the journey were moderate, – but still the power of getting swiftly about without fatigue and without cost would, in many places and to many classes, be invaluable. This is just what no existing bicycle or tricycle or velocipede of any kind fully confers. It will not help the traveller up-hill. The labour of forcing it along any ordinary rough road is calculated to be nearly equal to that of walking, the proportions being one-sixteenth as compared with one-thirteenth; but up an incline it is indefinitely greater, greater, in fact than if the traveller had to carry the velocipede himself, so great that it is easier to walk and drag, or push the vehicle before him. In most English counties, with their swelling undulations and roads built apparently with a view rather to the enjoyment of scenery than to the saving of labour, – in a county like Kent, for example, this objection, unless it can be overcome, is fatal to anything approaching the universal use of the velocipede and it is extremely doubtful if it can ever be removed. Certainly it cannot be while the only power employed is that residing in the traveller himself. No conceivable ingenuity of adjustment can seriously relieve him up-hill, or enable him to get to the top without carrying his own weight and that of his machine. “Old velocipedists all affirm that it is better and wiser on long journeys to walk up the hills, for there is a much less expenditure of power in walking up the hills and leading the bicycles, or even pushing a four-wheeler, than in attempting to force it along by means of the treadles. It is to this point we conceive the attention of mechanicians should now be exclusively directed. They cannot lighten ore strengthen the velocipede much more, or enlarge its wheels without greatly adding to its weight. It is impossible, without giving up the main idea of the velocipede, that the driver’s own strength should be the motor, to store up power to aid him when he has a hill to pass, or a bit of very heavy road? Steam is, of course, out of the question; it would be too dangerous and too costly; but is there no possible combination of springs, no application of compressed air, no use of the magnet which would secure an occasional and limited addition of power.

(From the Saturday Review)

The notion of supplying velocipedes to rural postmen does indeed resemble rather clearly that of providing plum-cake for the poor persons who cannot get bread. We do not know whether the government has obtained a tender for velocipedes for the public service, or whether it expects that any large reduction will be made in the prices in which they are offered by advertisers to private purchasers. But we should think that. If the Post Office is expected to work a halfpenny post by postmen mounted on velocipedes, the managers of that establishment will be reduced nearly to despair. It does not follow, because a young and active man can learn to sit on a bicycle in a fortnight, that rural postmen can reasonably be expected to acquire the same accomplishment in the intervals of their daily work. Many postmen are not young and a man of middle-age may be active in the performance of an exercise to which he is accustomed without possessing any great facility for acquiring a new exercise. But it may be said that the postman can go on three wheels or four and that it is not proposed to compel him to go on two wheels, or be dismissed. But when the proposal is thus presented all novelty disappears. As long ago as 1830 a number of country letter-carriers in France were mounted on velocipedes and whilst the roads continued to dry and hard they worked well. But with bad weather came bad roads and to the wet succeeded frost and snow. A little extra labour was all that was required to overcome the extra friction of the bad roads, but the wheels refused to turn on the slippery frozen surface. The country folks wanted their  letters and the wheels of the velocipedes would not move except on their own axis; so the postmen had to trudge on foot and leave their velocipedes behind them The difficulty was probably not insuperable even in 1830, and the means of propulsion have been improved, as we understand, since that time. But so far as there has been any invention in the matter, it concerns only the reduction in the number of wheels and we humbly think that a postman can hardly be expected to imitate successfully the young gentlemen whom we see depicted in a book before us “preparing to go down hill.” Our minds are fully alive to the force of the observation that if we feel i9n danger of tumbling over on one side we can stand upright. The same consideration has sometimes induced men of average stature to adventure their precious limbs upon a donkey; for although this animal is difficult to ride, he cannot throw you if you put your feet upon the ground on either side of him. We have read in the Pilgrim’s Progress that

“He that is down need fear no fall.”

 There used to be a story current at Oxford of a very tall man who was upset into shallow water in the sight of a multitude of people during the annual procession of the college boats. The very tall man had imperfect notions of swimming and was in a great state of flurry at the peril in which he supposed himself to be of drowning. Accordingly, he began striking out promiscuously with legs and arms as for dear life, while a chorus of voices from the boats shouted to him to stand up. When at length he comprehended and proceeded to act upon the advice and rose to his full height out of eighteen inches of water, universal laughter was evoked by his ludicrous performance. It is a comfort to us to remember that if our bicycle becomes unmanageable we can always stand up and we shall treat the mockery of spectators with indifference. But we cannot help thinking that if a postman started to deliver letters on a bicycle, he would be pretty much in the position of poor power in the farce, where he used to put his head out of the window of a bottom-less sedan chair and say that if it was not for the look of the thing he would as soon walk. As the modern form of the velocipede originated in France, we may reasonably expect that it will receive a military application. Among ourselves a proposal to mount a corps of volunteers on bicycles would probably supply a needed stimulus to that branch of the Queen’s service. Let us, at any rate, have prizes at Wimbledon to be shot for the riders on bicycles attached to each battalion and prepared to skirmish to the front and occupy any beer which may be in the vicinity for the new and benefit of the corps. We are assured that a man may travel on a bicycle with much less expenditure of “vital force” than by walking and this would be a highly important consideration if a man could put his spare vital force into battle and keep it to another day. There is, says the same authority, a large expenditure of power in supporting the body in walking, so that a small portion only is left for actual propulsion; whereas, if you put the body on wheels, the whole of its power may be exerted in propulsion. We are far from Questioning that the velocipede may afford healthful and pleasant exercise, and some persons who are too lazy to walk may be tempted to acquire the power of locomotion by the bicycle. Walking is the simplest and most easily to be obtained of all exercises and it has the merit of bringing various muscles into play to an extent which perhaps is not equalled in the use of the velocipede. Of course, if a man objects to the expending power in supporting his body he can mount upon a bicycle, or he can go to bed. It is interesting to observe the dexterity which some performers have acquired with the bicycle, but we cannot help thinking that the postmen who are to use it might just as well be asked to fly; and we are gratified to learn from the last report of the Aeronautical Society, that very considerable progress has been made in the art of flying. It was announced at a meeting of this society, held more than a year ago, under the presidency of Duke of Argyll, that “the flight of a man has become a fact of the day,” and that the honour of the discovery of a means of flying belonged to an English man and a member of the society. It is true that traditions exist of flying having been attempted in other countries, but one experimenter broke his leg and another his neck; whereas Mr Charles Spencer has succeeded in taking short flights of a hundred feet with a machine of his own invention and construction  worked by muscular force. This machine was exhibited last summer at the Crystal Palace and we are told that by a “preliminary quick run, the inventor was able to take short flights.” We have not indeed any distinct statement by anybody who saw Mr Spencer taking flights, but we are told that his father was a friend of Mr Green, the aeronaut and his grandfather and his grandfather was Mr Green himself; so we venture to express a hope that Mr Spencer is married and his children, because we think that a son of his would be likely to be even more of a goose than he is. According to the official description of Mr Spencer’s invention, the weight of the body during flight is sustained by what are called aeroplanes, which are combined with two short wings moved by the arms. A speaker at the meeting said that “geese took up their legs and flew off, ” and so would Mr Spencer; but we are not informed that Mr Spencer did. The same speaker recommended that such flying should be practiced as gymnastics, without minding what the Press might say about it. We should certainly wonder that a man who did not mind the chance of breaking his limbs should fear the ridicule of a newspaper But perhaps Mr Spencer could not rise high enough to hurt himself in falling. The only experiment which he made in the presence of spectators was in the transept of the Crystal Palace, and then he was suspended by a long rope. The chairman of the meeting said and everybody will say, that “we all look forward to Mr Spencer’s flying with great interest.” Mr Spencer declared his intention to practice every morning and as this was nearly a year ago, it may be hoped that by this time he is able to soar on other wings than those of his imagination. We do not indeed know that Mr Spencer is not at this moment in the moon but we do rather suspect that he resembles those persons who talk in a figurative sense of doing things “like a bird.” For our own part, we agree with a speaker at the meeting, that the danger of breaking bones “appears a very serious objection to the practical utility of mechanical flying.” But the invention, if it be one, of flying by an Englishman may console this country for having to seek instruction in the use of the bicycle from a Frenchman. We are indeed happy to be informed that no jealousy exists between the aeronauts of France and of England and that “the two countries are going hand-in-hand in the matter” of making geese of themselves. When the world has completed the progress on which it has now entered, its inhabitants will be cherubs on wheels.

The Bradford Observer, May 27, 1869, P7


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