The Celeripede and Dandy Horse. (1869)

The Celeripede and Dandy Horse.

Towards the end of the Eighteenth century there might have been seen on some of the roads near Rochelle, in France, a very curious machine worked by the foot. As far as we can ascertain, it is the earliest specimen of such a vehicle known to have existed, and may be taken as the progenitor of the modern velocipede. It appears to have carried two persons. One of them sat in front, and from underneath a canopy directed the whole affair, whilst the motive power was applied by a less favoured mortal—probably a servant—who stood behind, and pressed his feet continually against the ground, or, as some people suppose, against some kind of treadle connected with the wheels. Whichever method were the true one, the duty of this servant could have been no sinecure. The speed must have been very slow and on bad road progress almost impossible. Even, however, on good roads the existence of the unfortunate man who worked the vehicle must have been most laborious. Indeed, if the description of the machine given in the Journal de Paris is a correct one, his work must have been one to which the treadmill were a pastime. The details are, however, somewhat meagre and for twenty or thirty years no further steps appear to have been taken in this branch of mechanical enterprise. At length about the commencement of the present century, a new device made its appearance, and soon created an immense sensation in the French capital. The inventor of this machine appears to have been a certain Mr. Niepce of Chalons, and he greatly astonished the gay habitue’s of the Luxembourg gardens by the speed with which he propelled it along the well-kept walks. •The design was a simple one, consisting merely of two wheels, one behind the other, connected by a bar passing over them, and resting upon the axles of each. The rider seated himself on the bar, and by pressing his feet alternately against the ground succeeded in attaining considerable speed. The machine had manydefeats, not the least of which was the impossibility of turning it. This latter difficulty, was however, soon remedied by making the front wheel turn upon a pivot, with a handle always under the control of the driver. In this improved state it came into very extensive use in France. The wheels of the machine as at first constructed were somewhat heavy and, indeed, some of the earlier imitations of Mr. Niepce’s vehicle were of the clumsiest possible construction. Their beauty, moreover, was not increased by the introduction of curious devices, such as that of carving the bar upon which the rider sat in the shape of a horse, or in the other fantastic shapes which were given to it. When the construction of the machine became lighter and more elegant, a cushioned seat was fixed in the centre of the bar, and after the invention of the guiding bar a rest was put up in front for the arms of the operator. The height of the machine was just sufficient to enable his feet to touch the ground, and after it was once in motion there was then no great difficulty in keeping the balance correct if the road was good. Where there was a downward incline the driver could take five or six yards at each stride, and if the incline were a steep one he might rest his feet in front and descend without any exertion, the machine keeping erect on exactly the same principle as a hoop in swift motion retains its perpendicular. The name originally given to Mr. Niepce’s invention was CeUrifere, subsequently Celeripede on account, of course, of the velocity being produced by the action of the foot. But the evils attendant upon the Celeripede in all the forms in which it existed fifty years ago, were some of them of a very serious character. Many ruptures and other accidents ensued from their use, and a false step or any obstruction in the road, might give a serious sprain. Moreover, in going down hill, it was often difficult to retain control over the machine, and frequently both horse and rider came ignominiously to grief. The necessity of continually pressing the feet against the ground, besides wearing out a great deal of shoe leather, caused the rider, in wet weather, to be splashed from head to foot with mud. And lastly, the position requisite to work it, was perhaps, on the whole more ridiculous than any other in which people had hitherto been willing to exhibit themselves in public. These evils, however, appear to have scarcely retarded in any appreciable degree the advance of the Celeripede in public estimation. Its use now became no longer confined to France. Either our innate genius, or some soldiers returning from conquered Paris, introduced the Celeripede here and the mania for it raged quite as hotly as it had done on the other side of the channel. From London it spread to the country and young and old seem to have adopted it with eagerness. Its name of Celerifere or Celeripede was of course lost, and the essentially English one of Dandy Horse given to it. Some of the caricatures which fifty years ago supplied the place of the comic press, were very severe upon the new machine, and the pencils of Rowlandson and Cruikshank, seem to have revelled in depicting the dandy-horse rider in ridiculous attitudes. “Sometimes we have the spectacle of a whole congregation going to Church upon the machine and leaving it at the door. Others exhibit its devotees in every absurd position that the fertile brain of the artist can invent”. Clergymen used the new machine to visit their parishioners, and to travel between scattered congregations. Postmen with their letter bags sailing in the wind, rode the dandy-horse; young swells of the period used it, not only for exercise but for the purpose of making calls; and strangest if not saddest spectacle of all, old men who had hitherto borne blameless characters for sedateness and respectability, were to be seen careering along on the dandy-horse. Sometimes the so-called horse was elegantly painted or gilt, and some apprehension appears to have prevailed that the national breed of the genuine animal would suffer from this daring competition. It has been often said that we Englishmen take our amusements sadly, and that we are willing to work far harder for pleasure than we do for gain. Perhaps one of the most effective illustrations of these truths might have been seen when the corpulent and sober fathers of England adopted the machine. As we have said, however, the original form had been changed. It was now constructed of the lightest possible materials, and all unnecessary encumbrances dispensed with, but still it was a strange thing for what Graycalls our “grave forefathers” to disport themselves upon. The speed attained of course depended almost entirely upon the road and the worker. If the roads were good, and the workman efficient, eight, nine, or ten miles an hour might be traversed, and this appeared to them an almost extravagant speed. But if the road was heavy or up-hill, then progression was rendered very difficult. Indeed it appears to have been necessary for the rider to dismount and carry or drag his carriage whenever a serious incline was met with. Perhaps if the incline were a short one and not too steep, it might be surmounted by increasing speed before coming to it, but as a rule the rider was compelled to dismount, or else, like the stone of Sisyphus, before the carriage got to the top it began to roll down again, and would of course frequently capsize both horse and rider. Where the roads were dirty or bad, the result was still worse. Every one remembers the happy answer of George Stephenson to the sapient lord, who apparently thought he had raised an insuperable obstacle to Stephenson’s projects by asking, “What would happen to the steam-horse if a cow were in the way.” “So much the worse for the coo” but a much less obstacle than a “coo” would of course have stopped the dandy-horse. Where they were driven along smooth paths and roads, a considerable amount of healthy exercise might be got out of them; and if a man had no fear of sprains or ruptures before his eyes; if he had unlimited credit with his tailor; and if he did not object to use as much shoe-leather, as would suffice for the most extensive family, no doubt he could enjoy the dandy-horse, but the numerous evils attendant upon its use, and the comparatively small increase of speed which resulted from the increased expenditure of power, no doubt accelerated its downfall, and now the machine of our forefathers is entirely unknown, except in the page of the caricaturist. The cause of the disuse of the machine in France was somewhat remarkable. It appears that an official in the Post-office, named Dreuze, was so enamoured of it that he succeeded in persuading the authorities to mount their rural police upon it, and in the summer and winter of 1830 the letter-carriers of France performed their duties riding on the Celeripede. One of the subsequent winters was, however, a very severe one, and a heavy fall of snow so encumbered the roads that even the stoutest of the Post-office officials were unable to force the machine through it. The snow afterwards melted, and when the roads presented a frozen surface it was found that the wheels would not bite upon the ice, and that the foothold of the driver was very insecure. The delivery of letters became most precarious, and the casualties appear to have been so numerous that it seemed not unlikely that the Post-office must establish a hospital in every department unless the celeripede was abandoned. It cannot, therefore, be wondered at, that when the next summer’s sun had hardened the roads, the celeripede was found to have lost its popularity, and was consigned to the same limbo wherein rest the alchemists’ efforts after the philosopher’s stone and the thousand devices of perpetual motion. Thus, we see that in France, Nature herself gave the coup de grace to what some might consider an outrage on her prescriptive rights. Whether the recent invention will come to an equally ignominious conclusion, time alone can tell. Nothing but a great improvement in the system of working, could have led to the present revival of public interest in a machine of this kind.

The velocipede, its past, its present & its future, J F Bottomley (1869)


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