The velocipede: its history, varieties, and practice (1869)

The velocipede: its history, varieties, and practice


J. T. Goddard (1869)


We have spent much time in fruitless and weary researches over old French books and musty journals and have found that there is but very little about the Velocipede, in the literature, or dictionaries and encyclopedias of ancient or modern times. In the “Journal de Paris” of July 27, 1779, there is a description of a vehicle invented by Messrs. Blanchard and Mesurier, the former the celebrated aeronaut, which was exhibited on the Place Louis XV., named to-day Place de Concorde, in the presence of many members of the French Academy and a large concourse of spectators. At the head of the machine was the figure of an eagle, with outspread wings, to which was attached the apparatus with which the driver directed its movements. Behind it was seated an individual who propelled the machine. At a subsequent date, the inventor transported the vehicle to Versailles and exhibited its capabilities, in the presence of Louis XVI., Marie Antoinette and their effeminate court. At a later date M. Dreuze made an improvement on this invention, which met with some success as a toy. A number of these machines were constructed after his model and distributed among country postmen, who used the novelty for a time, until a heavy fall of snow rendered them unserviceable, when they were abandoned, greatly to the gratification of a conservative class, who, detesting anything in the way of innovation, had prophesied their failure. The article upon the Velocipede in the “American Encyclopedia,” commences by giving the well-known derivation of the word from the Latin velox, swift and pes, a foot and defines it as a carriage, by means of which the rider propels himself along the ground and states that it was invented at Manheim. In a little old French book called ” Dictionnaire de Conversation,” under the word Velocipede, we are referred to the word Drasienne, on turning to which, we find a description of the three-wheeled arm movement Velocipede and the credit of its invention ascribed to Baron Charles Drais de Saverbrun, at Manheim, at the early commencement of the nineteenth century. The Drasienne, though a decidedly crude idea, differed very materially from the clumsy structure of Messrs. Blanchard and Mesurier. Baron Drais de Saverbrun seems to be universally considered the inventor of the germ, which has developed into the present improved Velocipede. He was a man of considerable scientific attainments and author of several works; son of a lawyer, himself a landscape gardener; and died at Carlsruhe, December 12, 1851. He was master of the woods and forests of the Grand Duke of Baden and rode about upon the Drasienne, while performing his official duties. This invention made its debut in 1816, in the garden of Tivoli, which was at that time the favourite resort of the crime de la crime of Parisian society. As originally constructed it appears to have been of the most simple kind. It consisted of a bar five feet long, supported at each end upon a single wheel that was designed for the front, being so arranged as to turn obliquely to the line of the carriage. The rider sat astride the bar and propelled the machine by the action of the feet upon the ground. The motion was much like walking upon the heels; as the feet were brought down flat, the heels were the first to touch. The vehicle was never generally patronized, because the pleasure of riding it was counterbalanced by the labour of propelling it. It was called the “Celerifere,” or “ makespeed” and many shafts of ridicule were levelled mercilessly at it. The mode of propelling it was not graceful and this ridicule was not without foundation. It disappeared from view in France almost as rapidly as its inventor expected it to roll into public favour.

This novel vehicle, under the name of “Drasina” was introduced into England in 1818 and, at first, the greatest possible expectations were created, with regard to its usefulness and speed. It was maintained, that it would travel up-hill on a post-road as fast as a man could walk; that on a level, even after a heavy rain, it would average six or seven miles an hour; and that, on a descent, it would equal a horse at full speed. It was described in the advertisements of the day as consisting of two wheels, one behind the other, connected by a perch, on which a saddle is placed as a seat. The front wheel is made to turn on a pivot, guided by a circular lever or rudder, which comes up to the hand; the fore-arms rest on a cushion in front; in this position, both hands holding the rudder firmly, the machine and traveller are preserved in equilibrio. In 1821 Lewis Gompertz of Surrey, introduced some decided improvements upon the Drasina, as will be seen from the accompanying engraving, extracted from the 39th volume of the English “Repertory of Arts”. The object of the improvement of Gompertz was to bring the arms of the rider into action, in assistance to his legs. It consisted ” in the application of a handle, C, which is to be worked backwards and forwards, to which is attached a circular rack, D G, which works in a pinion, E, with ratch wheel on the front wheel of the velocipede and which, on being pulled by the rider with both hands, sends the machine forward; and when thrust from him does not send it back again, on account of the ratch, which allows the pinion to turn in that direction, free of the wheel. H is the saddle, and the rest, B is so made that the breast of the rider bears against it, while the sides come around him at some distance below the arms and is stuffed. The rider could with this machine either propel it entirely without the feet, or he could use the feet, while the arms were free. The beam, A, was made of beech wood and a pivot at F, allowed the front wheel to be turned to the right or left at the will of the rider. This must have been, although somewhat clumsily shaped, quite an efficient machine, good for the times — forty-eight years ago. It will be seen that it has many features in common with the one now in vogue, though the difference in the manner of propelling completely changes the character of the vehicle.

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