September 12, 2022


         The first two-wheeled, human-powered steerable machine was invented in 1817.  It was powered by a rider pushing it along with his (yes, usually his) feet, but inventors were soon going nuts with two, three, and four wheels, and peddles, treadles, and hand cranks in various permutations.  By the 1860s the famous (or infamous) boneshakers appeared, followed by high-wheeled penny-farthing bicycles in the 1870s, and finally “safety” bicycles that were more-or-less our modern bicycle design appeared in the 1880s.  And throughout all this time and beyond, inventors were full of brilliant ideas of how to adapt and improve the bicycle concept and cash in on its promise and popularity.  Many of these inventions can only be considered “steam”punk science fiction, even if their hopeful inventors thought they had a future in reality.
        The epicycle (1896) and the motor-monocycle (1905) both explored the benefits of suspending the rider within one huge wheel.  This would allow great speed, plus the monocycle was alleged to “fall” forward rather than pushing against the ground, thus allowing it to travel over any terrain including loose sand.  ‘“It bounds over rocks and other obstacles,” declares its inventor, “with as much ease as a horse trained to jump.”’
        Of course military use always drives invention, and the cavalry of the future was expected to use bicycles.  I do like the idea that the Harveyized steel wheels of the armored war cycle (1900) can be used as shields when the soldier dismounts and “transforms himself in a moment [from] motorman to sharpshooter.”  As for the Humbrecht’s dicycle (1896), its two wheels are mounted side-by-side instead of in a line, and its military use consists in its ability to carry a fair amount of baggage, as well as its inability to be killed by a bullet like a horse.  But its utility is not confined to the military, “as it is especially adapted to those who do not care to go to the trouble of learning to ride a bicycle, and… As there is no straddling necessary, the modesty due to the ladies is always present… and no unbecoming bloomers or short skirts are necessary.”
        But why confine the use of bicycles to the ground?  I offer you the ice cycle (1899), which has both spiked tires and runners, and seats no fewer than eight eager cyclists.  Inventor “Mr. Lenz proposes at the trial exhibition to have all eight seats of the machine occupied by a bevy of girl riders.  He rightly judges that they will enhance the attractions of the occasion.”   Or how about the aerial bicycle (1896), which travels on a rail.  According to the press release, “the problem of rapid transit has been solved.”
        And most useful of all, the submarine bicycle (1896), with which “new contrivance [the diver] can pedal about at any desired distance above the bottom…  How pleasant it would be to construct a sextuplet submarine bicycle… [with] a brilliant electric light, that would enable three couples to go bike-riding under water, instead of taking moonlight rides on the surface…  It would only be a question of a short time until charts of the underwater route to adjacent summer resorts would be on sale.”  Who says a fish doesn’t need a bicycle!  The article which introduces this wonder to an eager public also mentions in passing, “We have had plans for wheelmen to ride to and from the clouds and to ride underground in cycle tunnels.  There have been bicycle railways and bicycle boats…”  I’m just sorry I don’t have more information about all of those, as well!

[Pictures: Epicycle, illustration from The Marble Hill Press, July 23, 1896;

Motor-Monocycle, illustration from The Cook County Herald, July 15, 1905;

Armored War Cycle, illustration from The Deseret Evening News, September 22, 1900;

Humbrecht’s Dicycle (Cavalry of the Future), illustration from The Barton County Democrat, May 13, 1897;

Ice Cycle (The New Ice Wonder), illustration from The Dupuyer Acantha, April 27, 1899;

Aerial Bicycle, illustration from The San Francisco Call, August 19, 1896;

The Submarine Bicycle, illustration from The San Francisco Call, November 22, 1896 (All images from Lumberwoods, with thanks for compiling these!)]

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