Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Can you name the inventor of the two-wheeler?

The man who patented two-wheeled transportation.
You get to think about simplicity a lot when you ride a Royal Enfield motorcycle. They're simple.

And nothing seems simpler than the backbone principle of any motorcycle: a motorcycle is a bicycle with a motor.

And, after all, nothing seems more simple or more obvious than a bicycle.

My new T-shirt.
So I was surprised on my birthday when my daughter Erin gifted me with a beautiful T-shirt bearing the 1866 patent drawings filed by Pierre Lallement for "Improvement in Velocipedes."

Somebody patented the bicycle? Sure looks like it.

Lallement was a very young (only 20) Frenchman who briefly resided in Ansonia, Conn. while seeking support for his radical ideas. And they were radical, 150 years ago.

Most critical to his design was the idea that you could sit on a two-wheeled vehicle and take both feet off the ground so as to apply them to the pedals. The pedal cranks would provide propulsion (a very clever idea), but what was going to keep you from falling over?

"It is evident that, if left to its natural inclination, this carriage could not be made to stand upright," the patent application admits.

Lallement knew — because he had actually built the machine and taught himself to ride it — that forward motion and his steerable front wheel would make it stable.

The design provided sprung seating.
His patent application explains:

"If the carriage is inclined to lean to the right, turn the wheel as denoted in red, which throws the carriage over to the left; or, if inclined to the left, turn the wheel as denoted in blue. Thus the carriage is maintained in an upright position, and driven with great velocity by means of the cranks in the forward wheel. The greater the velocity, the more easily the upright position is maintained. To turn the carriage either to the right or left, turn the guiding-wheel accordingly. By this construction of a velocipede, after a little practice the rider is enabled to drive the same at an incredible velocity, with the greatest ease."

And there you have it: Lallement's design even calls for a gracefully arching spring mounting for the seat, for comfort. That was a natural for him: He had learned his trade building baby carriages in France.

Still, Lallement's improved velocipede looks too willowy, and pedaling the front wheel while trying to steer would obviously be awkward to the point of futility. Lack of gearing would have insured it was so slow stability would surely have suffered.

Lallement was clever to patent his ideas but the title of inventor of the bicycle was not secure.

Advertisement for Starley's Rover.
The Patent Pending blog reserves that distinction for John Starley, of England, whose 1885 "Rover" might be the first bicycle that would look at home in a modern bicycle shop.

The Rover had chain drive, equal sized wheels, diamond shaped tubular frame, ball bearings in wheels and cranks and pneumatic tires (but, apparently, still no freewheeling on the driven wheel).

Starley's greatest personal achievement, though, may have been his tangent-spoke wheel. The spokes were angled to give the wheel the support it would need.

The Rover company (makers of motorcycles and, eventually, automobiles) traces its history to Starley's machine.


  1. And then there is this (I doubt the influence of the weather it claims, though, the inventor had been working on the bike for a while and it wasn't terribly practical on the roads of the time to replace a horse).

    1. That's a great link. Another great story of an inventor I'd never heard of.


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