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A Short Illustrated History of the Bicycle
By Carsten Hoefer - (contact)

The Boneshaker: 1867 - Pierre Lallement, the Michaux family and their velocipede

The next major step in the development of the bicycle is shrouded in mystery. Who was the first person to add cranks and pedals to Drais' simple design? There are several competitors - a Scottish blacksmith, a German organ builder as well as several French mechanics and businessmen.

The first contender is Kirkpatrick MacMillan (1812-1878), a native of Coathill, Scotland. In the 1890s a Scottish cycling enthusiast claimed that MacMillan had invented a rod-driven rear wheel drive resembling the transmission of a steam locomotive in the late 1830s. Two treadles were connected by the rods to cranks mounted on the rear wheel.

The only problem with this neat theory is that no evidence whatsoever has survived - no bike, no drawing, no newspaper article. A newspaper article reporting a gentleman's bike accident in 1842 is sometimes cited as proof, but the article does not the describe the vehicle in detail. By the snobbish standards of the day, it is also very unlikely that a British journalist would have referred to a lowly blacksmith as a gentleman. The 19th century is comparatively recent history, and the existence of other early bikes is well documented. And even if the MacMillan bike did in fact exist, it would still be impossible to know when it was built.

Another reason to treat this claim with more than just the proverbial grain of salt is the fact that the claim was publicized more than five decades after the supposed invention. In other words: In all probability the MacMillan bike is a hoax, as US bike historian David Herlihy argues. This hasn't dampened patriotic fervor in Scotland, though. Macmillan still appears on the 'Great Scots' web page, where he's listed as the inventor of the bicycle. (www.webscot.co.uk/greatscots/kirkpatrickmacmillan.htm)

Second in line is the Bavarian organ builder Philipp Moritz Fischer (1812-1890), a resident of the town of Schweinfurt. Unlike MacMillan's bike, the existence of the Fischer bike has been proven beyond reasonable doubt. In fact, the vehicle has been preserved to the present day in his hometown (where you can still inspect it in the local museum, I believe).

Fischer mounted two crank arms and pedals to the hub of the running machine's front wheel, thus allowing the rider to ride without having to touch the ground with his feet. Fischer also added a lantern and a simple wagon-type brake.

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A replica of Fischer's bike on exhibition in the Two-Wheeler Museum in Neckarsulm

However, one very big question mark remains, and once again it seems that patriotism got the better of truth: It is not known when Fischer built his machine. The town of Schweinfurt claims that the bike was built in 1853 - which would make it the earliest known bike of the so-called boneshaker type, as these bikes later came to be called in England.

Unfortunately, it seems that judgment was clouded by local pride and anti-French sentiment. According to bike historian Hans Erhard Lessing, after Fischer's death nobody in town could still remember the machine's first sighting. So the town council took a vote on the matter and - knowing full well that the French had come up with a similar design in the 1860s - courageously decided that the bike had been built in 1853.

According to Lessing, the burghers of Schweinfurt took the additional measure of changing the inscription on Fischer's headstone, which has been proclaiming ever since that Fischer was the inventor of the bicycle. It may well be that Fischer's bike predated the French boneshakers by a few years. But there is no convincing proof for this theory.

That leaves several French contenders, foremost among them Pierre Lallement (1843/44-1891). In Lallement's case there are no doubts at all: In 1866 he filed the first patent ever for a pedal-powered bike in the US.

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Pierre Lallement's US Patent No. 59,915 drawing, 1866

Source: Beeley 1992

Lallement was reportedly a maker of baby carriages. The design precedes his patent by several years. In 1863 or 1864 he sold this design to the Olivier brothers, who in turn formed a partnership with the blacksmith Pierre Michaux (1813-1883) - Michaux et Cie (Michaux and Company). Thus it was under Michaux's name that Lallement's bike became famous, and was accordingly called Michauline (pronounced Me-shaw-leen. Stress on the last syllable)

Similar to the sad case of Karl Drais, Lallement's invention brought its creator no luck. He emigrated to the US in 1865, where he filed the patent and found an investor, but failed to get rich. Nevertheless, Lallement's visit turned out to be the spark that ignited the US bike industry. By 1868, the New York firm of Pickering & Davis had already begun to export bicycles to England.

Lallement returned to France in 1868, frustrated - where Michaux and the Olivier brothers had in the meantime started industrial production of Lallement's bike. The result was a bicycle craze in Paris.

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Differing from Lallement's design in several respects, the Michauline marked a very important step in the evolution of the bike. For one, it was the first mass-produced bicycle ever. And to facilitate production in a factory, Michaux opted for cast iron as frame material. Thus Michaux led the way towards the steel frames that became common a few years later. As everyone who has ever handled a cast iron cooking pot knows, cast iron is very heavy and prone to breaking, so latter versions of the Michauline were built with wrought iron frames.

And as you can see in the picture above, Michaux also came up with an ingenious suspension for the saddle - inspired by the type of suspension used in wagons and horse coaches. In the 1890s Michaux's hometown of Bar Le Duc honored the blacksmith and his son Ernest with a monument, which claims - surprise! - that Michaux was the inventor of the bicycle.

The wheels still resembled wagon wheels, though, and riding comfort was non-existent. The English - perhaps because they couldn't figure out how to pronounce the French word Michauline - quickly coined the nickname boneshaker. This didn't hinder the boneshaker's success in England, though. While the bike craze soon ended in Paris, the youth of England developed a lasting crush. Accordingly, England became the hub of the fledgling European bike industry, and for the next 30 years Britannia ruled the waves as well as the roads.

The pedal-driven bike seems to have received much more favorable reviews than the draisine. It will always have a fascination for those who enjoy athletic sports, wrote a Cincinnati journalist in 1869. There is an oddity, a mirth-provoking quaintness and audacity about the machine that will commend it to that large, and, we trust, growing class of those who have fun.

Pierre Michaux, by the way, was ruined by various lawsuits, and died impoverished in 1883. Pierre Lallement emigrated a second time to the US and died impoverished in Boston in 1891.

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In 1983 la grande nation honored Pierre Michaux and his son with a bicycle stamp


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"A Short Illustrated History of the Bicycle" Copyright © 2007-2014 By Carsten Hoefer - (contact). All rights reserved.
Page was created on August 28, 2006 00:46 PDT, last updated on May 2, 2007 03:44 PDT
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