Monday 24 April 2023

Victorian Velocipede Fun!

What is a velocipede? Victorian or otherwise...

The Dictionary definition is simple:

A velocipede is a human-powered land vehicle with one or more wheels. The most common type of velocipede today is the bicycle.

How did Victorian era velocipedes differ from those of today?

First, we need to jump back a little to the earliest known velocipedes. In the early 1800s, in Germany, inventors aimed to find a way of improving the speed that a person could move along at, yet still empower that speed by the use of their own muscles. This meant going beyond a rate of fast-walking, but with some form of aid that would maintain a good running speed without the person becoming exhausted too quickly.


The DANDY HORSE was invented using two wheels. Steering was not guaranteed as the user only had a small hinged handlebar for manoeuvring the front wheel, but with the user sitting on a small seat a reasonable degree of speed was achieved. The user could walk the dandy horse if desired, or they could ‘run and rest’ alternately by lowering their feet to the ground, or lifting them up when desired speed was achieved. Its popularity was variable as each vehicle tended to need to be custom-built according to the leg length of the user. 

N.B. The Dandy Horse vehicle had no chain mechanism converting user power to turn the wheels.

Parents, today, very often buy a similar bike to the Dandy Horse (balance-bike) for their toddlers, to get them used to gaining their balance for proper bike use, and to become used to speed.

The German ‘laufmaschine’/ running machine design became popular across Europe, including in Britain. A version with a large wheel and a smaller wheel became known as the Velocipede.

T. McCall, 1869, Kilmarnock

By the 1860s, other velocipede designs appeared with rotary crank, pedal-driven mechanisms. There was the monowheel; unicycle; bicycle; dicycle; tricycle; and quadracycle.

I’ve tried using a segway a few times as a tourist, and they are an amusing way to speed around the hotspots – though with no physical effort, as would be needed when pedalling a Victorian dicycle. The Victorian dicycle in the image (two large equally-sized parallel wheels) looks like a lot of fun where the user sits between two large wheels flanking them, though getting on and off might be an interesting experience!


Otto Dicycle

It took until the mid-1900s for chain-driven vehicles to appear. The Michaux Company in France began to produce a chain-driven, wooden-wheeled version that earned its nickname of the ‘boneshaker’.

In Britain, the ‘penny-farthing’ appeared with one very large wheel and one small one. Though its popularity didn’t last it became a symbol of a late Victorian pastime, a way of exercising for those who could afford it. Going out and about with one's spouse meant interesting variations of the velocipede as in the image below. I'm not sure if the woman actually had to do anything except look decorative, and not fall off! 


A version for two! 1886

The advent of the safety bicycle heralded a more standard use of two similarly sized, rubber-tyred wheels, with the rear wheel chain-driven. And brakes, eventually on both wheels. 

So, over time, the velocipede was supplanted by the bicycle, a name we are much more familiar with nowadays.

Enjoy your reading…whatever that may be.


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