Inventing the Bicycle, Part 1: The Horseless Carriage and Celerifere (1779 to 1791)

Who invented the bicycle? 

The French say it was Michaux and seem to have forgotten about their countrymen Blanchard and Sivrac. “Nein” say the Germans, it was the Baron Von Drais, everyone knows this. And then there are the Scots, who say these claims are rubbish and the honor rightly belongs to our Macmillan and his pedals.

The drawing attributed to Leo

But wait, you say: Didn’t the Italian genius Leonardo Da Vinci sketch the concept of the bicycle more than 500 years ago? Shouldn’t he lay claim to being the father of the bicycle? Nope. It was all a hoax, a forgery. Da Vinci never drew a bicycle, but he did draw the parachute, helicopter and double-hulled ship.

There’s no easy answer to the bicycle-invention question. And may depend on the country where you live and your definition of a bicycle, a factor open to interpretation, debate and opinion. Does it have to have two wheels? Pedals? A chain? A carbon fork, a GPS?

I’ve been studying away, reading scores of newspapers stories from the 1800s, as well as several legitimate websites and Bicycle: The History by David Herlihy. There’s no consensus of opinion, as there is in aviation with the Wright Brothers, and the world of toys, with Richard James and the Slinky. The old newspaper stories are fascinating, a bit addictive and have led me down all sorts of stray paths (for example). They say newspapers are the first rough draft of history and, as a former newspaper reporter, I must agree. They also say history is written by the victors, which in the bicycle-inventing world are the tinkerers, inventors and forward thinkers who received the most publicity for their creations, which, back then, was pretty much limited to newspapers. And word of mouth.

I’m out of historical cliches, so let’s get on with the story of the bicycle … 

Off with your wheels, says Louis XVI

My starting point is France, 1779. There’s evidence to suggest earlier attempts at something that sort of, kind of resembled the bicycle (a machine with multiple wheels that was propelled forward in some sort of pedal-less manner), but this seems as good a place as any to start. Several bicycle historians consider this carriage the first legitimate forerunner of the bicycle – and there are newspaper accounts in real time to verify its existence, which is important. Plus, this bit of history includes Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and a fascinating and arrogant inventor who would go on to make aerospace history and impress George Washington. 

“In July, 1779, the journals of Paris announced with much derision the appearance of the first velocipede of which we have any authentic account,” was the start of a story that ran in several U.S. papers in May, 1896. The story was penned by the editorial staff of the League of American Wheelmen (founded in 1880) and relied an article from the July 27, 1779 edition of the Journal de Paris newspaper that is often referenced in bike-history stories.

This 1896 story, as well as one from the Chicago Times in 1869, describe the 1779 demonstration by Blanchard and Masurier of their four-wheeled, human-powered creation in the Place de la Concorde. “At the front of the machine was the head of an eagle with outspread wings, to which was attached the apparatus with which the driver directed its movements,” read the Chicago Times story, again quoting the old French newspaper. “Behind him was seated an individual who gave an impetus, more or less rapid, to the machine by pressing his feet alternately on the ground. He sat down or stood at discretion, with his legs half concealed in a sort of box, where the springs that that communicated movement to the machine were evidently placed.”

So, this was basically a four-wheeled, human-powered carriage – with an elegant eagle. And was a big leap forward in the world of transportation. Steam-powered trains were still a couple of decades away, which left horses, horse-drawn carriages and the feet as the only means of land travel.

A month later, Blanchard and Masurier took their machine to the grand palace of Versailles to show Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette what it could do. The royals were not impressed, according to the Paris Journal, and Louis “promptly turned it down as unworthy of adoption or even respectful attention.”

This temporarily put a damper on the development of the bicycle, although Blanchard kept trying … and started flying.

The eagle has landed … in the USA

I did a little digging and discovered Blanchard was Jean-Pierre Blanchard, an inventor and one of the first to fly in a hot-air balloon, in 1784, about a year after the first-ever flight. He made aviation history, along with his passenger, John Jeffers, an American, with the first aerial crossing of the English Channel, on January 7, 1785. That was quite an accomplishment. For this, he received a more successful audience with Louis XVI, who presented him with a royal – and lifetime – pension, but still didn’t seem interested in his horseless carriage. Blanchard toured the world, giving hot air balloon demonstrations – for paying customers, of course. He performed the first hot-air balloon flight in the United States on January 9, 1793, a feat witnessed by George Washington in Philadelphia, the capital of the country at the time. 

BTW: 1793 was the year Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had their encounter with destiny and the guillotine. I wonder if Blanchard lost his lifetime pension. He died in 1809.

Here’s a 1793 news story about Blanchard’s “extraordinary carriage”

Blanchard brought his bicycle-like machine with him to the United States (above). According to advertisements for the daily demonstrations of Blanchard’s “balloon & his carriage,” it was suggested that gentleman “who have dogs accustomed to the chase are requested not to bring them along on account of the eagle [on the carriage] which imitates nature to perfection.”

There you have it: Proof positive that dogs have been chasing bicycles since the 1790s. And, despite many attempts and strategies, we’ve yet to invent a way to stop them. Here’s my recent blog post about a couple other early dog attacks.

According to the British Balloon Museum & Library website, Blanchard was “a dislikable character who, if he ever had a friend, would have stabbed him in the back for a newspaper headline. Flying for fame and money, the egotistical Blanchard was the first great aerial showman, stunt man, and occasional con man.”

Masurier? He seems to have been Blanchard’s servant, and was therefore the one in the back of the carriage, doing all the pedaling. His first name has been lost to history.

The celerifere

Next step: A hobby-horse on wheels

In 1790, or perhaps 1791, the Comte de Sivrac, a Frenchman also referred to as the Baron de Sivrac, built what was initially called a celerifere. A year or so later, the name was changed to velocifere. Ah, velo! … this is what the French eventually came to call the bicycle.

Here’s the description of de Sivrac’s creation, from the July 16, 1893 article in Chicago Tribune: It “consisted of two wheels, moving on the same axis and fixed below a wooden beam, which was fantastically carved and otherwise adorned. On this the rider mounted in such a manner that his feet touched the ground and were thus able to give an impulse to the entire machine.”

The Indiana Bicycle company published a pamphlet, The Evolution of the Bicycle, in 1897. In it, according to a newspaper story that year, it described Sivrac’s machine as “a sort of hobby-horse on wheels. It became popular, and was used by women as well as men.” 

We’re getting closer, two wheels, one in front of the other! There were problems with the Sivrac’s celerifere/velocifere, the primary one being it was impossible to steer the darn thing. Nevertheless, it was popular for a time, as the daring young – and privileged – men of Paris formed clubs and raced along the Champs Elysees, which wasn’t as crowded with designer stores and tourists back then.

In Part 2: The next step forward would come in 1817, in Germany, courtesy of Baron Von Drais, and velocipede fever sweeps France, Britain and the USA.

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