I know, the last thing you want to hear is more talk about riding on the sidewalk. But, it’s been a topic that keeps coming up, so I can’t resist. Some people can’t be convinced it’s dangerous and illegal, and some won’t give it up because they simply fear automobile traffic (and for good reason). Still others, in an official capacity, want to further intimidate and discourage these vulnerable road users by issuing summonses and infractions.

You already know where I stand. However, you may not know about a rather amusing and relevant anecdote, that I discovered while reading about the evolution of the bicycle, in two great books I picked up recently: Bicycle: The History by David V. Herlihy, and The Story of the Bicycle by John Woodforde. According to their research, it seems that the controversy swirling around speeding two-wheelers on the pavement goes all the way back to the origins of the invention itself.

In the early days of cycling, it took a great deal of effort to control the newly designed instrument. As the velocipede was a new invention, there was still much room for improvement. To begin with, early ones were made entirely of wood, except for the wheels which were iron, hence the name, “Bone-Shaker.” Brakes, gears, and general comfort were entirely absent from the early designs. Most importantly, there was no precedent for riding and balancing in such a manner. It was vastly different from riding a horse or any other animal. The human body had simply never experienced the sensation of balance and self-propulsion that the velocipede introduced. And so, early aficionados were required to put in a great deal of time and effort, literally hours of practice, spent refining their skills in the safety of a confined space before even attempting to unleash the unwieldy machine on the public streets. There were practice rinks and gymnasiums in every major city where the invention was being experimented with. Often, they were quite crowded. The image above is a practice rink operated in New York by the Wood Brothers of Bridgeport, CT. (Herlihy, 115)

Because of the unwieldy nature of the velocipede, and the risk-taking capacities of it’s riders, it should come as no surprise, that when they first ventured out of the rinks, riders terrified pedestrians and, as you will see, frightened other animals as well.

“The velocipede reached New Haven, home of Yale University, in the first days of February [1869]. On 21 February the Yale Courant published an article called ‘Velocipedomania'”:

“Every Student and every other man seems to have velocipede on the brain. Two halls have been opened in the city for beginners, without meeting the great demand; and Hoad (a dealer) promises that a third shall be in readiness for the knight of the bicycle by Thursday evening.” (Woodforde, 28)

It seems that a combination of luck, technical skill, and courage placed New Haven at the epicenter of avant-garde, industrial innovation in 1869. Were it not for the brave carriage manufacturers who risked the business endeavor, and the even more adventurous young men and women who rode the new invention, the velocipede would have come to New Haven, like so many cities before it as a wonder, and leave too soon as a missed opportunity.  Although this initial wave of the trend did wane, the velocipede in New Haven received it’s most enthusiastic following yet. In a preview of events at the end of the century, the popularity in New Haven, although short-lived, provided a glimpse at the level of attention the invention would draw in later years. In the late winter and early spring of 1869, for a brief time, it seemed as if man’s flesh was magnetized to the iron steed. But, all of that would soon change.

Just as in other cities, the rumors and reports surrounding the dangers of the velocipede and the rider’s inability to distinguish between roadway and pavement were also enough to bury the new invention in New Haven. Although it would return nearer to the end of the century and establish an even more dominant presence, becoming a great vehicle for social change, one incident in 1869, more than any other, seemed to galvanize the public’s initial disdain for the velocipede.

In late January of 1869, the velocipede fad was just catching hold of New Haven residents. A natural breeding ground for enthusiasts was, of course, Yale College. It was there that a student named Karl Kron became uncontrollably attracted to the “Boneshaker.” Kron would go on to travel the world  and publish the autobiographical Ten Thousand Miles On a Bicycle in 1887. Here, he recounts his initial seduction by the new fad:

“It was at half-past 8 o’clock, on the evening of Thursday, February 4, 1869, that my eyes thus for the first time feasted themselves upon the alluring outlines of a bone-shaker. My daily journal of that date records the simple fact without comment or explanation; but I think it not unlikely that the ultimate excuse which I gave my conscience, for this gratification of curiosity, was the need of doing something unusual to dispel the gloom which oppressed me on account of the death, ten days before, of my much-loved bull-dog. At all events, I did certainly require some lively and cheerful experience, to alleviate the memory of that melancholy event; and the scenes of velocipede rink were said to supply, by common consent, “the greatest fun a-going.” My fancy seems to have been captivated at once. The new love came on with a rush, as a solace for the love that was dead. The record shows that, on the following forenoon, “I went in to watch the velocipedes, a little while,” on my return from correcting magazine proofs at the printing office, which was adjacent; and that, the very next day, I deliberately “went down to the hall, and practiced with a machine for fifteen minutes, after waiting there two hours for a chance.” This remark gives an idea of the briskness of the business which the owners of rinks were doing; for not only was every velocipede kept continuously in use, at the rate of “a cent a minute,” but crowds of eager patrons waited impatiently to “take their quarter-hour turns,” or even gave a premium for the “chances” of those who had registered in advance. The enormous waste of time thus involved, in the process of “learning to ride,” brought me back again to a realizing sense of the truth that I simply could not afford to acquire that most delightful accomplishment. I vowed that this third visit to the rink should be my last, and that I would banish from my breast all ambition for winning the mastery over this exasperatingly insolent but marvelously seductive mechanism. I relied upon the axiom, “out of sight – out of mind,” to cure the foolish passion which had been awakened with me. “But it seemed otherwise to the gods.” The velocipede wouldn’t stay out of sight. On the contrary, within three days from the taking of my solemn vow to shun the deadly allurements of the rink, it boldly emerged from the decorous concealment of that sawdust-sprinkled sanctum, and began flaunting itself along the city sidewalks. All in vain did I try to chain my thoughts to “the appointed studies of the curriculum,” or to confine my enthusiasm to “Lit. subscriptions and index-checks.” No amount of absorption in books could deaden my ears to the bewitching rattle made by the approaching iron tires upon the bricks; and when I gazed from my study window and actually saw an acquaintance proudly prancing by on a velocipede, my heart was quite gone. The charming spectacle enraptured my soul, and at the same time embittered it. I felt that I, too, must be a rider, or die!” (Kron, 393)

And, a rider he did become. In the following days, Kron spent hours at the gymnasium, first learning to simply balance the cumbersome device, and eventually, after a few days, successfully riding it for over an hour. His next move, of course, was to share his joy with the rest of New Haven by taking the velocipede outside. After a few days of postponement due to bad weather, Kron wheeled around the Green in delight and proudly shared his new found love, exactly as Lallement had done three years prior.

It wasn’t long, however, before Kron’s good time would come to an end, when he made the mistake so many other riders have made: he ventured off the roadway and onto the sidewalk. We may never know why he made this choice. Surely the sidewalk affords comforts and a familiarity that the streets do not. But at the time, there was obviously no motorized vehicles to scare riders off the streets. The only road hazard that comes to mind was horse poop, of which there was an abundance. Horses were the favored, dominant mode of transportation in 1869, much like automobiles today are the darlings of American culture. Most likely, it was because the velocipede, unlike the “safety” bicycle of later years, or even the Penny-Farthing – which was soon to come – was very hard to control. Mistakenly, Kron figured he should be on the sidewalk with such an unpredictable machine. Herlihy recounts Kron’s folly:

“He was driving a velocipede slowly southward along the west sidewalk of Dwight Street on the afternoon of 24 February, when he noticed an old white horse, hitched beside the road, showing symptoms of fright. He dismounted at once. But though the animal was about fourteen yards away, it continued to be actively frightened. It writhed about, made a vain attempt at impalement on the hitching post and then threw it self down. However, it was soon brought to its feet again by some men who ran out of an adjacent carpenter’s shop and appeared to have no injuries. The owner came up. Kron expressed his regrets and offered a payment to cover the probable cost of repairing a wheel of the cart to which the horse was attached: two spokes had been broken in the horse’s attempt to kick itself free. The man accepted a dollar with apparent satisfaction.

The next morning Kron was hailed by an acquantance with the news that the police had been visiting all the velocipede rinks to arrest the student who had scared a horse; and on returning to his lodgings at noon he found that official enquiry had actually been made for him there.” (Woodforde, 30-31)

As you can see, the New Haven Police have always taken this issue seriously. Kron was never arrested, but he was asked to pay for the horse since it later had to be put down. Upon consulting a lawyer, Kron found he could no be held liable, and so he declined to provide compensation. The news of his accident, however, spread quickly and did not go away as easily. In fact, it became a national story and further demonized the velocipede. On February 26, 1869 the New Haven Journal and Courier wrote:

“On Wednesday, a student riding a velocipede, in attempting to cross a street in the upper part of the city, ran into a horse, throwing the animal down, and in attempting to rise the animal breached himself, and it is expected that he will have to be killed. The owner considered him worth 300 dollars, and calls upon the Junior for that amount. So much for the velocipede mania. We expect items of a similar character daily, soon.” (Woodforde, 31).

The incident on the Dwight Street sidewalk in February, 1869 was almost the nail in the coffin for the velocipede in America. Rink usage declined rapidly into the Summer months, and since design flaws still prohibited most road riding, there was no where left to practice, and little desire to either. Negative press persistently undermined attempts at improvement and many inventors simply gave up and happily returned to their former trades. Having lasted only a few years, the young invention was exiled back to Europe where it was more properly nurtured. In England and France, the most obvious kinks were ironed out of the design, and soon afterward it flourished as a vehicle in the high-wheeled (Penny-Farthing) form. It would cross the Atlantic again not long afterwards, and remain to the present, proving to be one of the greatest inventions the world has ever seen. Just, please don’t ride it on the sidewalk.

2 thoughts on “Origins

  1. People should be ticketed for riding on the sidewalk.
    I was walking with my daughter on Elm St (between Temple & College) and hit by some jerk on a bike, narrowly keeping him from hitting my child. He then hollered at ME to watch where I was going. I, knowing the law (I don’t ride on the sidewalk, ever), immediately sought the police and demanded they enforce the law. He could have seriously hurt my child. The law is the law for a reason, in this case, to keep the sidewalk safe for pedestrians.

  2. Right – sidewalks are meant for pedestrians and the roads are meant for bicyclists, horses and, if traffic permits, automobiles.

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