Bicycling Beginnings- Who put on the pedals?

Continuing to delve into the history of biking means continuing to fall into possible theories, but not many verifiable facts. So, as with most of what I’ve spoken about in previous columns, take this one with a grain of salt, because it may be wrong. I realize this may be irritating, and I completely understand if you have a better use for your time. But if you’re sticking around, let’s talk about who built the first mechanically driven bicycle, or who might have. Because like I said, nobody is actually sure. Some think it was a Scottish man named Kirkpatrick Macmillan. Or at least his nephew does.

James Johnston, a rich corn-trader, decided in the 1890s that his uncle invented the first real bicycle 60 years prior, though never documented his work. A shame, since it would’ve made Johnston appear less biased when he said that he had “to prove that to my native country of Dumfries belongs the honour of being the birthplace of the invention of the bicycle.”

There is a documented instance that Johnston points to as evidence of his uncle’s invention. A accident written about in a 1842 Glasgow newspaper reported an unknown “gentleman from Dumfries-shire… bestride a velocipede… of ingenious design” was fined five British shillings for bowling over a pedestrian. Johnston insisted that his uncle was that gentleman. It appears his family, outside of his uncle, was also so certain he invented the bicycle that on a Macmillan memorial stone in a Keir graveyard, thrown in at the bottom just below Kirkpatrick’s name is “Inventor of the Bicycle.” Quite the postscript, especially since my headstone will probably say, “Terrible credit rating.”

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There are, however, enough holes in the story to make it difficult to swallow as fact. For instance, as a blacksmith, it is unlikely Kirkpatrick would be identified as a gentleman in the local newspaper— because no matter how gentle he may have been, he was probably dirty. And while Johnston insisted he had proof for his claims, he never produced any conclusive evidence. Still, because this was such a convincing story to the general public, Macmillan was widely regarded, both in Scotland and neighboring countries, as the inventor of the bicycle for more than 50 years.

Someone who may have copied a design by Macmillan—if we’re giving James Johnston the benefit of the doubt—was a drapery business owner named Gavin Dalzell. Apparently, in 1845, Dalzell used a bicycle to pedal his wares about town. But unlike many other possible inventors, Dalzell never claimed to have come up with the idea. The man had drapes to sell, not credit to steal.

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Finally, by 1869, we have a documented inventor. Thomas McCall, another Scot, designed “two versions of a two-wheeled velocipede with levers and rods tossing a crank on the rear wheel.” The idea of connecting pedals to the back wheel was popular at the time, with up to seven other inventors utilizing the idea within five years or so. Unfortunately, McCall’s inventions were overshadowed by James Johnston. Johnston’s push to attribute the designs to his uncle largely succeeded until fairly recently. But as with most inventions, the real inventor is rarely credited during their lifetime. And credit after death is much more difficult to enjoy.

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