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Issue 4 - The wheel thing

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 4
September 2002

 

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The wheel thing

Brigid James goes round and round attempting to unravel which Scotsman really invented that indispensable mode of transport, the bicycle

According to common myth, Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a blacksmith at Courthill Smiddy, Keir Mill, Dumfriesshire, invented the bicycle somewhere between 1839 and 1842. His velocipede was made of wood and had iron-bound tyres, an extremely heavy contraption. It worked through a system of levers at the front of the machine attached to cranks which drove the rear wheels. The real story is not as simple as that however; the inventor of the bicycle will never be known for sure, although there are several contenders.

Let's begin with Macmillan's story. He is said to have been working in the smithy when a hobbyhorse (a bicycle-shaped frame with no mechanism, propelled by the rider using a running motion to push forwards) was brought in to be repaired. Macmillan copied it and used his model for short journeys, with his shoes rapidly wearing out as a result.

Consequently, he added levers to the front which could be used to drive the back wheels. Macmillan undertook an epic journey to Glasgow, supposedly to visit family, on the velocipede. The trip was not without incident, as this piece from the Glasgow Argus on 9th June 1842 reports:

Yesterday, a gentleman, belonging to Dumfries-shire was placed at the Gorbals police bar, charged with riding along the
pavement on a velocipede, to the obstruction of the passage, and with having, by so doing, thrown over a child. It appeared, from his statement, that he had on the day previous come all the way from Old Cumnock, a distance of 40 miles, bestriding the velocipede. The velocipede employed in this instance was ingeniously constructed - it moved on wheels turned with the hand, by means of a crank ...

Unfortunately, the article makes no mention of the man's name, nor are we told whether the contraption he rode had two, three or four wheels, the tricycle and quadricycle already being known.

It is quite possible that the article refers to another, earlier contender for the invention of the bicycle: James Charteris of Dumfries. Charteris, a wood-turner, is reported as having been the builder of a hobbyhorse, and certainly had the
necessary skills to build a velocipede. His nephew, David Johnson, was interviewed for a newspaper article, The Origin of the Cycle, in 1897 and in fact disputes his uncle being the inventor of the bicycle. He explains how Charteris bought a bicycle in Glasgow around 1829 which Johnson rode as a boy, a contraption which he states had two wheels. So could the inventor of the bicycle have been an anonymous Glaswegian? Certainly it is also possible that the man referred to in the Glasgow Argus article could have been Charteris, not Macmillan. And perhaps Macmillan had seen Charteris on his velocipede and copied it.

A Selkirk stonemason, Robert Pow, is also reported as building machines between 1848 and 1850, although his skills would not have been oriented to wood-turning and metalwork.

Dumfriesshire produced a real crop of velocipede-makers, another being Gavin Dalzell of Lesmahagow. There is evidence that he had definitely produced a bicycle by 1846, as reported in The Scottish Cyclist, although of course the work of Macmillan and Charteris precedes this. Thomas McCall, born two miles from Macmillan's smithy, observed Macmillan with his velocipede and copied it, later fulfilling an order for six from a company as well as some individual orders. An example of what is believed to be a McCall bicycle can be seen in the Science Museum in London.

It may seem strange that the south west of Scotland during the 19th century provided such a centre for invention and activity, but at the time Glasgow was known as the 'Workshop of the Empire' and many skilled engineers worked in the city and surrounding region. Macmillan himself had been an apprentice at Napiers, a major shipbuilding and engineering company on the Clyde. A snowball effect may have come into play, with one velocipede, maybe that of Macmillan or Charteris, being observed and copied, setting off a chain of copycat models being made.

Sadly, this Scottish innovation reached an impasse, as, despite the correct assumption that a bicycle should be driven by the rear wheel (unlike a French front-wheel driven invention of the time), the Scottish inventors did not progress from the use of levers and cranks to using a chain. We can, however, be confident that this wonderful invention was the fruit of Scottish innovation.

Thanks to Alastair Dodds, Curator of Transport, National Museums of Scotland