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Issue 44 - Macmillan Kirkpatrick

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 44
April 2009

 

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Macmillan Kirkpatrick

In the latest of our series of famous Scots, we look to the inventor of the bicycle.

Some inventors feel compelled to keep inventing. Their heads are teeming with ideas and maybe only a fraction of them make it into production. But Kirkpatrick Macmillan is known only for one invention: the pedal-driven bicycle.

Some have cast doubt on whether he was in fact the inventor, another man having taken the credit for many years, but today Macmillan is widely regarded as the first to have had the vision that brought the modern bicycle into being.

Kirkpatrick Macmillan was born on 2nd September 1812 at Keir Mill near Thornhill in Dumfriesshire. He was the son of a blacksmith and picked up much of his father’s trade before becoming assistant to the blacksmith of Walter Scott, 5th Duke of Buccleuch, at Drumlanrig. Macmillan returned to work for his father at Courthill Smithy as a young man and it was here that he completed the first pedal-driven bicycle.

His inspiration came from the simple hobby-horse; a wooden contraption similar in shape to a bicycle but propelled forward by the rider pushing his feet along the ground. It was arguably more an aid to walking than a mode of transport in its own right. Macmillan set out to make himself a hobby-horse and immediately saw room for improvement. He asked himself that crucial question: “what if the bike could be ridden without the rider’s feet touching the ground?” He added cranks and metal rods to connect the rear wheels to pedals, which the rider moved back and forth in a horizontal reciprocating movement.

Propelling yourself forwardin this manner must have been hard work, especially as the whole bike was built of wood and metal, rather than today’s lightweight materials.

But Macmillan was more than pleased with his invention, completing it around 1839 and using it frequently.

He was to become something of a local character, known in his village as Daft Pate and seen ‘speeding’ to and from Dumfries (a distance of 14 miles) in less than an hour. In fact, Macmillan is thought to be one of the first people to be fined for speeding, having ridden 68 miles into Glasgow in June 1842 and run over a little girl, for which he was fined five shillings.

Macmillan appears to have been a modest man, without any particular desire to make great commercial success from his invention. He didn’t patent his new design for the ‘velocipede’, as all such vehicles were then collectively known. A very similar bicycle to Macmillan’s was produced in 1846 by Gavin Dalzell of Lesmahagow, and so many bikes were made and sold that for many years Dalzell was considered the inventor. The design was later improved by Henry Lawson, John Kemp Starley and the Michaux family, adding a chain drive and gears. It was not until the 1860s that the bicycle really became popular, especially in France.

Content with his invention, Macmillan settled into a comfortable country life, never straying far from his birthplace. In 1854 he married Elsie Goldie and they had six children, only two of whom survived.

He was a pillar of the local community, eventually dying as quietly as he had lived, on 26th January 1878. His smithy still stands and has a plaque that reads, “He builded better than he knew.” Information Macmillan’s bicycle can be seen in the Glasgow Transport Museum, 1 Bunhouse Road, Glasgow, G3 8DP Tel: +44 (0)141 287 2720 Courthill Smithy can be found at Keir Mill, Dumfriesshire