Of fiery steeds…and lunatics

As a regular rider on the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail I have opportunity to pass many different types of bicycles—high tech racers, mountains, recumbents (are they really that comfortable?), hybrids, even tricycles. Occasionally my musings turn to pioneering bicycle styles, such as the high-wheeler or “ordinary” as it were called. How did they ever ride those? Of course, an even earlier type of bicycle was the “velocipede,” a two-wheeled cycle developed in France in the mid-1860s. Due to their rough, unforgiving ride these cycles were aptly nicknamed “boneshakers.” When such bicycles first appeared in the U.S. following the Civil War, some folks tried to duplicate them…

A rare Lakin velocipede now in the collection of the CHS. The wheels are wooden with an iron band. CHS 2013.210.0 Photo copyright Copake Auction.

A rare Lakin velocipede now in the collection of the CHS. The wheels are wooden with an iron band. CHS 2013.210.0 Photo copyright Copake Auction.

…others, however, tried to improve on what was a fairly heavy, clumsy design. One such person was James A. Lakin (1841-1898), a Boston-born Civil War veteran living in the Thompsonville section of Enfield. Lakin was making his living variously as a jeweler and jack-of-all-trades when, in 1868, he produced his version of an improved velocipede. In comparison to the somewhat crude wrought iron frame of the original design, Lakin used available tubular iron components, providing strength with relatively less weight. Oh, and by this time Lakin had been awarded patents for a watch component and, more pertinent to this discussion, two more for home heating components, suggesting he was familiar with use of standard threaded piping and couplings. At the very least he was a man who knew how to creatively work in metal.

Velocipedes typically had wheels of different sizes. CHS 2013.210.0 Photo copyright Copake Auction.

Velocipedes typically had wheels of different sizes. CHS 2013.210.0 Photo copyright Copake Auction.

In April 1869 Lakin demonstrated his velocipede by riding from Thompsonville to Springfield, Massachusetts, and back again in an afternoon, a round trip of something over sixteen miles. A report in the Hartford Daily Courant for April 22 noted that during the 90 minute ride to Springfield he had to dismount and walk the vehicle up several steep hills. Given the fact that velocipedes were pedaled using the front wheel (like a tricycle), without gearing, and that roads were typically unpaved, this is an impressive feat indeed! Lakin soon started manufacturing velocipede kits that he claimed any mechanically-adept person could assemble in a day! Yeah, right! Just like the kids’ toys on Christmas Eve…

But why this history lesson? Well, this is a history blog and, more to the point, CHS recently acquired one of Lakin’s velocipedes at an auction. While the early history of this particular example remains a mystery, we do know it eventually found its way to Michigan, where it was used as decoration in a restaurant. Ultimately it was acquired by a noted bicycle collector in Buffalo and restored. It is a rare survivor indeed, as not many velocipedes were actually constructed in Connecticut, and few bicycles from this period survive at all. For CHS, the Lakin velocipede helps fill in a gap in our collection of bicycles, which already includes examples of the high-wheeler and the later “safety bicycle” ( having two wheels of the same diameter), which style dominates today. The development of the drop frame for safety bicycles in the 1890s finally enabled women (even wearing long skirts) to ride almost as easily as men, but that’s a story for another blog. To me, Lakin’s velocipede is another example of the incremental nature of innovation, the “build a better mousetrap” process, that so typified technological developments in 19th Century America. For the record, Lakin relocated to Westfield, Massachusetts in the early 1870s, where, in addition to plying the jeweler’s trade, he manufactured bicycle components such as cyclometers.

Advertisement for Lakin velocipedes in the Springfield Daily Republican, March 27, 1869. (Velocipede_ad.tif)

Advertisement for Lakin velocipedes in the Springfield Daily Republican, March 27, 1869. (Velocipede_ad.tif)

In view of cycling’s widespread popularity today it may come as a surprise that not everyone thought the velocipede was a good idea. In fact, many early cyclists were subject to good-natured ribbing in the press. The Springfield Daily Republican noted in its April 1, 1870 issue (and I don’t think it was an April Fool’s joke): Our neighbor Lakin, the jeweler, who used to be as notable a master of that fiery steed, the velocipede, as Rarey* was of the horse, actually sold one yesterday. He did, upon our honor! And the man rode off upon it. Have any of the asylums lost a lunatic?

*John S. Rarey was a famous 19th C. “horse whisperer”.

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2 thoughts on “Of fiery steeds…and lunatics

    • Sums it up all right!

      ================================================================== Richard C. Malley / Head of Research and Collections rich_malley@chs.org / (860) 236-5621 x235 Connecticut Historical Society | One Elizabeth Street | Hartford, CT 06105 | http://www.chs.org

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