Saturday, March 28, 2015

One-Wheeled Velocipedes and Penny-Farthings - a Circular History of the Unicycle

The History of the Unicycle

Who invented the Unicycle? And when?

Good question.

The History of the Unicycle

It is widely presumed that the unicycle was invented by someone who removed the rear wheel from an old-fashioned “ordinary” or “penny-farthing” bicycle (the one with the with a large front wheel and small rear wheel).  The suggestion is plausible.  There were, in fact, riders who reportedly converted two-wheelers into one-wheelers by removing the rear tire:

Mr. O. H. Whetmore, the champion amateur fancy bicycle rider of the country . . . does feats which appear incredible, until they are actually accomplished before the eyes of every one.  In the parade he removes the small wheel from his bicycle, and presents the singular spectacle of a man ambling along, mounted on top of a big wheel.

The Springfield Globe-Republican (Springfield, Ohio), June 21, 1885, page 5.

Other sources note that Alfredo Giovanni Battista Scuri of Turin, Italy (variously described as a gymnastics coach[i] or circus performer[ii] - perhaps both) received an early patent on a unicycle.  Legend has it that Scuri “invented” his unicycle when his bicycle broke in half during a performance; he completed the show on one wheel; Eureka! [iii]  Whether the story is true or not, the express language of his patent suggests that there was already a whole “class of velocipedes” with one wheel, even before he received his patent:

My invention relates to improvements in that class of velocipedes called “monocycles,” in which one wheel is employed, that serves both as a propelling and steering wheel. . . .

G. Battista Scuri, US Patent 242,161, May 31, 1881 (filed April 7, 1881).

And, in any case, the earliest images of unicycles appeared more than twelve years earlier:

Scientific American, Volume 20, Number 7, February 3, 1869, page 101.

If anyone deserves specific credit, by name, for “inventing” the unicycle, it may be Frederick Myers, of New York City.  He received the earliest known patent on a unicycle on March 2, 1869; just a few weeks after a unicycle appeared in Scientific American.  Patents at the time were not marked with the filing date, so it is difficult to determine when the patent was filed, or when he conceived his unicycle; but it seems likely that it could have been before the earlier image from February:

My invention is designed to provide a velocipede capable of supporting a rider upon one wheel, and being propelled by the power of the rider, applied to the axle of the said wheel by his feet, through the medium of a treadle-mechanism, the rider being supported on a saddle, at or near the top of the wheel, in a manner similar to that of the two-wheel velocipedes now in use.

F. Myers, US Patent 87,355, March 2, 1869.

Although his patent is the earliest, Myers was not the only person working on one-wheeled velocipedes; and it is not clear that Myers’ design was the first unicycle.  His design appears fairly complex; not at all like the simple concept of a seat, pedals and a wheel one might expect from the first of its kind.  

Scientific American described the "one-wheeled velocipede" as "an English invention," but without naming an inventor.  The unicycle illustrated in its February 13, 1869 issue (shown above), looks more-or-less like a modern unicycle; but with a twelve-foot diameter (nearly four meters) wheel and pedals with "stilts," enabling a rider to pedal the gigantic wheel.  With a large wheel, and cadence of 50 revolutions per minute, the inventor expected the contraption to reach speeds of up to twenty-five miles per hour.  Presumably, this large-wheeled, stilt-pedal unicycle was a modification of an earlier, simpler model.  

By the end of 1869, the United States patent office had issued more than a dozen patents for various kinds of one-wheeled unicycles or monocycles. 

In any case, the physics of bicycles focused the attention of engineers on two likely avenues of progress; a larger front wheel, and fewer wheels.  In the late 1860s, velocipede pedals were generally direct-drive pedals; attached to the hub of the front wheel, with no gearing and no chain drive.  A larger front tire promised higher speeds; and using fewer wheels promised less friction and greater efficiency:

Undoubtedly the fewer the mechanical appliances interposed between the power and the proposed result – the force exerted and the force delivered – the more satisfactory will be product of the two elements.  This theory is specially applicable to the velocipede.  Four-wheeled vehicles propelled by the physical power of the rider are old; the three-wheeled carriage is more modern; the two-wheeled vehicle, now so popular, may perhaps be compelled to make way for the one-wheeled contrivance; and surely this latter is bringing the theory of wheel-riding to its ultimate – perhaps carrying it beyond its proper limit.

Scientific American, Volume 20 (n.s.), Number 14, April 3, 1869, page 221.

The same article suggests that both unicycles and high-wheeled “ordinaries” were already in existence.  In the article, “Soule’s Simultaneous-Movement Velocipede,” which looked, more or less, like a modified “penny-farthing,” was described as, “in effect a unicycle”:

The machine shown in the accompanying engraving is, in effect, a unicycle, the small following wheel being only one point of suspension for the reach, and acting only as a truck or friction wheel. . . .  The reach supporting the seat is hinged to the lower end of an upright pivot secured in a yoke at the top of the forked brace, the lower end of which are boxes for the reception of the ends of the driving-wheel axle.  This arrangement allows the wheel to be guided to the right or left, and also to be projected under the seat of the rider, or further in front.  By this arrangement, when great speed is desired and the state of the rode will permit, the rider may bring the wheel directly under him, and in descending grades he can project it in front to guard against the danger of being thrown over.

Scientific American, Volume 20 (n.s.), Number 14, April 3, 1869, page 221.

Evening Star (Washington DC), March 15, 1869.
The caption of a picture of a velocipede published in January, 1869, suggests that one-wheeled velocipedes were one of many types of velocipedes with anywhere from one to four wheels:

The Plymouth Weekly Democrat (Plymouth, Indiana), January 28, 1869, page 4.

Further evidence that the concept of a unicycle, if not actual unicycles, may have been fully developed and well-known before 1869 comes from an unlikely source; a book of comic poetry published in 1869 (apparently in January 1869).  The book includes two poems, written in a mock-German-American dialect; both poems are about unicycles; and the illustrations show the familiar form of a simple unicycle:

Herr Schnitzerl make a philosopede,
   Von of de pullyest kind;
It vent mitout a vheel in front,
   Und hadn’t none pehind.
Von vheel vas in de mittel, dough,
   Und it vent as shure ash ecks,
For he shtraddled on de axel dree
   Mit der vheel petween his lecks.

Charles G. Leland, Illustrations by Frank Beard, Hans Breitmann und His Philosopede, New York, Jesse Haney, 1869. [iv]

But which was first? We may never know.  The “ordinary” or “penny farthing” was certainly more successful.  High-wheeled bicycles dominated the market into the 1880s, when chain-drive “safety” made riding safer, easier, and more accessible.  Although unicycles are known to have existed since as early as 1869, the first indication of their widespread use is in the mid-1880s.

Memphis Daily Appeal (Tennessee), April 22, 1869.

The Charleston Daily News (South Carolina), April 20, 1869.

Unicycle Exhibitions

In October of 1884, for example, the Capital Bicycle Club of Washington DC held a bicycle tournament:

Messrs. Dinwiddie and Seely then gave a wonderful and thrilling exhibition of skill and courage in the management of the “monocycle.”  The exhibition was a novel one, unsurpassed perhaps in the world, and called forth enthusiastic applause.

The Evening Critic (Washington DC), October 18, 1884, page 4.

In the spring of the 1884, Professor W. D. Wilmot, of Boston, Massachusetts, toured the American West, giving exhibitions in from Omaha, Nebraska, to Bozeman Montana, Fargo, North Dakota and Minneapolis, Minnesota, and presumable places in between.

In Omaha:

An old lady remarked: “If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it; but there goes a wheel running away with a man.”  This fact was demonstrated last evening by Mr. Wilmot removing the saddle, backbone and small wheel, and riding the large wheel, or monocycle, around the rink.  Mr. Wilmot wears a medal given to the champion bicycle rider of the world. 

Omaha Daily Bee, March 17, 1884, page 5.

In Montana:

The skating amphitheatre was crowded last night to witness the performance of Prof. Wilmot on the bicycle. . . .  The feats performed were simply remarkable, chief among which was the riding of the single wheel, and that without any seat. 

The Bozeman Weekly Chronicle (Montana), May 7, 1884, page 3.   

More than 500 people turn out nights at Helena to witness the wonderful feats of Prof. Wilmot on the monocycle and the byccicle race with Armitage.  A mile was made in 3:51.

St. Paul Daily Globe (St. Paul, Minnesota), May 8, 1884, page 2.

In North Dakota:

Wilmot exhibition in Bismark.  The highlight was riding the “single wheel or monocycle, made by running the rear wheel, back-bone and saddle, and thus riding around the rink as, as has been aptly said, ‘without visible means of support.’ Prof., Wilmot is indeed “a cuss on wheels” and has a just claim to the championship in bicycle riding as far as heard from.”

Bismarck Tribune, May 16, 1884, page 8. 

The spate of unicycle exhibitions in the United States followed on the heels of exhibitions given in Europe one year earlier:

Mr. Sari of Milan [(is “Sari” the same person as “Scuri” who received a patent in 1891?)] is said to be a skillful monocycle rider.  He astonished a select circle of amateur riders in Paris recently with an exhibition of surprising feats.  Several Parisian riders have endeavored to obtain a mastery of the monocycle, but only one has succeeded in any marked degree, and there is said to be only one skilful rider in England.

The Sun (New York), January 28, 1883, page 6. 

Although unicycle riders astounded the crowds in the early 1880s, unicycles actually date to the dawn of modern cycling, in 1869.

1869 – the Dawn of Modern Cycling

The first indication of the existence of unicycles follows close behind the first, successful two-wheeled “velocipedes.”  A German Baron named Drai invented a two-wheeled laufmaschine (literally, “running machine”), or “Draisine,” in about 1817.  The Draisine was operated by running on the ground and coasting (imagine a caveman motorcycle or child’s Like-a-Bike).  At some point during the early 1860s, someone (most likely a Frenchman named Lallement; although that is under dispute) attached foot-pedals and a crank to the front wheel of an old Draisine, resulting in the first pedal-powered bicycle.[v]  Lallement received a patent for his invention in 1866.  By 1869, there was a full-on bicycle craze in the United States.

But it all started in France:

Improvement in the Velocipede. 

Within a few months the vehicle known as the velocipede has received an unusual degree of attention, especially in Paris, it having become in that city a very fashionable and favorite means of locomotion.  To be sure the rider “works his passage,” but the labor is less than that of walking, the time required to traverse a certain distance is not so much, while the exercise of the muscles is as healthful and invigorating.  A few years ago, these vehicles were used merely as playthings for children, and it is only lately that their capabilities have been understood and acknowledged.  Practice with these machines has been carried so far that offers of competitive trials of speed between them and horses on the race course have been made.

Scientific American, Volume 19 (n.s.), Number 8, August 19, 1868, page 120.

Although the bicycle was relatively new in 1869, it had already been used and improved.  The Hanlon Brothers, a well-known acrobatic troupe, received their first bicycle-related patent in July of 1868, for an improved seat and adjustable crank:

Scientific American, Volume 19 (n.s.), Number 8, August 19, 1868, page 120.

 A number of other "improvements" never quite caught on:
Scientific American, June 12, 1869.

Scientific American, May 29, 1869, page 337.

Scientific American, March 6, 1869 - Ice Bike.

Scientific American, March 6, 1869.

Scientific American, April 10, 1869, page 228 - a bicycle built for two.

One-Wheeled Velocipedes

The velocipede craze motivated numerous engineers to look for the next big thing.  Many of their proposals required only one wheel.  Many of these unicycles, often called “monocycles,” had the rider sitting inside the wheel.  Several of the designs look pretty cool; but I imagine none of them worked very well (this motorized one might be more practical).

My favorite one of the lot is Hemmings’ “Unicycle or Flying Yankee Velocipede,” which was featured in Scientific American in March of 1869:

Several others also looked pretty interesting:

One-wheeled, sit-on-top unicycles are even older than the earliest sit-inside models.  The earliest I have found is a proposed design from from England, in February 1869:

The Sun (New York), February 4, 1869.

Two days later, a newspaper reported that:

A man in Dayton, Ohio, has invented a velocipede with one wheel.  The only fault found with it is that it can’t be made to go.

Vermont Daily Transcript, February 6, 1869, page 2.

The article, however, is silent on whether it was a sit-on-top or sit-inside unicycle.  In any case, it doesn’t seem to have worked very well.  But others were also working on one-wheeled machines.
Frederick Myers received his patent on March 2, 1869.  Thomas Ward, also of New York City, received a patent on April 6, 1869.  Ward’s unicycle looked more like a modern unicycle; and the text of the patent suggested that such one-wheeled velocipedes were already known:

The invention relates to certain improvement on that class of one-wheeled velocipedes in which the driver’s seat is arranged above the wheel, it being pivoted to the axle of the same.

Thomas W. Ward, US Patent 88,683, April 6, 1869.

But the question remains; did these innovators modify a pre-existing “ordinary,” or did they jump straight to a unicycle, in order to reduce friction and increase efficiency.  The answer depends on when such high-wheeled bicycles, themselves, were invented.  Unicycles were known to exist, or at least the concept of a unicycle existed, as early as February, and perhaps January, of 1869; and likely earlier.  So, when was the high-wheeled “ordinary” invented?

Most sources credit Eugene Meyer of France with inventing high-wheeled bicycles in 1869.  Meyer received a patent on individually adjustable wire spokes in August 1869, which made large wheels lighter, stronger and more practical:

Although makers had understood all along that larger wheels would improve gearing and enhance speed, they found that wooden wheels simply could not be safely constructed beyond about forty inches in diameter.

David V. Herlihy, Bicycle: the History, Yale University Press, 1869.  
The picture of “Soule’s Improved Velocipede,” for example, showed a high wheel in April of 1869.  Although Soule reportedly claimed that his design had, “advantages over the ordinary two-wheeled vehicle,” it is not clear whether “ordinary,” in that context, referred to earlier high-wheeled bicycles, or to any earlier two-wheeler.

The concept of unicycles (if not actual unicycles) predates Eugene Meyer's wire-spoke patent by at least six months.  And, at least one fictional, if not functional, unicycle even predates Frederick Myer's early unicycle patent.  Illustrations of the fictional unicycle show a fully-realized, simple design.

Hans Breitmann’s Philosopede

Among modern-day “Witches,” or practitioners of the Wiccan religion, Charles G. Leland is a sort of prophet.  In 1899, he published one of Wicca’s standard texts, Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches.    He gathered the material for the book from a “witch informant” in Italy, where he had lived since 1888.  But long before he moved to Italy and became a devotee of Stregheria, he was a famous writer; famous mostly for his Hans Breitmann Ballads; stories and verse written in a mock German-American dialect.

The first of the Hans Breitmann ballads Hans Breitmann's Bardy (Party), was published in about 1857.  His first collection of ballads, Hans Breitmann's Party, with Other Ballads, came out more than a decade later, 1868.  The collection appears to have been a success.  His second collection of verses, Hans Breitmann's Christmas, which was available for purchase as early as May 1869, included Schnitzerl's Philosopede, in two parts, without illustrations.  The two parts included a brief prologue (Brolock!) and a longer poem, Hans Breitmann and His Philosopede.  

The prologue appeared at least as early as February 12, 1869; and appeared in numerous newspapers and periodicals during the following months.  Scientific American published the prologue, as Hans Breitmann's Shtory About Schnitzerl's Philosopede, crediting the New York SunAlthough the New York Sun from that period is available for online search, I have been unable to determine the date on which it appeared in The SunThe Sun, coincidentally (or not?), is also the newspaper that printed Scientific American's image of a one-wheeled velocipede more than a week before the date of the issue in which it appeared in Scientific American (did Scientific American release their issues before their nominal publication date; or had they shared the image with The Sun before release?).  The editor of The Sun is mentioned by name in the closing lines of Part II of the poem; perhaps suggesting some connection.
At some point, Parts I and II were published together, in one volume with illustrations, as Hans Breitmann und His Philosopede.  It is not apparent whether both parts were published together before the prologue was widely published on its own, or whether Part II was added later, and published later. Although the title page of the book simply lists the year of publication, 1869, an advertisement located near the back of the book suggests that the book may have been published as early as January, 1869:

The extensive circulation and great popularity which Haney’s Journal has attained, and the general desire of our readers, encourage us to announce that, with the January No., 1869, it will be Enlarged to DOUBLE its present size . . . . 

The same advertisement appears in a separate book published in 1868, and in a a magazine dated in October 1868; consistent with a book published in early 1869.

If the book actually was published in January 1869, the concept of a unicycle (if not actual unicycles), dates to the beginning of 1869, if not earlier.  If the "ordinary" was invented any time after January 1869, the concept of a unicycle may actually precede the "ordinary". 

The book is a work of art, so it is difficult to judge whether it is a case of art imitating life, or vice versa.  But the illustrations in the book clearly show a simple, workable design for a unicycle; a wheel, pedals, a seat, and handlebars.  If unicycles did not exist before this book was published, it could certainly have inspired someone to build one.

Part I, the Brolock! (Prologue), is a short poem about a man named, Schnizerl; he builds a unicycle – and dies a horrible death:

So vas it mit der Schnitzerlein
   On his philosopede.
His feet both shlipped outsidevard shoost,
   Vhen at his extra shpeed.
He felled upon der vheel of coorse?
   De vheel like blitzen flew!
Und Schnitzerl he vos schnitz in vact,
   For it shlished him grod in two.

Part II is an epic poem about Hans Breitmann and the unicycle he builds after Schnitzerl's gruesome death.  Schnitzerl shows him how; his ghost draws him a picture with his disembodied hand:

Breitmann builds the unicycle, rides it around town, falls down, gets up, demonstrates its potential for high speed, runs into a tree branch and rolls down a hill.  Surprisingly, he did not break any bones:

He rollet de rocky road entlong,
   He pounce o’er shtock und shtone;
You’d dink he’d knocked his outsides in,
   Yet nefer preak a pone.

A group of doctors pump him full of schnapps and suggest all manner of ridiculous cures. When Breitmann recovers, they all take the credit. 

In the end, Breitmann discusses the potential military application of the unicycle with “Dana of the Sun” (Charles Anderson Dana, owner of the New York Sun newspaper).

The punchline of the book comes in the final lines and its final illustration:

Dey dalk in Deutsch togeder,
   Und volk say de ent vill pe
Philosopedal changes
   In de Union cavallrie.

Gott help de howlin safage!
   Gott help de Indi-an!
Shouldt Breitmann choin his forces

General Sheridan on a Unicycle.

The poem was topical; General Sheridan had been fighting Indians in the West since 1866.  During the winter of 1868-69, he was in the middle of prosecuting a campaign against the Cheyenne, Kiowa and Comanche tribes.  

General Sheridan in Uniform.

I seem to remember a balloon ascension in F-Troop; but no unicycles.  The Buffalo Soldiers’ bicycle trek from Missoula, Montana to St. Louis was real, but much later (1897).


The invention of the unicycle grew out of the velocipede craze of 1868-1870.  Unicycles may have been invented independently of high-wheeled "ordinary" or "penny-farthing" bicycles; the earliest images, descriptions and patents for one-wheeled velocipedes predate Eugene Meyer's wire-spoke patent by at least six months.  Although it is possible that the first unicycle may have resulted from someone removing a rear wheel from an early high-wheeled bicycle, it seems equally likely that it was invented independently, perhaps by an unnamed Englishman (if Scientific American is to be believed), in an effort to improve the efficiency of the velocipede in accordance with well-known physical considerations. 

UPDATE: May 24, 2015.
The term, "monocycle" appears in a French patent issued to M. Hamond in 1832.  The brief notice of issuance describes the monocycle as a vehicle (voiture) with one wheel. See J.B. Duvergier, Collection complète des lois, décrets d'intérét général, traités interanationaux, arrêtés, circulaires, instructions, etc. , Année 1832, Paris, Société du Recueil Sirey, 1833, page 382.  Although the notice does not clarify whether it related to a horse-drawn vehicle or self-propelled vehicle, it seems likely that it was a horse-drawn vehicle.

The French website, ParisVelocipeda, mentions Hamond's "monocycle" in an article about the history of tricycles.  Although the word "tricycle," for a three-wheeled velocipede, dates to 1868, "tricycle" was used to describe three-wheeled, horse-drawn vehicles.  "Monocycle" is mentioned as another velocipede-related word that had been used much earlier for a different technology.

[i] Christian Eckert, Geschichte und Erfindung des Einrades (History and Invention of the Unicycle)
[iv] The first poem in the book, entitled Brolock!, appeared in the February 13, 1869 issue of Scientific American under the title, Hans Breitmann's Shtory About Schnitzerl's Philosopede, credited to the New York Sun.  The same poem was also reprinted in numerous other newspapers, under the title, Schnitzerl's Philosopede, as early as February 12, 1869 (Perrysburg (Ohio) Journal.  It is not clear whether Schnitzerl's Philosopede preceded Breitmann's Philosopede (in book form, with both poems), or came later; although a comment in an advertisement in the back of the book (a reference to the January issue of Haney's Journal) suggests that the book may have been published as early as January 1869.
[v] Carsten Hoefer, A Short Illustrated History of the Bicycle, page 3 (