Wheels of history

By now, it's a given that I like riding bikes. OK, I love riding bikes. So when the opportunity arose to try out early versions of pedaling machines, I jumped at the chance.

My daughter, Sophie, is the communications manager at Owls Head Transportation Museum in Maine. If you've never visited this outstanding place of history, please go.

Anyway, the museum introduced a new exhibition in June titled "Fads and Failures." Quoting directly to explain the show, OHTM states, "Fads and Failures explores the origins of innocuous inventions destined to die upon arrival and cutting-edge oddities that laid the groundwork for other ideas to flourish later on. From curious contraptions to motorized machines, this exhibition utilizes these popular, yet often misunderstood pieces to activate imaginations and generate opinions."

And, because of my personal connections, I climbed aboard on two of the exhibit's "bikes" prior to the opening. It was back to basics on these rides. No bike computers. No wireless shifting. No light-weight carbon. No double or triple chainrings. No front or rear derailleur. Not much of anything. Just simple and sweet, and tons of fun.

Colson Juvenile Wheelchair

Sometime after the Civil War, the concept of wheelchairs, then known as "invalid chairs," began to shift from transport for the disabled and immobile to a vehicle for independence. Wheelchair manufacturers started changing their designs so users could be drivers instead of passengers. Moving the small steering casters from the rear to the front permitted users to get over curbs or other obstacles on their own. Manufacturers also changed from wooden parts to steel and other metals for greater durability.

Riding the Colson at Owls Head Transportation Museum in Maine.

Originally operating as a bicycle manufacturer, the Colson Corp. of Elyria, Ohio, began making wheelchairs after World War I. By adapting their bicycle parts to wheelchair manufacturing, the company could sell products to those who wanted the independence of a bicycle, but could not maintain the balance or strength to ride one.

The wheelchair I rode, the MK-109 "Fauntleroy," was designed specifically for polio survivors, who were left with weak or paralyzed muscles and limbs, particularly the legs. The Fauntleroy was intended to help polio survivors since they could use the hand levers and the pedals to power the chair. To turn, riders could steer the front wheel by twisting the handle of the right lever.

While chairs such as the Fauntleroy could provide both physical therapy and increased independence, few could afford them. Produced only during the Great Depression, the cost of Colson wheelchairs ranged from $120-151. This equals nearly $3,700-$4,730 in 2018 dollars.

1885 Tricycle

Cycle builders, like Quadrant Cycle Company in Birmingham, England, saw tricycles as a chance to expand the market from tens of thousands of riders into millions. Unlike today, tricycles were for adults, not children. They were easier to mount than the high-wheeler bicycles, their riders didn’t have to worry about balance the way they would on what we now consider a "normal" bicycle and women could ride them with little danger of catching their heavy skirts in the gears. Queen Victoria purchased two tricycles for the British royal family, giving them a seal of approval from one of the world’s most powerful women.

"Zooming" around on an 1885 Tricycle Velocipede at OHTM.

Many tricycles had seats and pedals for two riders — tandem with one person in front of the other or "sociables," which had side-by-side seats. Both were popular with siblings, friends and couples. In 1885, a young couple from Philadelphia wrote a book about their riding tour of England on a tandem tricycle. Then as now, there were hostile horse-drawn carriage drivers and dogs that gave chase, but also many other cycling tourists, some on high-wheelers and some also on tricycles. Cycling clubs were springing up in many countries, and the locals were gradually becoming accustomed to these strange, horseless contraptions.

In 1885, the same year that Quadrant made the Tricycle Velocipede that I rode, the first safety bicycles were produced. Revolutionary, they offered the standard frame design still seen today. By mounting the pedals on gears linked by a chain, the wheels of the bike could be made much smaller and were easier to control. Within a decade, an explosion of safety bike sales had doomed the adult tricycle.

(Editor's note: Thank you to the folks at Owls Head Transportation Museum for letting me ride and for providing the text and information on the two "bikes.")

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