Cycling Art, Energy, and Locomotion (1889)

Innovations in transportation are “the most powerful factor in the evolution of man”, wrote the inventor and industrialist Robert Pittis Scott in the introduction to his treatise on bicycles, tricycles, and man-motor carriages. He proceeds to quote a “great”, though unnamed, “genius”, who suspects that a day will come when human limbs will “shrivel and drop off”, “being entirely dispensed with in the art of moving and manipulating matter”. And yet, in 1889, cycling heavily taxed the limbs rather than relaxing them to the point of atrophy. This was about to change for the better thanks to the recent development of the first practical inflatable tire by John Boyd Dunlop. While Scott thought the technology “one of the grandest ideas in the way of anti-vibration”, he also aired some doubts over its predilection for “cutting and collapsing” and seemed more enthused by the possibility of a flexible rim which simply buckled its way over obstacles.

Scott peered into the future, and narrowly missed laying claim to it, with his predictions about the Safety bicycle, which sported a rear-mounted chain drive, ball-bearing hubs, a steel frame, and equal size wheels — many of the features now common across cruisers and ten-speeds. Though the initial hundred pages of his book take the high-wheeled Ordinary or “penny-farthing” as standard, Scott was one of the first Americans to sense the potential of a rear-driven design. A millionaire manufacturer of iron fruit-paring devices, Scott had made the overseas journey to Coventry, the world’s leading bicycle-manufacturing city, to commission a custom two-wheeler, which — he would discover with frustration — almost exactly matched the specifications of England's newly unveiled Starley Rover, the first mass-produced Safety bicycle.

At a time when British and American physicians published dire warnings about bicycles causing hernias, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, and “urethral stricture”, Scott reassured his readers that they merely needed to choose the right saddle and suspension springs to keep their spine and pelvic anatomy intact. He championed women’s adoption of the new sport, arguing that “less seraphic and more muscular tissue tends to make us all happier”. As springy as a Brooks saddle on Dunlop tires, Scott’s prose is delightful even when taking up the biomechanics of machine and rider, but it reaches empyrean heights in the book’s second half, which is prefaced by a hysterical self-deprecating account of his own patent application tribulations. Scott arrives on an honest algorithm for hobbyists who misunderstand the mathematics of invention:

Scale of proportional genius required for each department in benefiting mankind (and yourself) by means of invention: 2%, inventing; 7%, getting into shape; 3%, getting American patent; .01%, getting English patent; 10% getting patent through court; 28%, getting the money; 49.99%, keeping it after you get it.

Part II’s whimsical and illustrated tour through the previous century of “man-motor locomotion” pairs technical drawings and brief texts from patent applications with satiric running heads and humorous single sentence reviews of a wild peloton of wheeled contraptions, including: “A Machine-Shop on Wheels”, “Rig-a-Jig-Jig and Away We Go”, “The Power Never Ceases”, “My Kingdom for a Horse”, and “Said Not to Tumble Over”. The book concludes with Colorado machinist Reuben Jasper Spalding’s Da Vinci-esque “Improved Flying-Machine” (Patent #396,984) — christened “The Coming Man” by the author. Scott too spent years experimenting with airships, before training his eye on pneumatic tires. . . for automobiles.

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