Curator's Choice: The 19th century velocipede boneshaker bicycle in Yorkshire

| 10 April 2014

Curator’s Choice: Jennifer Dunne, Collections Manager at Scarborough Museums Trust, on a bike which is a million miles away from the ones which will visit Yorkshire during the Tour de France this summer

A photo of a woman standing next to a bicycle in a rural area
© Tony Bartholomew / Scarborough Museums Trust
“I’ve just moved to Scarborough after being Collections Assistant for Social History at North Lincolnshire Museums Service.

I’d recently conducted some research into the history of a velocipede held in that collection, so I was delighted to find this lovely example in the Scarborough Collections.

A close up photo of part of the body of an ancient bicycle
© Tony Bartholomew / Scarborough Museums Trust
Cycling is very topical in Yorkshire this year, with the Tour de France’s Grand Départ taking place in the county in June.

When you look at the state-of-the-art cycles those riders have, it’s hard to believe that they’re direct descendants of this – it wasn’t nicknamed the ‘boneshaker’ for nothing.

The velocipede is believed to have been invented in around 1863 by a Parisian blacksmith called Pierre Michaux – hence the French name for it, Michauline.

A photo of a woman standing next to a bicycle in a rural area
© Tony Bartholomew / Scarborough Museums Trust
Originally a maker of parts for carriages, Michaux worked out that adding pedals that acted directly on the front wheel to a previously pedal-less dandy, or hobby horse, made a more energy-efficient machine.

In 1868, Michaux joined forces with three brothers called Aimé, René and Marius Olivier to form a company called Michaux et Cie - Michaux and Company - to mass-produce the Michauline.

The frame had a serpentine design, rather than the diagonal frame more familiar to us today, and it was made of cast iron, rather than the wood of Pierre’s prototype, which made it easier to manufacture on a large scale.

It must have been incredibly uncomfortable to ride for any length of time – the cast iron frame made it heavy, and it had iron-rimmed wheels, which did nothing to improve the suspension. And, of course, most streets were cobbled in those days.

The velocipede had a fairly short-lived period of glory during the late 1860s: it was just so uncomfortable that further developments to the design were made pretty quickly to improve the comfort of the ride.

The penny farthing, with its huge front wheel and much smaller back wheel, was the successor to the velocipede.

I believe the reason that the wheel grew so large was to increase the distance covered by each turn. Apparently it also increased the speed and comfort of the ride as the larger wheel moved across rough road surfaces and cobbles more easily.

Sadly, few original velocipedes survive today – many of them were melted down for use during the First World War, so it’s lovely to have such a complete example in my care at Scarborough.”

  • Remember Scarborough! is at Scarborough Art Gallery from July 26 2014 – January 4 2015. Follow @SMTrust on Twitter.

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A really interesting article! I am impressed at the 'find', and I am sure that it will be of interest to many people! Best wishes for your work, Jennifer!
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