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World’s first cycling faceplant, 1865 (rider wasn’t wearing a helmet, but he didn’t die)

This is a line-drawing of the world’s “first header”, a forward fall from a bicycle. It’s also a line-drawing of the probable creator of the world’s first pedal-operated bicycle. The rider is Frenchman Pierre Lallement. The location is Birmingham, close to New Haven, Connecticut. Lallement is said to have first attached cranks and pedals to a Draisienne ‘dandy horse’ in 1863 and rode this 70lb wooden velocipede on the cobbled streets of Paris. In 1865 he emigrated to America, taking the novel contraption with him. With a co-investor he patented his velocipede. A year later, in Paris, blacksmith Pierre Michaux started selling similar looking velocipedes. Most history books (especially French ones) say it’s Michaux, and his son, Ernest, who “invented” the pedal-powered bicycle. It’s sometimes reported, with no proof, they did so as early as March 1861. However, in an article in Outing magazine of 1883, Charles E. Pratt, co-founder of the League of American Wheelman, credited Lallement as the true father of the bicycle and predicted, wrongly, that Lallement would be “remembered as long as the bipedaliferous wheel continues to revolve.”

Pratt knew Lallement. He knew Lallement because they worked in the same place. Down on his luck (he never made much money from his invention, having sold the patent for a pittance) Lallement worked as a mechanic for the Pope Manufacturing Company, maker of the Columbia bicycle, America’s leading brand of bicycle from the 1880s through to the early years of the 20th Century. Pratt was the patent attorney for the Pope Manufacturing Company, a firm created by Colonel Albert A Pope, the US importer, and then copier, of English high wheel bicycles. Pope was a portly fellow – Pratt called him Colonel Bounce – and an astute businessman. Pope spent many years buying bicycle patents, and then defending them monopoly-fashion, causing rival manufacturers to pay him royalties for all machines sold in the US.

Pratt was therefore a busy patent lawyer. But he was also a writer, an occupation funded by Colonel Pope because Pratt’s writing helped popularise the riding of bicycles. Pratt penned many articles that brought new blood into bicycling, wrote songs about cycling, and was keen on the recent history of this new sport.

As a wheelman, and as a patent lawyer, and as one of the first bicycle historians, Pratt (left) was no doubt keen to tell the story of a patent he was very familiar with: US patent 59915. This had been granted on November 20, 1866, and filed in New Haven, Connecticut. It had been filed by Lallement and an American businessman. It was the world’s first public record for a low-mount two-wheeler that “after a little practice,” said the patent, can be ridden “at an incredible velocity with the greatest of ease.”

It was this velocity that caused the “first header.” Here’s Pratt’s 1883 description of Lallement’s 1865 ride, the first long distance bicycle ride on US soil, on one of the world’s first bicycles:

There lives in Brooklyn, New York, Pierre Lallement…a plain, intelligent mechanic, of about middle age, speaking our language little and brokenly, working industriously at the trade he learned in youth. He is of rather less than medium stature, dark complexion, and sincere countenance, of quiet demeanor, but quick in thought and action. He designed, and put together, and rode the first bicycle.

Lallement came to the United States of America by way of Havre, London and Liverpool…arriving in July 1865. After some stay in New York he went to Ansonia, Connecticut, a manufacturing village in the beautiful Naugatuck Valley, about twelve miles west of New Haven.

He had brought with him the two wheels, a new forged wrought-iron perch, and cranks partly done, from Paris. He completed his work with them in the fall of 1865, completed and finished up his ‘veloce’ and was able to ride it some that fall for exhibition, and to and from the shop where he worked. Soon he essayed a longer road ride, and one that he thought would test the qualities of the machine for road use, and convince the sceptics from whom he had trying to obtain financial aid.

This first bicycle spin proved both interesting and amusing. The route lay through a part of the main street in Ansonia, over a long bridge, and the main country road south, to the thriving manufacturing village of Birmingham (which nestles about a hill, with a fine green near the centre and the main street, and overlook charming villages) and back again – a distance of about four and a half miles.

There had been rains, making rills in the gutters, and a considerable rush of water under the culvert at the foot of the long hill…first reached at the north of Birmingham. Lallement had no brake, and he could not back-pedal. Exhilaration at his easy and rapid approach turned to consternation as his speed quickened to an uncontrollable rush down the slope, and he saw that a
a jogging span of horses, holding back a wagon and two men, occupied the roadway before him, unconscious of his advance.

He yelled to the men, in foreign accent. They gave one look behind at the hurrying monster almost upon them, and whipped their horses to a run. It was too late for Lallement. His wheel, deflected to avoid a collision, struck the edge of the culvert, and careened. The positions of rider and vehicle were suddenly reversed, and the rider still wears the scar of that too impulsive embrace of mother earth.

Our hero of the first “header” gathered himself and his bicycle together, rode on to the main street in Ansonia, stopped at the tavern, and, tilting his machine against a hitching-post, went in. There he found the two men, relating between drinks how they had seen the dark Devil, with human head and a body half like a snake, and half like a bird, just hovering above the ground which he seemed no way to touch, chase them down the hill, and, just as he was about to board their wagon, disappear in the water by the roadside. The bar-keeper was smilingly incredulous, as, with the earnestness of amazement, they assured him it was true.

“I vas ze diable,” exclaimed Lallement, advancing, and endeavoring with scant English and much gesture to explain. But they would not believe him until he had produced and again bestridden the mysterious machine.

In the spring of 1866 Lallement went to New Haven, and there rode his novel vehicle on the “Green,” or public square, and on the streets. There was a tradition that he was once or twice arrested and put in the lock-up in that city, at the instance of irate drivers [i.e. carriage drivers].

Interested wheelmen will perhaps often hereafter take pleasure in visiting the charming valley of the Naugatuck, and pedalling over the first country roadway that knew the sinuous track of the bicycle, and coast the hill of the first genuine header.

World's First Bicycle Headplant, Ansonia 1865

Birmingham – the site of the “first header” – is now part of downtown Derby, and is no longer known as Birmingham. I’ve drawn part of the route of Lallement’s 1865 ride on the 1875 map of Birmingham, above and bigger here. Most of the streets on that map are still there today. The bulbous canal was long ago filled in and is now Pershing Drive, the factory at the base of the picture is now a DIY mall and car park. Local historian Marian O’Keefe, curator for the Seymour Historical Society, believes the “first header” happened on Elizabeth Street, and I’ve marked a possible spot for the crash.

There’s no plaque there to record the fact. However, historian David Herlihy, author of Bicycle: The History, helped get a plaque to Lallement placed in on the town square in New Haven.

Herlihy was the founder of the non-profit Lallement Memorial Committee, which pushed to make sure Lallement is billed as the true inventor of the bicycle. A Boston bicycle path is now named after Lallement (it crosses the point where the Frenchman died, in relative obscurity, in 1891). Not all historians agree with Herlihy, and clearly, Pratt, while familiar with Lallement’s story, may have been swayed in his historical allegiance by his relationship with an employee of the company he worked for.

It’s possible to follow the route of Lallement’s first ride. However, Google Street View shows that it’s rather different from this description of Birmingham from 1880:

This flourishing and enterprising part of the town is located over a mile above Derby Narrows and Birmingham. On the east and west the hills gradually rise from the Naugatuck, forming a picturesque landscape on either side. [The] borough…contains 456 dwellings, capable of accommodating 600 families, but many of these houses are palatial residences and the surrounding lawns beautified with ornamental trees and shrubbery. There are twelve factories, five churches, two banks, thirty-four stores of all kinds, three schoolhouses, three drug stores, three coal yards, four meat markets, and a great variety of shops where different kinds of goods are made and retailed.

The location of Birmingham is picturesque in every point of view; even the rocky, wooded hill to the north-west being pleasant to the sight, and a beacon defense from the wind. The [view] along the brow of the hill to the Ansonia lower bridge, is surpassed for beauty of location by very little inland scenery in New England. Atwater avenue [part of Lallement's route, just before his crash] is being rapidly adorned with beautiful, palatial residences, surrounded by spacious, ornamented lawns…”

If Lallement is accepted as the originator of the bicycle, he was the first cyclist, the first cycle commuter, the first fixie rider, the first to survive a bicycle faceplant, the first to seek “financial aid” by riding a bike, the first to come a cropper from a bike-to-vehicle incident, the first cafe rider, the first cycle chic adherent (he rode in a suit); the first roadie, the first mountain biker (the roads of the area were rough and unmade), the first “scorcher”, the first cyclist to be “locked up” for annoying “irate drivers” and the first to eschew a helmet when riding a bike.

Lallement’s only head protection during that famous first fall was a hat and this flew off when he was catapulted from his machine. The location of his scar is unknown: Pratt didn’t furnish details, although he had clearly interviewed Lallement for his piece in Outing. Pratt was writing just 19 years after Lallement first attached cranks to his ‘veloce’.

michaux stamp 1983In 2016 we will be able to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Lallement’s creation. However, trumping this somewhat, the 200th anniversary of Pierre Michaux’s birth has already taken place. This was organised by French veteran cycle club, L’Union Velocipedique De La Belle Epoque. It took place 28th April to 1st May 2013 in La Chaussee Saint Victor, France. And here’s a photograph from the event, kindly supplied by Stuart Mason-Elliott.

michauzcelebrationStuartMasonElliott

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‘Roads Were Not Built For Cars’ will contain lots of detail on the history of roads, and bicycles. Thanks to advertising and grants the book will be distributed as a free e-book as well as being available as a print-on-demand title later in 2013. In May 2013 the book secured £17,408 in pre-publication funding from a Kickstarter campaign. 648 Kickstarter backers will get the first edition of the book in August 2013.

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2 thoughts on “World’s first cycling faceplant, 1865 (rider wasn’t wearing a helmet, but he didn’t die)

  1. Guitar Ted / Reply May 10, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Have you heard how early high wheelers were fitted with bushings that would eventually seize due to excessive heat and cause headers? I have been told that this was the impetus for the development of ball bearings.

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