Feature: Reinventing the Wheel

reinventing-wheel-BT30

Words: Damian Antonio
Illustration: Stephen Haynes
This article originally appeared in Issue #30

The year was 1887. John Boyd Dunlop was doing what is assumed most 47-year-old men in Belfast, Ireland were doing in the late 19th century: sitting on the porch waiting for the pub to open.

He gazed out to the street outside his house. Dunlop Junior was following his doctor’s orders by taking his tricycle for a ride — apparently standard treatment for a head cold at the time. Dunlop watched his son grimace with pain as every bounce of the trike’s solid, rubber tires over the cobblestone street sent a shockwave through his son’s spine and hands.

As a veterinarian, Dunlop had a penchant for relieving creatures of their misery. And this is exactly what he decided to do for his son (though presumably using a different method than that which he would use for a horse with a broken leg). In a moment of brilliance (or laziness), he grabbed the object nearest to him, which happened to be an old garden hose. At the time, he had no idea that the tattered, rubber hose would not only change his son’s life, but also his own and that of millions of others for hundreds of years to come.

Dunlop cut the hose into long strips, glued them to the wheels of the tricycle and inflated them with a soccer ball pump. Both father and son were amazed as Dunlop Junior glided over the cobbles more smoothly and comfortably than ever before. In fact, Dunlop was so happy with the results that he soon fixed wheels of the same design to his own bicycle.

He took his bike down to Cherryvale Sports Ground in South Belfast for a test ride. Also at Cherryvale that day was young William Hume, captain of the Belfast Cruisers Cycling Club. Hume watched on with bemusement and curiosity, as this solidly built man — impeccably dressed in a waistcoat and top hat, the wind splitting his long, white beard down the middle and blowing it back on to either side of his neck – cycled on these strange, oversized, puffy wheels. Little did Hume know that this odd-looking fellow would provide him with an unprecedented competitive edge, and place him forever in the annals of cycling.

Dunlop, however, knew what he had stumbled upon and he rode down to the patent office in late 1888. He queued next to a man who had come up with an inventive way of extracting corks from bottles, and another who had devised a way of extracting drinks from glasses. The latter called his invention the straw. Dunlop quietly scoffed and muttered to himself, “Pfft, that’ll never catch on.”

He soon cycled home on the “pneumatic tires” for which he held the patent…or so he thought. Dunlop wasted little time in establishing his first tire manufacturing plant in Belfast in 1889. And once his tires hit the market, who should walk in to buy the first set? None other than Willie Hume.

Eyeing the opportunity for some free marketing, Dunlop suggested that Hume use the tires at the upcoming Queen’s College Sports competition, to which Hume agreed. On the day of the big event, Hume was ridiculed with vicious taunts such as “sausage wheels.” But he held his nerve to win all four of his races — quelling the naysayers and turning plenty of heads in the process.

One important head he turned was that of William Harvey du Cros, a local paper manufacturer and entrepreneur. He was so impressed with Hume’s success that he approached Dunlop with a business proposition. Dunlop, taken with du Cros’ moxy, accepted his proposal and the pair established the Dunlop Rubber Company in 1890.

With bicycles now commonplace and nicknamed “boneshakers,” and automobiles just coming onto the scene, Dunlop and du Cros’ timing could not have been better. The same could not be said for Dunlop’s fellow Scotsman, Robert William Thomson, who had obtained the patent for his own version of the pneumatic tire 44 years prior. Despite having performed excellently on a group of carriages in London, Thomson’s tires, which he dubbed “aerial wheels,” faced an untenable lack of demand and were put on the shelf.

Once the patent offices around the world caught up with their paperwork, Dunlop’s patent was declared invalid. Fortunately though, he was permitted to continue manufacturing his tires and by 1893, after only three years in production, virtually every butt on a bicycle was thanking John Dunlop for a smoother, faster and more comfortable ride. And they’re still thanking him today.

 

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World War I: Cycling Into Battle

By Damian Antonio. Illustration by Jeffery Alan Love.

cycling-into-battleLast year we commemorated one hundred years since the start of World War I. While the legends of the Western Front and German U-boats are firmly cemented in history, less recognized are the contributions of the humble bicycle to this epic conflict. On August 21, 1914, in southern Belgium, a 17-year old British soldier named John Henry Parr was sent on a mission with another reconnaissance cyclist to obtain information on the German army’s position. While offering covering fire for his comrade, who escaped on his bike, Parr was shot and killed, thus becoming the first British soldier to die in the Great War. More than 700,000 more would follow over the next four years.

The fact that the first man to die was a cyclist is not particularly surprising. Bicycles were regularly used in dangerous missions for scouting, relaying messages and medical evacuations due to their relative speed, silence and carrying capacity. So effective were they that by the conclusion of the war, more than 100,000 Brits were employed as army cyclists (up from 14,000 at the start of the war). In the French and Belgian forces, that number was closer to 150,000.

In fact, almost every army in Europe, as well as a host of others including the United States, contained a bicycle contingent by the end of the 19th century. They had gradually replaced the cavalry units for reasons best explained in the October 1914 issue of Cycling Weekly:

The reasons of the success of the soldier-cyclist are not far to seek. in the first place it must be realized that his mount, unlike that of the cavalryman, is silent in progress. This gives him an enormous advantage over his noisy foe… But silence is by no means the cyclist’s sole advantage. He has a good turn of speed, which is a factor useful alike in attack and retreat… The ability to take cover often spells the difference between victory and defeat, and here the cyclist scores distinctly. He has but to lay his mount down flat upon the ground and it is practically invisible.

In addition, several military strategists noted that unlike horses, bicycles did not need to be watered, fed or rested, they were cheap to produce and training troops to ride them was quick and easy. Cycling Weekly also captured one of the finest examples of the effectiveness of the bicycle-soldier when it described the moment in which the actions of a few British cyclists saved the lives of hundreds of their allies:

In the forest near the German trenches it was believed that a force of German infantry, with machine and field gun, was hidden. Along a road which runs past, French reinforcements were advancing, and unless they were warned would go to total destruction. Who was to warn them? Suddenly, from out of the trees where the English lay hidden, dashed a figure in khaki on a bicycle. He went down when he had only covered a few yards. Another followed him, and he, too, went down, but a third carried on. Riding at full speed across an inferno of fire, with his head bent low over the handlebars, he managed to reach the advancing line of French untouched and to deliver his message of warning.

Bicycles were not simply used as a means of traveling somewhere quickly and quietly, however. While attempts to convert them into actual weapons by mounting machine guns on handlebars and makeshift sidecars ultimately failed, the bicycle did prove to be very adaptable during the war. The French were instrumental in developing folding bikes that could be slung across their infantrymen’s shoulders and deployed when they reached suitable terrain or needed to make a speedy getaway. Bicycle ambulances were created by welding two bicycles together, side by side, and placing a stretcher in between them. Tandem bikes allowed for a primary pilot to sit at the front and a gunner at the rear. And some bikes were rigged to tow machine guns and other small artillery into position.

The bikes, fitted with front and rear carriers, rifle clips and other attachments were cumbersome, inefficient and ill-suited for the rough terrain by today’s standards. Ridden by dedicated troops, however, they proved to be surprisingly effective, as noted here by sir John French, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, when addressing the British House of lords in 1915:

I am anxious in this despatch to bring to your lordship’s special notice the splendid work that has been done throughout the campaign by the cyclists of the signal corps. carrying dispatches and messages at all hours of the day and night in every kind of weather, and often traversing bad roads blocked with transport, they have been conspicuously successful in maintaining an extraordinary degree of efficiency in the service of communications. many casualties have occurred in their ranks, but no amount of difficulty or danger has ever checked the energy and ardor which has distinguished this corps.

The future of bicycles at war Considering the speed at which military technology has evolved over the last century, it is unsurprising that bicycles, as an instrument of warfare, enjoyed a relatively short moment in the sun. Where once they were considered state of the art pieces of equipment, they have largely been superseded by motorized transport that offers greater carrying capacity, firepower and protection for their troops.

They have, however, continued to thrive as a guerrilla weapon in unconventional conflicts, such as in Vietnam and Sri Lanka, where they are used for much the same purposes and reasons as in WWI. The last army to formally disband its cycling unit was Switzerland in 2003. However, some personnel felt that this decision was short sighted and that the humble bicycle still had plenty to offer on the battlefield.

“No one can understand why they are going to abolish us,” said Swiss army cyclist Julian Voeffray in 2001. “It is stupid. Over short distances we are very fast, much faster than the motorized units. We can be very discreet, we are well armed and we perform well against the tanks.”

There are signs that perhaps other militaries are beginning to come around to Voeffray’s way of thinking. Famous bike-lovers, the Dutch, used bicycles during their recent deployment in Afghanistan as a means of carrying out patrols once they felt the situation was safe enough to dispense with their armored vehicles. in a war where, towards the tail end, the focus was more on public relations than firepower, they felt that the bicycles enabled them to build closer relations with the local people.

So if you’re a gun nut and a bike nut, don’t despair; the next generation bicycle-mounted machine gun may well be just around the corner.

 

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