The boneshaker bicycle wasn’t the most comfortable form of transport

Published: Wednesday 17th May 2017 by Rich Sutherland

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Hull Museums has a wide array of early modes of transport, including old bicycles. Today we’re finding out about the aptly-named boneshaker.

The invention of the two-wheeled velocipede, later referred to as the bicycle, revolutionised many people’s lives. It allowed millions to travel to different towns and cities to work and visit.

However, many of the early designs were clunky, uncomfortable and a little impractical by modern standards. The boneshaker is no exception.

Designed in 1861 by two French brothers, Ernest and Pierre Micheaux, the velocipede was an upgrade from the old hobby horse-style vehicle. The pair thought that fixing cranks to the front of the original design would make the ride faster and a lot less arduous.

Early forms had horizontal frames, but eventually these human-powered machines had bodies that curved downwards to join at the rear axle.

Unlike today’s cycles, the rider would have to sit on a wooden seat that was mounted separately to the wheels. This would perch on top of a wooden or metal spring and wouldn’t be very comfortable, hence the name boneshaker.

Additionally, rubber wheels hadn’t quite caught on yet, so the bike was very stiff with its wrought iron frame, wooden wheels and iron tyres. The only plus was that the spring supporting the saddle absorbed some of the shocks from rough road surfaces.

Getting on and off these cycles proved tricky too. Some manuals advised that you run alongside the bike and vault to get onto the saddle. You then had to pedal pretty fast to get anywhere due to the size of the front wheel.

On top of all this, you required a lot of strength in your arms to keep yourself straight. Another pitfall was their affordability, as the Micheaux velocipede was not available to the working classes.

Nevertheless, the boneshaker did benefit from a brake. The metal lever pressed against a wooden pad, halting the rear wheel. The vehicle could achieve speeds of up to eight miles per hour.

During the later years of the 1860s, modifications were made to the design to improve rider experience. A step was attached to the frame to allow for easy mounting and dismounting.

Meanwhile, larger front wheels became common to allow users to ride at a reasonable pace with less effort.

The popularity of the boneshaker was short-lived, but it was in favour during most of the 1860s. There was even a boneshaker race, first held in 1868.

The design went out of fashion by the end of the decade and was eventually replaced with the well-known penny-farthing. This had a large front wheel followed by a much smaller rear wheel, so still not the most practical of designs.

Very few originals of the Boneshaker exist today, but one resides in the Hull Streetlife Museum of Transport.

Open Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm and Sundays 11am-4:30 pm, the Streetlife Museum is free to enter.

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Published: Wednesday 17th May 2017 by Rich Sutherland

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