1868 Wm Sargent ‘Rink Velocipede’


French mechanic Pierre Lallement took one of the first French velocipedes to America on the steamship ‘City of London’ in July, 1865, in the hope of selling the idea. He found a manufacturing job in Ansonia, Connecticut, assembled his machine, and made a five mile ride to the town of Birmingham and back. In the spring of 1866, he rode it twelve miles to New Haven. This time a journalist recorded the event: “An enterprising individual propelled himself about the Green last evening on a curious frame sustained by two wheels, one before the other, and driven by foot cranks.” As a result, Lallement made a patent application with a backer, James Carroll, in November, 1866.

Unfortunately, the pair were unable to find a manufacturer for the machine, and Lallement returned to France in early 1868. That year, the velocipede was launched in Paris and, as reports of velocipede races reached America, they now became interested in the machine. In summer 1868, the Hanlon Brothers, part of a famous acrobatic troupe, raced velocipedes down an incline on stages across North America, and also rode them outdoors …”followed everywhere by huge crowds anxious to observe the proper method of managing the critters.” Seeing the velocipede’s potential, the Hanlons secured the second velocipede patent by claiming certain improvements including an adjustable crank and seat. They commissioned Calvin Witty, a carriage maker in Brooklyn, to build it.

The cost of making a velocipede was not cheap, so at first companies hesitated. But, in December, 1868, the Pearsall Brothers opened a riding school on Broadway that was an immediate success. Now a demand was established, carriage makers rushed to join the trade and, within a month, the craze had spread across America. By February, 1869, leading makers were turning out fifteen machines a day. Soon after, Calvin Witty, who had built 75 velocipedes for the Hanlons, managed to buy the Lallement patent, and now demanded a patent fee from all builders. But the craze remained popular so makers complied.

Some makers were lucky enough to obtain an actual velocipede so they could create an accurate copy. But others could only use drawings to design their machine, and some of these were cruder examples.

The Hanlon brothers received a new velocipede patent, claiming improvements to the original. They operated riding schools, charging a dollar an hour to hire a velocipede to ride around the rink. These ‘rink’ machines, made by Hanlon and Wm Sargent, were cheaper versions of the French velocipede. They did not have a top spring for mounting the saddle; instead the saddle mounted directly to the backbone. Thus the seat was lower to the ground so that the rider had more control over it – even if his feet were not flat on the ground, he could touch the ground with his toes to balance the machine.

Rinks sprang up everywhere to accommodate demand, in abandoned churches, empty offices, in giant tents. The best riding schools were established in converted skating rinks, with smooth wooden floors. The potential revenue from a rink was enticing. Managers generally charged an admission fee of fifteen cents, and it cost a novice velocipede rider a penny for each minute spent on a machine. Grand events were also held: for example, at the inauguration of the ‘Velocipededrome’ in Jersey City, two thousand spectators heard P.T Barnum the famous showman promote the velocipede. Such was the interest in this new form of individual transportation that some events attracted five thousand spectators or more. Often velocipede races were featured, and trick riders were also popular: in Albany, “five riders mounted a single velocipede, two perched on the shoulders of their companions, made a successful trip across the hall amid the applause of the three thousand spectators.”

However, within a year, velocipedes went out of fashion in America. High patent fees and production costs put off manufacturers, while badly-made unlicensed machines flooded the market. And the expensive velocipedes and exorbitant fees charged by schools to learn to ride them eventually started to put off new customers. In addition, there were many velocipede accidents, and the machine received constant bad press. By spring 1869, the new cycle industry in America went into serious decline …ironically, just as the cycle industry started in Britain.

1868 Wm Sargent ‘Rink Velocipede’

37″ Front Wheel

31.5″ Rear Wheel

Frame No 45

(Now sold)

With frame number #45, this Wm Sargent ‘rink velocipede’ is from the company’s first year of production, made in December 1868. Their range included machines of varying quality and price, and this style would have been a basic model at a cheaper price. Without coasting footpegs on the front forks, and with the seat mounted directly onto the backbone so that the rider could touch the ground with his feet, this is the style of machine favoured by velocipede riding schools. Its backbone is similar to those in the company’s publicity picture below.

This wonderfully-preserved velocipede comes from a museum, and retains its original paint, which is impressive on a 150-year-old bicycle.