Victorian: Bikes, trikes, and flying machines

The Victorians may be responsible for many of the world’s ills, like post-colonialist political disorder, industrial pollution, and rampant consumerism, but they by gosh knew how to have fun. They were fearless optimists, certain that they could do anything, given enough hard work and imagination. So many of the things we use every day were invented in the late nineteenth century: bicycles, automobiles, airplanes, and more. They’re ubiquitous and we can hardly imagine our lives without them. But what about the also-rans — the inventions that didn’t survive the test of time? Some of them may be worth a second look.

The plot of my latest book, Moriarty Meets His Match, revolves around fraud and financial chicanery, but those topics don’t lend themselves to a jolly blog post. The frauds are perpetrated through sham companies set up to sell hot new products, which were my second source of inspiration. I love the gadgets! Even more, I love the brave, determined people who invented them and tested them on themselves. Here’s to the madmen and their bold inventions!

The spherical engine

This engine wasn’t mad, so much as it was bad, and in my book, dangerous to know. As Moriartyspherical-engine explains in chapter 1, it used more energy than it produced. But it looked so sleek and symmetrical, it seduced people for nearly a decade. Elegance is compelling.

Here’s the scoop from Douglas Self’s Museum of Retrotech (paraphrased). It was invented by M. Beauchamp Tower. The prototype was intended for the direct drive of dynamos (to light lamps, for instance) and had a speed range of 600 to 1100 rpm. A 10-inch engine was reported to consume 37 pounds of steam per BHP-hour. This engine did at least one useful job of work driving carriage lighting dynamos mounted on the locomotives of the Great Eastern Railway. It leaked steam due to packing problems (around the joints). The inventor doubtless hoped that the higher steam consumption would be justified by the smoothness of rotation and the compact geometry. However, potential customers seem not to have agreed, as the Tower engine has left little mark on history.

A vast variety of Velocipedes

These inventions don’t need to be explained; the pictures pretty much say it all. I’m not sure all of them worked — these pictures come from company prospectuses — but some of them ought to be revived.



velocipede circular velocipede sociable velocipede hand crank

A periodical of the day critiqued these new-fangled vehicles. “We should advise the constructors of these new-fangled iron horses on wheels to employ their energies on inventing velocipedes which can be driven alternately with the hands or with the feet. Only under such conditions as these can cycling again become a beneficial form of movement. Moreover, those models which have but two wheels, or even only one, should be rejected absolutely. The constant need to preserve one’s balance may be a source of pleasure to those who are skilled in the art of gymnatistics, but the velocipede can only become an important aid for daily use if models with three and four wheels are designed and built.”

For water enthusiasts

velocipede underwater

The transparent material that forms the sphere had yet to be invented, but its inventor seemed confident that “some transparent, solid and not too fragile material” would be developed any day. How do you get in, you’re wondering? There’s a little door on the top. You have a friendly bystander hold the sphere while you clamber in and get seated. Once in position, your weight keeps it vertical. “The sphere contains more than 140 cubic feet of air; consequently, the sphero-velocepedist will have sufficient oxygen at his disposal for a two-hour trip.” That relieves my chief concern.

For those who worry about those 140 cubic feet, there were over-water options as well.

velocipede overwater

Up where the air is clear

velocipede air

This could be a great replacement for noisy, smelly jet skis, don’t you think? Imagine a lakeside resort without the dull roar of engine noise in the background.


Please, please, someone re-invent these delightful vehicles! I live in a college town and I would go down to campus in the morning just to watch the kids heading into class. And think of the boon to the sportswear companies!

I’ll save the flying machines, the submersibles, the moving stairs, and the electrical devices for another post.


de Vries, Leonard. 1971. Victorian Inventions. New York: American Heritage Press.



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