Today, we look for the inventor of the bicycle. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I'm so tired of priority
disputes. Ideas rise out of communities of creative
people. Priority is usually meaningless. Take the
bicycle: the first bicycle had two wheels with a
saddle to support the weight of a person walking.
When a German invented it in 1817, it was an
immediate hit. So English and French inventors
tried to claim it for their countries.
By 1867 the Michaux family in Paris was selling a
bike with a brilliantly simple innovation. It had a
crank pedal on the front wheel -- like the tricycle
you rode when you were three.
With that, bicycles became machines that could
really speed personal movement. Chains and
sprockets weren't perfected for another 20 years.
But already, by the late 1860s, the bicycle had
emerged as a practical new medium of personal
Now the plot thickens: histories credit a French
blacksmith, Pierre Michaux, with putting pedals on
bikes. My 1970 Britannica also
mentions a disgruntled mechanic, Pierre Lallement,
who (it says) left Michaux in 1866. He went to
America, where he got a patent for the pedal bike.
The Britannica does everything but
come out and say he stole the idea.
David Herlihy recently sent me a packet about the
Lallement Memorial Committee in Boston, where
Lallement died in 1891. His group has named a
bicycle path after him, and it's working on a
memorial. Herlihy doesn't claim to resolve old
priority disputes. Rather, he seeks to give a very
creative contributor his due.
Lallement began thinking about bicycles in 1862,
when he was only 19. That year he worked for a
company making wheelchairs and baby carriages. An
old ship manifest shows he came to America in 1865,
not 1866. And here he did get the first pedal-bike
The French eventually claimed the Michaux company
had produced 400 pedal bikes in 1865 -- that
Michaux got the idea back in 1861, from a
crank-driven grinding wheel. But records show no
evidence of bike production until 1867 -- two years
after Lallement left.
The old 1911 Britannica was probably
closer to the truth. It hinted that Lallement and a
younger Michaux, Ernest, collaborated. Herlihy digs
into French records and finds two brothers -- both
engineering students -- named Olivier. The Oliviers
seem to have engaged the elder Michaux to run a
bicycle factory for them. The Oliviers probably
worked with their young contemporary, Lallement,
before he came here -- and before they teamed up
So it's an old story. The closer we look, the more
people take part in invention. The French-American
dispute over credit only bends the truth and pulls
us all down. Meanwhile, Boston celebrates this
creative young immigrant. For, however the pedal
bike came into being, Pierre Lallement was
certainly part of it. And he, at the very least,
was first to show America what biking could be.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds