The Bone Shaker

Naming new inventions can be a tricky task but, back in the late 1800s, when deciding what to call one of the earliest forms of the modern-day bicycle, inventors arrived at a literal solution: the Latin words vēlōcitās, meaning speed, and pedālis, meaning pedal, were combined into the word ‘velocipede’, which literally translates into 'fast feet', 'foot speed' or 'foot power'.

Only a limited number of velocipedes, also known as ‘bone shakers’, remain in museums and private collections around the world including at the Nelson Provincial Museum.

The frames of the modern velocipedes varied, some had a horizontal frame which straddled the two wheels or, as with the museum example, the frame extends from the handles bars to the rear wheel in a V-shape. The seat on the museum’s velocipede sits on top of the frame like a contemporary bicycle, unfortunately the handlebars are missing. With solid iron rim or solid rubber tyres and no suspension, it is not surprising that velocipedes were nicknamed ‘bone shakers’.

Just over 150 years ago, in August 1869, the Nelson Evening Mail published a story proposing that locally made velocipedes were contributing to “velocipede mania”, also noting that plenty of tumbles had been observed.

In one case, the reporter writes, “The unfortunate man was hurled from his seat as though he had been thrown from a bucking horse instead of from an inanimate piece of machinery.” Clearly the skill of local riders began to improve because a month later, in September 1869, the paper reported men on velocipedes riding from Richmond to Nelson in 55 minutes. Then, on New Year’s Day in 1870, a velocipede race took place as part of the Caledonian Sports; a dispute over second place was contested by a follow-up race from the Trafalgar Hotel (at the corner of Bridge and Trafalgar Street) to the wharf and back, with the winner Henry Wimsett completing the course in 11 minutes and 5 seconds. Wimsett and his brother Thomas were local blacksmiths who reportedly made their own velocipedes for racing.

While we do not know who built the velocipede, we do know that it was made in Richmond in the late 1860s. Frederick William Holdaway (b.14/4/1857, d. 24/4/1895) owned the velocipede in the museum’s collection. Holdaway’s daughter Gladys Alberta Papps (nee Holdaway, b.15/7/1888, d. 26/8/1969) donated the velocipede that belonged to her father to the Nelson Provincial Museum in 1968. It’s possible that Holdaway might have ridden the velocipede. Although they are large and heavy (weighing about 25kg), teenagers in the late 1800s embraced this novel form of transport that didn’t involve a horse.

The earliest versions of a self-propelled vehicle, called a “Dandy Horse” or “Hobby Horse”, were made around 1810. A Dandy Horse was used by straddling the frame and walking while seated like a contemporary “balance bike” for children. As a leisurely contraption for wealthier classes, they were often mocked and ridiculed because they looked so strange.

Dandy horses evolved into velocipedes with the introduction of cranks and levers to propel the vehicle along using either the feet or arms. Various three- and four-wheeled designs emerged for children, ladies, and those with limited mobility. Many were also designed to hold two or more passengers.

The “modern velocipede” then appeared in the late 1860s in France and, a short time later, here in Nelson. Their two-wheel design resembled the original dandy but with the addition of integrated pedals on the axle of the front wheel. The big difference between the velocipede and today's bike was that you pedalled the front wheel directly. But they didn’t necessarily move in a straight line; there are reports that pushing down on each pedal made the velocipede veer in each pedal’s direction.

However, velocipedes were soon considered a safety menace to people and horses with incidents of horses shying from the noise (and vibration) of a velocipede on the road.

In 1883, Nelson City councillor Little resolved that velocipedes be “compelled to carry a whistle or a bell to give notice of their approach, in addition to lights.” Needless to say, similar laws came into effect by 1900 when the first cars started to appear on New Zealand roads but this time to keep cyclists safe.

Velocipedes, as with Penny Farthings, quickly disappeared after the introduction of contemporary bicycles fitted with chain gears, which were first known as “safety bicycles”. Complaints of “cads on casters” continued but this time it was because their “silent” rubber tyres frightened unaware pedestrians and horses.

Then, from the early 1900s, New Zealand embraced the motor vehicle, and the humble bicycle was relegated to the garden shed, until the more recent resurgence of cycling.

PLEASE NOTE: this object is not currently on display. For more information about this object, please contact us.

Subject category

Related objects

Refine Results