Kirkpatrick Macmillan, inventor of the rear-wheel driven bicycle, died on the 26th of January, 1878.
Kirkpatrick Macmillan was one of the characters of 19th Century rural Scotland and is believed by many to have changed transportation forever when he built the first pedal-powered, rear-wheel driven bicycle, in around 1839. Stories around his invention differ in detail; one version suggests that around that time he saw a ‘hobby horse’ being ridden along a nearby road, while others have it that a customer brought in a ‘swift-walker’ for repair. In either event, Macmillan decided to make a copy for himself.
When it was finished, Macmillan considered the idea of attaching iron rods and foot pedals to the rear wheel. The way he figured, it would be an improvement if riders could propel the machine without having to push their feet against the ground. The rods and pedals would crank the rear wheel and create motion, much like the locomotive, a recent invention at the time. Working at his smithy, Macmillan designed treadles, rods and cranks to supply power to the rear wheel, and built a prototype, which he completed in around 1839 (it might’ve been ’38, ’39 or ’40). His fellow villagers thought him ‘mad’ for dreaming up such an idea but, although known locally as ‘Daft Pate’, he did indeed become the inventor of the first pedal-driven velocipede – the first bicycle as we know it; that is a bicycle with transmission and front wheel steering.
Macmillan’s pedal bicycle – the first of its kind to be ridden with the feet off the ground – was propelled by a horizontal reciprocating movement of the rider’s feet on the pedals. His system used swinging cranks on the front wheel to power a pair of connecting rods that were linked to levers on the rear wheel. The machine had wooden wheels and iron-band tyres, and weighed almost exactly half a hundredweight (56lbs). It was so heavy that he pushed off by striking the ground with his feet and the physical effort required to ride it must have been considerable. However, Macmillan quickly mastered the art of riding his bicycle on the rough roads and was accustomed to making the fourteen-mile journey to Dumfries in less than an hour. Being a natural showman, as befits his nickname, Macmillan amazed townspeople by riding his contraption at top speeds through the streets. But instead of being revered as a great invention, his new ‘hobby horse’ was viewed as a dangerous menace. Macmillan could often be seen crashing into trees and flying over the handlebars.
Macmillan’s next exploit, in June 1842, was to ride his cumbersome machine the sixty-eight miles over rough country roads from his tiny smithy home (incidentally, still intact today) into Glasgow. The trip to visit his two school teacher brothers in the city took him two days. And on the way back to Dumfriesshire he is said to have raced the stage coach. Whilst in Glasgow, the inventor was arrested and later fined five Scots shillings for knocking down and causing a slight injury to a small girl who ran across his path. This incident occurred was he while ‘speeding’ (at 8 mph!) into the Gorbals. Reputedly there was a large crowd gathered excitedly to see what was described as this ‘Devil on wheels’ and no doubt the unfortunate affair could be attributed to the press of the crowd. The magistrate at the Gorbals Public Bar was sufficiently impressed to ask Macmillan for a figure-of-eight demonstration in the courtyard, and is said to have slipped him the money for the fine. So as well as being the inventor of the bicycle, Macmillan can be said to have caused the first road traffic accident in the history of transportation.
Kirkpatrick Macmillan was born the son of a blacksmith in Keir, Dumfriesshire, on the 2nd of September, 1812, albeit lacking an overture to herald the event. He held a variety of positions as a young man, before becoming a blacksmith himself, in 1824, and eventually, much later, returning to work with his father at Coathill (Courthill) Smiddy, at Keir Mill. He pulled teeth for both horses and humans and was a popular fiddle-player at weddings. Kirkpatrick Macmillan died on the 26th January, 1878, and was buried in the Kirk yard at Keir, where he is remembered by a plaque on the Smiddy, which reads ‘He builded better than he knew’.
Macmillan seems never to have thought of patenting his invention or trying to make any money out of it, but others who saw it were not slow to realise its potential, and soon copies began to appear and be sold for six or seven pounds. Gavin Dalzell, of Lesmahagow, copied Macmillan’s machine in 1846 and passed on the details to so many people that for more than fifty years he was generally regarded as the inventor of the bicycle. Macmillan’s early machine can be seen, albeit in reproduction, as the centrepiece of the cycle display at the Museum of Transport in Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall – the oldest bike in existence.
In Macmillan’s hometown of Coathill, the one hundredth anniversary since the creation of his velocipede was celebrated in September 1946 after an eight-year delay caused by WWII. More recently, the Kirkpatrick Macmillan Festival was held in Drumlamrig Castle, near Dumfries. Now, in the 21st Century, there are over 800 million bicycles worldwide, of which more than 300 million are in China, and globally, bicycles outnumber cars by three to one. How green is that?
Of course, there is controversy surrounding the claims for Macmillan. The International Cycle History Conference (est. 1990) would have you believe that all rear-pedal velocipedes were a reaction to the front-pedal velocipede and therefore later. Its earliest, agreed upon date for the origin of the front-pedal velocipede is 1864; attributed to one of two Frenchmen, Ernest Michaux or Pierre Lallement. That infers that Macmillan couldn’t have invented the rear-pedal bicycle a quarter of a century earlier.
However, it seems logical to conclude that rear-pedal bicycles predated front-pedal models, because of one simple attribute – early front-pedal velocipedes were, without question, an improvement on Macmillan’s rear-pedal velocipede, requiring much less effort to crank the wheel and create motion. The pedals on Kirkpatrick Macmillan’s improved ‘hobby horse’ gave the rider a lot more control, but pedalling required brute strength. So it seems crazy to suggest that the rear-pedal velocipede was a reaction to Michaux or Lallement’s ‘Velocè’ (which used technology that is still used in children’s tricycles today). If such was the case, the pedalling action on the Macmillan bicycle would not have been designed with the horizontal reciprocating movement it has.