On April 4, 1866, Pierre Lallement did something no one else in North America had ever done before, something that would literally change the world — he went for a bicycle ride.
On a bicycle he had engineered, Lallement is believed to have pedaled from his home in Ansonia to New Haven. The ride was a demonstration for a patent application he was pursuing, but was so outlandish it caught the attention of the press.
“An enterprising individual propelled himself about the green last evening on a curious frame sustained by two wheels following each other, and driven by foot-crank,” reported a somewhat befuddled uncredited writer for the New Haven Palladium, a local newspaper.
A few months later on Nov. 20, 150 years ago this month, Lallement was awarded a patent (below) for his invention.
Lallement’s historic ride and contribution to history were almost entirely overlooked until his story was rediscovered in the early 1990s by David Herlihy, a historian and author of Bicycle: The History and The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance.
“In my view, he really is the inventor in the sense that I think he is the spark plug; he is the guy who really makes the great breakthrough,” Herlihy says of Lallement.
Predating the true bicycle was a device sometimes called the dandy horse, a two-wheeled, bicycle-like vehicle that did not have pedals and came on the scene around 1818. “It was kick-propelled and sort of a scooter thing,” Herlihy says. “In my view, that’s not really a bicycle because it was billed as an aid to walking.”
Lallement was born in Pont-à-Mousson, France. According to his later recollections, he had the idea for a bicycle after seeing a dandy horse in action. He was about 18 at the time and working in the carriage industry. Lallement’s bicycle had pedals attached to the front wheel hub. He taught himself to ride it within a narrow corridor, where he could use his hands to steady himself, at the carriage shop where he worked. Lallement’s description of learning to ride a bicycle is one of the reasons Herlihy finds Lallement’s accounts credible, as he was able to confirm there was a long hallway at the shop where Lallement worked.
Lallement developed his prototype while living and working in Paris. It is there where the story gets murky. For reasons that are not clear, in July 1865, about two years after arriving in Paris, Lallement moved to the United States and ended up in Ansonia. It was in America and not France where he filed his bicycle patent.
While Lallement’s patent is the earliest bicycle patent awarded anywhere, he is not the first to start selling a bicycle, because he had trouble finding a manufacturer. In the spring of 1867, a year after Lallement’s ride around the New Haven Green, the Michaux company in Paris began selling bicycles that Herlihy explains were “nearly identical in form to the machine depicted in Lallement’s patent, with a few added accessories such as a brake.”
In the traditional history of the bicycle that ultimately emerged over the years, Michaux co-founder and namesake Pierre Michaux is given credit for inventing the vehicle, and Lallement is cast as an unscrupulous former employee who stole the idea and brought it to America.
“Michaux claimed that he had a patent, but as it turned out, he didn’t,” Herlihy says. “The French gave Pierre [Lallement] kind of a bum rap. They painted him as this imposter that had walked off the Michaux assembly line and had stolen the idea, but none of that adds up when you look at the facts.”
It’s unclear if Lallement ever worked at Michaux, but Herlihy believes the Frenchman probably knew the founders of the company. He believes Lallement is the true inventor for a number of reasons. First, the history of the Michaux company that ultimately emerged is full of inaccuracies; second, through Herlihy’s research he was able to verify several key points in Lallement’s version of events, including the April New Haven ride; finally, and perhaps most importantly, Michaux never challenged Lallement’s patent.
“They certainly had the opportunity to discredit the Lallement patent, and they didn’t,” Herlihy says.
Bicycles became more widespread when the high-wheel bicycle, aka “penny-farthing” or “ordinary,” was commercially developed in Britain in the 1870s. This is the bicycle most people generally think of when they think of historical bicycles. It had an almost cartoonishly large front wheel, with a much smaller back wheel.
By that point, Lallement had sold the rights to producing his bicycle to another transportation pioneer with ties to Connecticut named Albert Pope. Inspired by the English bicycles, Pope began mass-producing U.S. bicycles in Hartford (though he lived in Boston). Pope’s company later went on to manufacture early motorcycles and automobiles in Connecticut.
Pope hired Lallement to work for him for a time, but his tenure with the company was short-lived. Considering the impact of his invention, Lallement did not enjoy much glory. “I think he took pride in what he had done, but it doesn’t seem to have benefited him much financially,” Herlihy says.
Impoverished and alone, he died of stomach cancer at age 47 while living in Boston.
But Lallement has not been forgotten.
Herlihy has campaigned successfully to have a commemorative plaque installed by the New Haven Green and for a bike path in Boston that passes by the spot where he died to be named in his honor. Every spring, Elm City Cycling organizes a bike ride from Ansonia to New Haven in memory of the inventor and the first recorded bicycle ride in America.
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