1890s Cameras & Cycling

Photography A-Wheel

There is one reflection which can hardly fail to suggest itself to a recent arrival in Cyclonia, and that is the strange but undeniable fact that every third cyclist is a photographer. Perhaps photographer is too harsh a term to these well-meaning persons; the justice of the case would be met in most instances by describing them as dabblers in photography. They are for the most part harmless, and operate chiefly on each other, and on their friends and relations.

The advertising columns of the cycling papers are full of announcements of photographic materials fitted for conveyance on tricycles. The way in which cameras fold up into impossible dimensions, and so to speak almost annihilate space, is among the things no fellow can understand. I have never myself encountered one of these artists at work, but I have been told that the camera is designed to screw onto the wheel, the machine itself forming a tripod stand, and that a number of sensitive plates can be stowed away inside the backbone, or at least quite out of sight: but that perhaps is an exaggeration.

– The Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes: Cycling by Viscount Bury & G. Lacy Hillier (1891)

In the early days cycling was not a cheap pursuit. But it provided wonderful copy for magazines and newspapers to report on the latest crazes of the Victorian era. The combination of cycling and photography was not only promoted by the advertising of various associated products but, of course, by the fact that magazines welcomed the opportunity to print photographic evidence of their subject.

Both the bicycle and the camera were British inventions. William Henry Fox Talbot successfully patented a photographic process in 1839 some 8 months before French painter Louis Daguerre produced the Daguerrtype system. Both were laborious processes. By the 1870s photography had become commercial, but transportation was difficult. With camera, tripod, glass plates and chemicals, the total weight could reach 400lbs. Riding a horse was the most popular form of transportation at the time, but impractical for photography as there was no room for the equipment. A horse and cart was practical, but too expensive. This issue restricted the market greatly. A tricycle or bicycle was expensive, but at least it not require feeding, grooming or stabling. And it did not die!

Various contraptions were invented to transport photographic equipment. The Illustrated Photographer magazine of 23rd April 1869 reported on various photographic velocipedes created by their readers. Tricycles were more practical: the Wiseman’s Photo-Tricycle (illustration below) was constructed to ‘carry the complete outfit of a photographic tourist. It is made with a dark tent, water-tank, place for bath and chemicals, a tripod fo the camera, giving when required an exposure seven feet from the ground, with extra joints for use apart from the machine, and it is made with all the necessary appliances (except of course, camera, lens and chemicals) attached to and part of the machine.’

Gustav Haetwig travelled across the USA in 1874 on this four-wheeled machine.

By 1880, the invention and development of the dry plate had shortened the photographic process and tricycles were being commercially produced to provide service.

In 1884, Dr. Kenyon, president of the Liverpool Amateur Photographic Association, expounded on the subject: ‘…In the tricycle we have a most useful means of transporting photographic apparatus. In the autumn of 1879 I took with me on a Salvo tricycle through the heart of Wales a 7×5 camera, stand and plates, along with a knapsack, weighing altogether some thirty pounds. On my Humber tricycle (a fifty-two inch) I can comfortably carry a Rouch’s 12×10 camera and half-a-dozen plates, with stand. Many of the cycling clubs are forming photographic divisions.’ The Tricyclist magazine of 22nd February 1884, which reported Dr. Kenyon’s speech, commented that ‘this shows that the photographers are recognizing the value of the wheel, and a new field is opended to both cyclists and artists, as well as to tricycle makers, and no doubt ere long some enterprising firm will put a photographic tricycle on the market.’

The following is from The Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes: Cycling –

‘The Coventry Rotary is one of the oldest tricycles on the market. The machine was invented by James Starley, and manufactured by Messrs Haynes and Jeffries under the title of the ‘Coventry Tricycle.’ As first made it was a lever tricycle, the driving wheel being rigidly fixed to a double-cranked axle, which was rotated by connecting rods. The adaption of the rotary action with a chain worked a vast improvement in the machine, and in this form it passed into the hands of Messrs Rudge & Co, and has become so far identified with them that it is officially styled the Rudge Rotary Tricycle.

The machine, which is a single driver without many of a single driver’s drawbacks, can be built very light, and stay-rods judiciously disposed secure the necessary rigidity of the frame. The stay-rod from the rear end of the lateral bar to the driving-wheel end of the cross-bar forms a convenient luggage carrier if something more elaborate is not fitted, and the lateral bar is found most useful for many purposes. The photographer straps it to the legs of his camera, the ‘sticks’ to use a professional term; a gun, an easel, a landing-net, or an umbrella will ride most comfortably when strapped along it.’

The c1888 Rotary below is from an engraving by John Gilbert. The bellows camera is fixed to the tricycle.

An 1897 edition of Rambler magazine reported on a photographer who was still trundling his old Coventry Rotary Tricycle around the countryside that he had adapted for his photographic business many years before:

Yes, that’s the dark room behind the saddle, sir. It ain’t a bad idea of mine, is it? It’s better than walking and cheaper than railway travel. It’s a bit of a crock, perhaps, but it’s done me a good turn. I’ve ridden over 3,000 miles on it, in all parts of England. Oh, it’s paid for itself over and over again. No, I am not the only photographer who has a trike; there are a couple of others; but I was the first. Anything in this line now? Well not much. Everybody knows something about photographing nowadays, and there’s too many cheap hand cameras on the market. Still, there’s a little to be picked up at country fairs, and on holiday times and fine Sundays. But I tell you what, sir, it strikes me that people’s getting too proud to stand for pictures in the open air. They turn up their noses at the idea. No the bis won’t last much longer, we are all old stagers what’s at it now, and one by one we are dying off. We shall soon be a relic of a bygone age. You won’t have your photo done, sir? Only ninepence, beautifully mounted in gilt and framed. It won’t take you ten minutes. Oh thank you sir, sure you won’t have your photo done? Well, thank you, sir, good-day sir.



The Ordinary bicycle was also adapted for photographic use: the advert above shows a camera mounting kit from J. Lancaster & Son of Colmore Row, Birmingham. The 1889 Quadrant tricycle illustrated below was a special photographic model.


Rotary Photographic Tricycle picture thanks to National Museum of Photography, Film and Television/ Science & Society Picture Library.

Research material thanks to Gerry Moore and also my book The Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes: Cycling by Viscount Bury & G. Lacy Hillier (1891)