The history of the modern circus is deeply rooted in horsemanship. The first modern circuses, which took place during the 18th century, were primarily demonstrations of tricks performed on a horse, first by former soldiers who learned such skills during military training, and later by talented men and women trained from a young age to accomplish acrobatics and other feats atop a horse *
After the bicycle started competing with the horse as a means of personal transportation, it also became popular as a foil for acrobats and other performers. Riding an ordinary (penny farthing) was an athletic feat much admired by the public, and tricks performed on such machines are very impressive. Circus troupes, theatrical and fairground performers and other entertainers soon started experimenting, both with safety bicycles and ordinaries. Safeties were more versatile, but tricks on ordinaries left a lasting impression on the audience, especially when it involved more than one rider on a machine.
1891 Performers/Trick Riders Rudge Ordinary
Twin-drive & Detachable
45″ Wheel, Tangent spoked, with 2″ Pneumatic Rim
Rudge 1878 Patent Wheel Bearings, No 26185
ABOVE: BACKBONE ATTACHED
ABOVE: BACKBONE DETACHED
SPECIAL FEATURES REQUIRED FOR PROFESSIONAL TRICK RIDING
This c1885 Rudge ordinary (penny farthing) was adapted in the 1890s to be used as a performer’s machine. It has some fascinating unique features:
PNEUMATIC WHEEL RIMS: The wheels have Westwood rims with holes for the inner tube valves (above). Pneumatic tyres and appropriate rims came onto the market in Britain in these sizes between 1891 and 1892. The du Cros family owned the patents for both Dunlop tyres and Westwood rims. Pneumatic tyres were very expensive in the first few years of production, at least a quarter of the cost of a bicycle; so most purchasers opted for solid or cushion tyres. Pneumatics were lightweight, so ideal for racing, but not many pneumatic ordinaries were made for the general market, and there are now few survivors (believed less than ten known).
REAR DRIVING WHEEL: Both the front wheel and rear wheel (above) are driven, so a second acrobat could ride in tandem; when detached, each part of the machine can be ridden separately.
At the rear of the saddle support is a step (above, right). A second acrobat could use the mounting step (Rudge pattern, above left) above the rear wheel, and then onto the saddle support step to climb the machine while it was being ridden, for example onto the rider’s shoulders. The rear saddle support itself appears to be a Coventry Machinists Co suspension seat support, presumably used because it was more suitable for fitting the extra step.
There’s a locking nut on the front of the steering head, which could be used to tighten the steering to prevent it from turning (above, lower nut). Fixing it so the bike would only go in a straight line was required if the rider wished to stand on or do acrobatics on the top of the bicycle. Like the head of the pivot pin, it has holes around it so that a small ‘tommy bar’ could be inserted to turn it faster, and string could be attached to remove it promptly. A similar locking nut in front of the handlebar (above, top nut) would release the handlebar promptly so it could be reversed; I assume this made it easier for the performer to stand on top of the handlebar.
The machine is detachable, breaking apart when the pivot pin is pulled up, and out of the top of the steering head. (The bottom of the threaded pivot pin bolt is convex to provide a plain bearing for steering). The rear acrobat can then ride the rear portion by balancing on the rear pedals, using the rear part like a unicycle. The front part then becomes a monocycle, with the rider standing on the pedals and holding onto the handlebars. Acrobats used monocycles (also known as unicycles) without seats; some of their tricks involved standing on one pedal.
Performers’ machines were constructed from available parts, and adapted accordingly. The front wheel bearings are stamped with the Rudge patent and the bell-shaped hub is also Rudge. 45″ pneumatic tyres are not available! So it has been fitted with cushion tyring. The two pairs of matching slotted pedals and rear cranks were remanufactured to the original pattern. The saddle is original to the machine, adapted from a pneumatic saddle. (Pneumatic saddles, with a pad inside that inflated to provide added comfort for the rider, were manufactured by various firms in the 1890s).
The front part of the backbone that fits into the steering head (above, lower) has been adapted so that it is convex (pointed) only on the bottom. Normally the top would also be convex, to provide the simplest plain bearing set up for steering. With a concave top, the pivot pin can hold it in place until it is retracted to separate the backbone. This is typical of the subtle adaptations necessary for a trick rider to perform his amazing feats on a bicycle.
ABOVE: PIVOT PIN PROTRUDING FROM THE STEERING HEAD
ABOVE: PIVOT PIN EXTRACTED
ABOVE: DRIVEN REAR WHEEL
these illustrations with thanks to – ‘Unicycling: from beginner to expert’ by Sebastian Hoher
DETACHABLE REAR END
STEP FITTED BEHIND SADDLE SUPPORT
1891 ‘TRICK RIDERS’ TOBACCO CARD SET
A PAIR OF TRICK RIDERS’ MACHINES:
45″ DETACHABLE & 40″ MONOCYCLE (UNICYCLE)
- Modern circus history with thanks to –
Photo location: with thanks to the Theatre Royal, Brighton