On Friday after work, I picked up a couple of used cycling books at The Bookseller by Mill Creek. While I was flipping through “Discovering Old Bicycles” by T.E. Crowley I came across the following passage describing a velocipede from 1887:
“They (Singer & Co.) were also responsible for the Multi-military cycle which carried eight, sixteen or more between pairs of wheels coupled together with towbars, and wound its sinuous way along like some monster road-serpent. But not for long. Mechanical millipedes carried whole clubs that year, but like the last and clumsiest of the dinosaurs, they proceeded on their way to oblivion”
I thought that this unlikely sounding device must be the oddest of the often strange attempts by the military to use bicycles. Unfortunately there were no accompanying pictures in the book. Luckily I had the internet close at hand and was quickly able to google up some more information.
The drawings seem to have originally appeared in two issues of Scientific American (June 11th and July 16th, 1887). The text of the July article is:
Of late years attempts have been made to apply velocipedes to military purposes, the results of which have been so favourable that one might well expect to see companies of troops mounted on these vehicles. But heretofore only velocipedes have been tried, so that the new English invention the military multicycle by the London firm Singer & Co. is a decided advance in the transportation of infantry from one place to another. It will carry twelve men who, in case of necessity, can draw a light baggage car or ammunition wagon. The operators are seated in line, one behind the other, the vehicle can be easily steered, and offers less surface to unfavourable winds than if two or four men rode abreast. The multicycle can be propelled remarkably fast, making ten English miles an hour, or with practiced hands fifteen to sixteen miles an hour. And it suffers less than other velocipedes from bad roads, and can easily pass over railroad tracks.The entire control and guidance of the machine lies in the hands of the first man, and at a recent trial in London he had no difficulty in carrying out his part of the work, even in the most crowded streets.The multicycle required less room than a hansom for turning, and made its way without accident among numberless vehicles of all kinds.Military evolutions can easily be carried out on the machine, and, in the case of attack, it can serve as a protection for the men who can fire from behind it. The war department are trying to make the multicycle practical for war purposes.
I also found a description of the machine in The Sydney Mail of July 1887. The text of that article is almost identical, but has some further tidbits of information. It describes the multicycle as being Singer an Co.’s, “latest adaption of their Victoria or Four-in-Hand Quadricyle” and describes the tires as being “wired on the Otto principal, so that they cannot be greatly damaged by cuts from sharp stones”. The machine was to be severely tested at Aldershot by the authority of the war office.
I can only imagine that this contraption did not fare well during the severe testing. Although there is probably no existing example of the multicycle, it’s fun to imagine that it may someday turn up in some cobwebbed warehouse or barn. If not, maybe some crazy re-creationist with too much time on their hands will reproduce it. I’d love to see one in action!