Early patents – finding the ur-hand-cycle

Recently, I was looking online at some bicycle photographs from around the turn of the 20th century. I find it intriguing to spot the similarities with modern bikes (certainly since the advent of the ‘safety bicycle’ in the late 19th century, they have been very recognizable) and also the differences in approaches, solutions and configurations from 100+ years ago. That led me to wonder how far the roots of modern handcycling trace back.

Picture courtesy of Low Tech Magazine
Picture courtesy of Low Tech Magazine
Hand cranks have certainly been used to power certain stationary machines for a long time, often in conjunction with or then superseded by leg/foot power – an article on Low Tech magazine several years ago nicely describes a short history of pedal powered machines and includes several machines that feature both arm and leg power, such as the one on the right.

I couldn’t find any photographs from the late 19th or early 20th centuries of hand-powered bicycles or tricycles but photographs aren’t the only ‘snapshot’ of prevailing technical thinking from an earlier time – patents are another source of fascinating ideas from days gone by.

So I had a little search around at the US Patent & Trademark Office.

(Each of the following patents can be read in more detail by following the links to the US Patent & Trademark Office. You can also click on each image to view it larger.)

Early patent - PettinatiThe earliest reference I found to hand power on a bicycle is Letters Patent 571,051 from November 10, 1896.

It’s an Italian invention from one Antonio Pettinati, of Rome and it:

“…provide[s] a simple and efficient device whereby the rider can help with his hands in propelling the [bicycles and other similar vehicles] instead of only using his feet…”.

It’s not a purely hand-powered bicycle but it features ‘push-pull’ hand cranks connected to the drive line and it’s from 120 years ago. Interesting – the safety bicycle only became very popular in the late 1880s and by 1896 people were already exploring ways to add hand power.

Early patent - VonhausenAnother early example I found was Letters Patent 614,146 from November 15, 1898, from AEF Vonhausen, of Weisbaden, Germany.

Like the previous one, it’s still not a true hand-powered bicycle since the hand power only complements the foot power.

“This invention relates to the driving and guiding mechanism of bicycles which are driven by hand and foot power… so that with the retention of the ordinary frame and foot-gear the steering capacity of the front wheel is not impaired when the hand-gear is operated.”

In contrast to the earlier one, I think this has ‘up-down’ hand cranks positioned over the top tube (ergonomics be damned!) and right from the opening description, the inventor is raising the potential source of conflict in incorporating hand power and still retaining steering control – not a trivial engineering challenge on a safety bicycle but one that Mr Vonhausen believes he has solved with his patent.

Early patent - AndreenThe final example that caught my attention was Letters Patent 664,231 from December 18, 1900.

The inventor is JT Andreen, of Florence, Kansas. Mr. Andreen invented:

“…new and useful Improvements in Tricycles…”.

In describing his invention, he says it has:

“…a hand-lever for… propelling the machine”.

Interestingly, he then goes on to say:

“In order to enable the rider to use his feet as well as his hands in propelling the machine, the pedal-levers are provided… connected by links with… the hand-lever… to enable them to work in concert with said hand-lever.”

This section really drew my attention. Here is a patent for a tricycle rather than a bicycle, from 1900, with a description that seems to suggest hand power as the primary motive force. Pedalling with the feet is possible “as well as” with the hands, “in concert with” the hand lever.

In contrast to typical modern hand cranks, there’s only a single, centrally placed hand lever (although presumably for use with both hands together as it has a T-handle) and it’s more of a rowing action than a circular path, but it appears in essence to be a hand-powered trike.

I can’t say that this Andreen design is the absolute earliest patent for something we might consider a handcycle. I’m also not trying to claim that this is the origin of a continuous family tree all the way to today’s racing handcycles. But it’s certainly very early and it also sounds like it’s not a bike with hand-power as an addition. Rather, it’s a handcycle.

Now, if I could just find a photograph of one…

(BTW if anyone has early photographs, I’d love to seem them!)