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The Odd Tricycle That You'd Sit Inside And Operate With Your Hands That Was Patented In 1881

"The New Iron Horse" was patented by Charles W. Oldreive in 1881. It's a fascinating thing, but why would anyone want such a big wheel and want to sit inside it?

Likely for the same reason that people sat on top of those giant penny-farthing bicycles, before the development of the chain drive when pedals were connected directly to a wheel, one turn of the pedals meant one turn of the wheel. So the bigger the wheel, the faster the bike could go. According to Science Source: "Tricycles were used by riders who did not feel comfortable on the high wheelers, such as women who wore long, flowing dresses. "

Oldreive's New Iron Horse.

According to the patent 245,012, issued to Charles Wood Oldreive of Chelsea, Massachusetts, "it will 'be seen that, owing to the large diameter which may be given to the wheel B, the vehicle can be run at a very high degree of speed and be easily manipulated by a person when within the car."

The rider actually sat inside the wheel in what Oldreive calls a "boat" and instead of pedals, you turned cranks on either side with both hands. For brakes, there were two long arms that you would pull on that would drag on the ground. You steer with two lines that control the rear wheels.

A fascinating feature of the drive mechanism is that it is actually geared, instead of having it driven directly by handles connected to the hubs.

"Each hub of the wheel has fixed to it on its inner side and concentric with such hub a gear, m, which engages with a driving-gear, o, by means of an intermediate gear, a, such gears being shown in dotted lines in Fig. 2. The said intermediate and driving gears are applied to the car so as to be capable of being revolved by a crank, s, fixed on the arbor of the driving-gear."

Had Oldreive used gears differently, he would not have needed the big wheel and might have gone down in history as the inventor of the safety bicycle, the predecessor of the bike as we know it.

He could also walk on water

Charles Oldreive walking on Mississippi River.

In researching this story, another inventor named Charles W Oldreive of Chelsea, Massachusetts kept popping up. He was famous for building water walking shoes. Could the same man have invented two wildly different forms of human transportation?

According to New Scientist: "As a young inventor in Massachusetts, he’d been fascinated by old-style bateaux, fur-trading boats with shallow drafts for negotiating small rivers and flat bottoms to provide stability when heavily laden with pelts. Taking his cue from the bateaux, Oldrieve designed cedar “shoes” for walking on water."

Another source, Forgotten Stories, tells it differently, noting that walking matches were a big deal in the 1880s:

"Well, if those chaps could make a good living taking a stroll on land, Oldrieve saw no reason he couldn’t figure out a way to take a stroll on the water. Taking a hint from the rowboats which pleasure-seekers took out into Boston harbor, and building on a previous water-walking attempt by a gentleman named Ned Hanlan who’d abandoned the pursuit and gone into rowing matches instead, Oldrieve fashioned an ingenious pair of water walking shoes."

Ned Hanlan went on to become a Canadian hero and world champion rower. Oldreive's Canadian wife Caroline was an expert rower as well, described in Waterways Journal as "a woman of athletic ability and strong physique, accustomed to rowing and other outdoor activities." Oldreive went on to walk on water as "the human water spider," eventually walking from Cincinnati to New Orleans.

They both came to a very sad end: Caroline died of injuries from a 4th of July Fireworks accident, and a grieving Oldreive killed himself by drinking chloroform a week later.

Which brings us back to the question: Did the Charles Wood Oldreive of Chelsea Massachusetts invent both the tricycle and the water shoes? It seems unlikely. The patent for the tricycle is dated 1881, and according to his obituary, C.W. Oldreive was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1868, which would have made him 13 years old when the patent was issued. However, the obit does name his father: Charles Oldreive, born in England in 1839. So it is likely there were two Charles Oldreives, father and son, each of whom invented a new form of human-powered transportation.


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