This Day In History: July 20

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On July 20, 1865, a Frenchman named Pierre Lallement arrives in the United States, carrying the plans and components for the first modern bicycle. Lallement constructed and patented the first bicycle in the United States, but received no significant reward or recognition for introducing the nation to an invention that soon became ubiquitous.

Born near Nancy, France, Lallement trained as a mechanic. He was working as a carriage builder when he first saw a dandy horse—similar to a bike, but powered directly by the rider’s feet pushing it along the ground—and began drawing up plans for a similar machine. Lallement’s major innovation was adding a transmission and pedals, which allowed for a smoother, faster, and somewhat more dignified ride. Along with another carriage builder, Pierre Marchaux, Lallement is credited with building the first working prototype for a bicycle. Due to a dispute between himself, Marchaux and his son, and the Olivier brothers with whom Marchaux went into business, however, Lallement found himself shut out of the first mass-produced bicycle business in France.

Upon arriving in the United States, Lallement settled in Ansonia, Connecticut. He demonstrated his invention for the locals—one of whom reportedly fled in terror at the sight of a “devil on wheels”—and eventually found an investor, James Carroll, to support his efforts. In 1866, he applied for and was granted a patent for the nation’s first pedaled bicycle.

Despite being the first to patent the idea, Lallement was unable to capitalize on his invention. Failing to acquire enough funds to open a factory, he sold the rights to the patent in 1868and moved back to France, where Michaux’s bike had achieved enormous popularity and set off a “bike boom” that soon spread throughout Europe. Albert Pope, who came into possession of the patent in 1876, made a small fortune producing the Columbia bicycle and became one of the foremost proponents of the bike, forming the League of American Wheelmen in 1880. Lallement, however, died in obscurity in Boston in 1881. It would be over a century before cycling historians identified the important role he had played in the invention of the bicycle.