What we know about the Scot who invented the bicycle

Kirkpatrick Macmillan has a strong claim to the title of the inventor of the bicycle. Image: Dumfries Museum

Kirkpatrick Macmillan has a strong claim to the title of the inventor of the bicycle. Image: Dumfries Museum

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A HUMBLE blacksmith from Dumfriesshire is widely seen as the true father of the “velocipede” or bicycle - but didn’t bother to patent his invention.

Unlike many other Victorian-era designs, the basic configuration of the bicycle has changed little in its 200-odd years of existence.

This replica of Kirkpatrick Macmillan's bicycle was made by engineer Thomas McCall, to the design invented by Kirkpatrick Macmillan. Image: TSPL

This replica of Kirkpatrick Macmillan's bicycle was made by engineer Thomas McCall, to the design invented by Kirkpatrick Macmillan. Image: TSPL

With a crank powered by connecting rods in place of the familiar toothed cog and chain we have today, the original specifications of Kirkpatrick Macmillan’s bicycle are still readily identifiable to modern eyes.

Macmillan, born in 1812 in the town of Keir in Dumfries and Galloway, followed his father into the family business of blacksmithing.

Tired of existing methods of transportation such as hobbyhorses, the metalworker made a prototype version of his first machine at the family smithy in 1839.

This eliminated the need for the user to push their feet off of the ground to achieve forward motion.

Despite the crank-driven setup requiring a lot of leg power from the user to operate the 25kg bike, Macmillan persevered with his invention and cycled it more than once to Dumfries, fourteen miles away from his small town. Egged on by the positive reception of locals there, he undertook a journey to Glasgow that was nearly four times as long.

READ MORE: Ten surprising Scottish inventions

The two-day trip to Glasgow brought him minor fame as he was reported by the local press for running into a small girl in the Gorbals.

His fine of five shillings was apparently covered by the town’s magistrate, who was impressed by the ingenious design.

By this point, the blacksmith’s innovative design had been noticed by other men quick to cash in on his creation.

Gavin Dalzell of Lesmahagow near Lanark made a copy of Macmillan’s design only six year later, as Macmillan had not taken out a patent to protect his invention. Preferring to maintain a quiet life with his wife Elizabeth Goldie and two children,

Macmillan died in January 1878.

To this day, one of Dalzell’s metal and wood bicycles survives in the Riverside Museum of Transport in Glasgow as one of the oldest bicycles in the world. Alongside this creation, the controversy of who really did invent one of the world’s most popular methods of transport continues to rage on.

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