A quiet blacksmith who never publicly pedalled his invention

Number 6


KIRKPATRICK Macmillan lived a largely ordinary life and died in relative obscurity. But this Dumfriesshire blacksmith was responsible for one of the greatest inventions of the Victorian age - the pedal bicycle.

Macmillan's inspired decision to add pedals to the two-wheeled "hobby horse", originally developed by the German Baron von Drais, might have made him rich. But he preferred simply to cycle the machine he invented - on regular trips to Dumfries, 14 miles from the family home near Thornhill and on one epic two-day journey to Glasgow - and allow others to make the money and take the glory.

It was only 50 years after he completed his first machine in 1839 that his role was at last recognised. But even today, it is a subject of controversy.

Macmillan, who was born in 1812, was in his 20s when he began working as a blacksmith's assistant for the Duke of Buccleuch at Drumlanrig in Dumfriesshire. He happened to see a hobby-horse going along a road, decided it looked like fun and set about building one of his own. But once he completed the machine, Macmillan was disappointed. The hobby-horse, or "walking machine", was slow and difficult to ride as the rider had to push it along using their feet on the ground.

Macmillan realised that a system of pedals could be made to turn the wheel, making it faster and less cumbersome, and set about building it at his family's smithy at Courthill, where he had returned to live.

His bicycle had two wheels of the same size and put the rider on a seat between them. The front wheel was used to steer while the power from the pedals was transmitted to cranks on the rear wheel, not by a chain, but by connecting rods.

The contraption weighed about four stones in total and would have needed considerable strength and stamina to ride. But for a fit young blacksmith like Macmillan, this was not a problem.

And in June 1842, he undertook one of the greatest cycle rides in history - from his home to Glasgow, some 70 miles away. This remarkable journey also achieved another first as Macmillan was fined five shillings for causing a minor injury to a little girl who ran out in front of his contraption, perhaps not expecting this strange "hobby-horse" to be able to move so quickly.

However, Macmillan appears to have been content with his day job as a blacksmith and never made any attempt to patent his invention or sell it commercially.

He stood by while others built versions of his bicycle and sold them for about 7 each, which was then a considerable amount.

Gavin Dalzell, of Lesmahagow, was one of the most prolific bicycle makers after copying Macmillan's design in 1846 - and for the next 50 years, he was widely thought of as its original inventor.

Macmillan married Elizabeth Goldie in 1854, not long after the death of his father Robert, but she died just 11 years later - and of the couple's six children, only a son and a daughter survived into adulthood.

Macmillan himself died in Courthill on 26 January 1878 and it was only in the 1880s that his role in the invention of the bicycle was discovered.

In an international survey last year, readers of a national newspaper voted for the bicycle as the greatest British invention.

But there are still several rival claimants for the honour of inventing the bicycle: Baron von Drais, Macmillan and later John Kemp Starley and Henry Lawson of England, as well as members of Michaux family of France.

They were responsible for adding refinements such as the chain drive and gearing up the pedals and it was the French who really popularised cycling after many Parisians took to it in the 1860s.

But few of his rivals can have been as keen a cyclist as Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a simple Scottish blacksmith.