A visit to a mobility revolutionary

THORNHILL, SCOTLAND: If you intend to make a pilgrimage to the final resting place of a mobility revolutionary, best to do it in proper fashion.

Say, perched on two wheels. And self-propelled.

Jill and I were just wrapping up a week-long bicycle tour of southwest Scotland, beginning at the Mull of Galloway lighthouse – perched on rocky cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean – and ending in this tidy little farm town all but lost amid the rolling green uplands and low stone wall-partitioned pastures of the sparsely-populated Dumfries-Galloway region.

It had been a splendid journey along wild coastlines, through picturesque villages, past ruined churches and grand castles.

And on this, the last day, there was one final destination to check off our must-bike to list.

Leaving Thornhill’s town square we enjoyed a brief, exhilarating coast down steep Boat Brae and then crossed the River Nith, not far from a place where tourists briefly climb out of their cars to photograph an ancient Celtic cross that rises in a field amidst grazing cows.

From there we turned onto a single-tracked lane that threads its way among postage stamp sized farms in a land where sheep and cattle far outnumber either cars or people.

Soon we crossed a bridge over a rocky creek….and almost missed it. A simple wooden sign bearing his name:

Kirkpatrick Macmillan.

Not there yet, though. Dismounting we walked several hundred yards along a weedy path to a woody glen where an ancient iron fence surrounds a even older graveyard.

But how to find him amidst scores of leaning, weather-eroded tombstones? Some of them had been there for centuries and were barely legible.

Fortunately, previous visitors had trampled a discernible trail through the carpet of overgrown grass. Just follow the depression and there he is.

What to say about Kirkpatrick Macmillan?

Well, we learn from his tall white headstone that he was the village smithy hereabouts. That he died at the age of 65, in 1878. That his wife, Elspeth passed when she was just 32, and that his progeny died in infancy or early childhood.

There is much more of the Macmillan family history crammed onto that stone. But it is the final line, seemingly an afterthought, that explains why pilgrims like us continue to this day to visit Kirkpatrick Macmillan.

“Inventor of the Bicycle.”

Innovators it seems can be found nearly everywhere. And even simple men who spend their days fashioning horseshoes and plowshares can change the world – often without ever knowing it.

Seems that in the early 19th century there was a new toy that was all the rage. They called it the Hobby Horse. Not a bicycle, exactly, just two wheels and a saddle attached by a wooden frame. You could “make it go” by straddling the contraption and then alternatively running and coasting.

Macmillan apparently saw one in action and had a radical idea: Why not attach pedals and eliminate the running?

Macmillan’s smithy shop, less than a mile beyond the cemetery, is still standing. A display mounted to the wall informs us that his “solution was to hang treadles from the front, driving cranks on the rear wheels by means of long connecting rods…” and to make “the rear wheel big enough to provide a useful ‘gear ratio.’”

His clever idea, in this remote place, touched off what amounted to a worldwide personal mobility revolution.

On one occasion, we are informed, Macmillan “rode his bike all the way to Glasgow and back (about 120 mile) which on poor quality roads must have required great strength.”

“In fact he is reputed to have beaten the mail coach at about eight miles per hour.”

The man never patented his personal mobility machine. Indeed his original vehicle has been lost to history because Macmillan apparently never realized its potential let alone tried to cash in on it.

“Kirkpatrick acquired a reputation for innovation,” the signage poses, “so was he too busy with other inventions to pursue what to us was his revolutionary one?”

Call him the original open source innovator. It would be left to others to take up and improve upon his design. Gradually, inevitably, chains and sprockets and wires and gearing and tubing and ever lighter and more durable materials would transform the toy Hobby Horse into a practical, reliable and increasingly more efficient self-propelled mobility machine.

And what would Macmillan have thought if he could have known that one day – and not all that many many decades into the future – two latter day bicycle innovators half a world away would take the technological evolution of his crude treadle-powered contraption and launch it into the very air on a windswept beach called Kitty Hawk?

Oh, I know, in our auto-obsessed age too many of our species still consider bicycles to be little more than toys. But we who have traveled countless miles under our own power on our finely crafted machines, who have been privileged to observe the world from a vantage point that few motorists could imagine let alone appreciate, know better than that.

Ours are not toys. Ours are Freedom Machines in the most literal sense. With them we may go where we please without benefit or burden of internal combustion generated power.

Viva la revolution!

(Ron Cunningham is a cycle commuter and former executive director of Bike Florida who lives in Gainesville, Fla. He has cycled widely in the U.S., Canada and Europe and will continue to do so as long as he can manage to propel himself on two wheels.)

Author: floridavelocipede

A sometime journalist who used to string words together for a living before I retired to run a non-profit cycle touring organization that will henceforth go unnamed, as I have subsequently retired from that career as well. I write a bi-monthly column, theater reviews and an occasional magazine piece for my old newspaper. If I still had a business card it would read: Ron Cunningham: Trained Observer Of The Human Condition. Because like The Donald, you know, ego.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s