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"Vehicle." Patent no. 45911, filed by William Henry Thompson and George Morris, 1894


Patent no. 45911. Filing year 1894.

"Vehicle," William Henry Thompson and George Morris, 1894

William Henry Thompson's "Vehicle driven by hand power," patented in 1894, is a curious invention, a four-wheeled novelty that incorporated aspects of both bicycles and hand-powered railway pump cars.

The vehicle was propelled by a chain and sprocket mechanism on the rear axle, similar to that of a bicycle. The back-and-forth motion of a lever rotated a crank that set the chain in motion. The driver sat on an adjustable seat and steered with his or her feet with pedals attached to the front axle. The wheels were lightweight in design and had steel spokes and rubber wheels, features common to bicycles of Thompson's time. The front and back axles were connected by a wooden platform that ran the length of the vehicle.

The necessary pumping motion is reminiscent of railway pump cars, the track inspection vehicles now seen only in museums and in old western cartoons. Thompson noted that his vehicle could be adapted for railway use by replacing the wheels with flanged wheels.

The vehicle had no brakes or gears, as all speeding up and slowing down was handled by the lever action. Despite Thompson's claims that the lever oscillation was "easily done with one hand," it would have been considerably more difficult to speed up or slow down on hills -- especially given that the lever was awkwardly located between the driver's legs.

Contributing to the awkwardness was the challenge of steering the front wheels with one's feet. To compensate, Thompson extended springs from the platform to the front axle to help straighten it after a turn.

One can imagine Thompson serenely pumping around Hamilton in his vehicle, enduring the curious stares of townspeople. The vehicle likely never travelled much further, but lack of commercial value has never really been an issue for enthusiasts of human-powered vehicles, a hobby that has persevered over the years.

Such vehicles retain a cult of devotees and designers today, with associations around the world dedicated to trading design tips and organizing races. Human-powered vehicles exclude normal bicycles (which are in a class of their own) but include recumbent bicycles, in which riders are reclined with legs extended horizontally to pedals, as well as a wide range of other human powered boats, aircraft and land vehicles. Given that such vehicles continue to fascinate, it could be said that Thompson was ahead of his time.


Van Dulken, Stephen. Inventing the 19th Century: 100 Inventions that Shaped the Victorian Age, from Aspirin to the Zeppelin. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

International Human Powered Vehicle Association.
(accessed November 3, 2005).