Vintage Views: Wheels of time

  • The giant tricycle is pictured on the New Hampshire State House Plaza in Concord in the year 1896. —Concord Public Library

For the Monitor
Published: 12/10/2021 9:14:23 AM

Since the wheel was created there has been a fascination with all things round. From wheels to gears to cogs and thimbles, the shape works wonders and certainly has allowed our ancestors to evolve with less labor and overall ease. As new inventions were created the wheel has been a factor in many cases, hence the need to build a better wheel.

During the latter part of the 19th century the early horseless carriages were beginning to develop, the earliest simply manufactured with wood or iron, round and supporting the body of the vehicle. As the popularity of these early automobiles developed even more the common complaint was similar to the age-old problem of avoiding the bumps, rocks and potholes to allow smooth passage. The roads were simply unpaved and in poor shape or in some cases they simply did not exist. Just years prior the roadways were used exclusively by horse, wagon, walking or with sleighs during the cold winter months. Yes, there was the opportunity to enhance the ride further and the great thinkers during this period were on the forefront.

During this time the pneumatic tire was invented and then improved upon time and again. The tire containing air provided the smoothest ride for the new automobiles and was an overnight success. The age-old wheel was back again and better than ever. As the twentieth century was approaching with a variety of new automobiles the tires containing air were standard, a luxury for travel over the old cobbled streets of our little town.

Businessmen far and wide seeking to sustain and grow their existing factories, ensuring survival and providing employment for those in need were intrigued. The big names of the day were capitalizing on the high demand for automobiles with pneumatic tires, regional and local companies were ready to move forward and capture bits and pieces of this new opportunity. The Abbott Downing Factory in Concord still made wagons and coaches, but they also started making trucks. A little company down in Massachusetts named Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Company decided to diversify and started manufacturing Vim tires in 1896, already possessing the material and talent to add this line of pneumatic tires to their already successful manufacturing plant.

Our friends at Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Company witnessed early success with the introduction of their pneumatic tires for automobiles and put thought into making rubber tires for other types of transportation. With much thought they decided to start production of bicycle tires, eliminating the bone-rattling wood and steel tires featured on bicycles during the latter part of the 1890s. The solid rubber was replaced with an inflatable tube and placed around a steel rim, when inflated with air the smooth ride was unimaginable, the pneumatic bicycle tire was here to stay and there was business on the horizon, lots of business.

With a solid new product line in bicycle tires the Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Company sought advertising for their bicycle tires, sales were good, word of mouth was certainly even better. They needed to create more avenues to promote their bicycle tires and they created a most amusing publicity stunt that served them very well that summer of 1896.

The company decided to design and build a massive and functional tricycle and feature three giant Vin pneumatic tires to support this work of art. This giant tricycle would be available for parades and special functions across New England and the free publicity would result in increased sales as well as the unique opportunity to promote all products manufactured at their plant in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Bigger was better back in 1896, ships, buildings and all matters of public works were building bigger and bigger to capture both the imagination and profits of the people. A giant tricycle was a good fit during this period and the ideas flowed to the designer as he set about with his designs. He called his new tricycle colossal, others simply called it the giant tricycle, but everyone knew that once it was built it would be coming to a town nearby to promote the pneumatic Vin bicycle tires featured on each of its three rims.

The tricycle was completed in 1896 and ridden about the Boston area with a crew of eight men. As the new invention was shown to the people many requests from about New England continued to arrive. Concord, New Hampshire was on the list, there were parades and plenty of space to showcase this modern marvel down on Main Street on the plaza in front of the New Hampshire State House.

The tricycle was designed by John DeWolfe, the mechanical expert that was employed by the Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Company. There were many prior attempts to manufacture giant bicycles and tricycles prior to the design by John DeWolfe, faulty construction quickly putting an end to those earlier plans. When John DeWolfe finished his design, the giant tricycle was manufactured and seen traveling about the cobbled streets of Boston with a crew of eight men, featuring three massive pneumatic tires with the Vin name.

The Vin bicycle tires were the color of floxine, a color adopted by their company to identify their quality tires. The giant tires produced for the tricycle were the same as their complete tire line with a pebble tread. The need for strong and efficient tires was a necessity for this giant tricycle, it weighed in at 2,573 pounds when completed and holding the eight men needed to pilot, without the men the machine itself weighed 1,435 pounds.

The front tire measured six feet while the two rear tires measured eleven feet. The front tires were eleven and the rear tires eighteen inches in diameter. The rear tire spokes were half an inch in diameter while the front tire spokes were one-quarter inch in diameter. The frame consisted of two parallel trusses arranged side by side and finished in the front with a cross truss. The steering mechanism was anchored to the front truss with the steering being completed by one man. Each side wheel was driven by the four riders seated nearest each side and this tricycle was actually geared down instead of being geared up. This was necessary because the large amount of dead weight that was to be moved when the tricycle was being operated. It was said that even if the crank sprockets and the wheel sprockets were the same size the gears would have been 123, in reality the tricycle was geared at 54. This giant tricycle was seventeen feet in length and was tested with a ride from Boston to Brockton, a distance of 25 miles. The very next journey for this early marvel was to Concord, N.H., a distance in excess of one hundred miles.

It was on a warm summer day in the year 1896 that our Concord ancestors traveled down to Main Street to witness the largest tricycle ever made, certainly a treat for the many men, women and children in our little town over a century ago.

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