IN PARIS A 30hp eight-wheeler designed by a M Dietz cruised the boulevards at a comfortable 10mph towing a carriage full of excited Frenchmen. The two rear driving wheels were rigidly mounted but the rest seem to have had some kind of independent suspension—the Academy of Sciences and Industry reported that “the six smaller wheels rose and fell according to the irregularity of the road”. However in Britainthe development of steam-powered road vehicles had lost impetus and the heavy road tolls imposed by the Turnpike Acts, as well as dirty tricks including roadblocks, had forced inventors away from steam-powered roadsters (the railways were flourishing). As a reminder of what might have been Robert Hancock left us with some statistics of his operations. His steamers had carried 12,761 passengers for 4,200 miles, including 143 round trips from the City to Paddington, 525 trips from the City to Islington, and 44 to Stratford. His PSVs averaged 5hr 17min service a day; the nine-mile round trip from Moorgate to Paddington typically took 1hr 10min. Hancock continued working with steam and supplied a light engine (similar to his steam roadsters) to the Eastern Counties Railway. The landed gentry had won, railways would rule the Victorian roost and the devlopment of powered road transport was set back by half a century.

With the demise of the steam roadster dreams of coal-powered traffic faded away.
The brave experiment of steam roadsters had been reduced to the butt of jokes. In this contemporary cartoon the drivers of the horsedrawn coach are saying: “Blown up by God and not one soul left behind”…“Well they will have their hobbies”. The kite-drawn coach and airships in the background indicate that steamers were seen as just one more fad. The horsey set had won; the evolution of powered passenger vehicles stalled for 50 years.


SIR JOSEPH Whitworth proposed standardised nuts and bolts. We’re so used to picking up bits that fit that it’s hard to imagine how different it was before Whitworth did his bit. He was granted a great many patents, covering everything from fire arms (he was a pacifist, but business is business) to knitting machines. As a result Whitworth became exceedingly rich – in later years he wintered on the French Riviera – and he collected honours ranging from honorary degrees to medals from France, Brazil and Spain. But what makes him so important to motorcyclists, and indeed to industry at large, is the accuracy he achieved. When he made a ruler measuring in 32nds of an inch it was scorned as “a curiosity… an unnecessary refinement”. Every bolt had a unique nut made to fit it but every Whitworth nut would fit every Whitworth bolt. He developed the work of Henry Maudslay to achieve measurements to within a millionth of an inch. Whitworth gave (well, sold) British manufacturers reliable, accurate machine tools as well as nuts and bolts with the thread form that bears his name. His measuring gauges and fasteners were formally adopted by the Board of Trade in 1880, which was perfect timing for the birth of the new industry. The vast majority of British motor cycles would be held together by Whitworth nuts and bolts. Thanks to him proprietary parts would fit. Thanks to him manufacturing costs would fall to make motor cycles affordable. Thanks, Sir Joe.

Joseph Whitworth was working at the Joseph Clements works when they were attempting to assemble the Babbage ‘calculating engine’ This task demanded unheard of levels of accuracy. The training he got there inspired his later work. And the engine would lead to electronic computers, without which your bike would still get its sparks from a nice simple magneto.


THOMAS HANCOCK, while working for Charles Macintosh & Co, patented vulcanised rubber, from which the first tyres were made in good time for the first punctures.


ROBERT WILLIAM Thompson, a former employee of railway pioneer Stephenson, patented a pneumatic tyre. It comprised a hollow tube (he called it an “elastic belt”) made of canvas bonded with a rubber solution. It was encased in leather strips bolted to the wheel rim and inflated via a pipe passing through the wheel rim. A horsedrawn carriage did more than 1,000 miles in six months on a single set of these leather tyres; production problems and repressive legislation killed off Thompson’s venture but he went on to build successful heavy steamers. It was not until 1888 that John Boyd Dunlop re-invented the pneumatic tyres we rely on today.

Robert Thompson came up with pneumatic tyres.

WHILE THEY were waiting for proper pneumatic tyres to arrive travellers on London Road, Nottingham could console themselves with a trip on the first application of Tarmacadam.


CHROMIUM WAS used for electroplating, but chrome plate woyld only became widespread following the development of an improved process in 1924.

AN EMIGREE named Von Rathen built a carriage powered by compressed-air and took it for a drive on the streets of Putney.


WALTER HUNT, of New York, NY, patented the safety pin, which is ideal for emergency repairs to riding gear and has also been known to secure the clevis pin on a plunger A10 rear brake rod.

RUSSIAN ENGINEER FN Semyenov used a cable tool to drill an oil well, paving the way to plentiful supplies of lubes and petrol and also helping to make a lot of money for a lot of Arabs and Texans.

THE FIRST SELF-propelled and steerable steam traction engine was built by Robert Willis. ‘Portable’ engines had been about for a few years but they had relied on horses to move them. How horses gripped the steering wheel with their hooves remains a mystery.