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By David Rooney on

A Bicycle Made For Four

I was in Cambridge last week for a couple of meetings. It’s a glorious city. The buildings reek of history and tradition, the streets are filled with bright folk lost in dreamy thought and the river carries its languorous cargo of students and tourists in pole-driven punts, as depicted in this poster from the NRM collection:

'St John's, Cambridge' railway poster (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

And then there’s the bicycles. Cambridge is teeming with them, and whilst I’m all for cycle-friendly streets, I need eyes in the back of my head when I want to cross the road…

Most Cambridge bikes are pretty ordinary, but occasionally something special appears. Here’s a great picture of the ‘Cambridge Duad’ in 1895:

'The Cambridge Duad', Cambridge University, 1895 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Look closely at the eighteen-year-old at the front. He’s Charles Rolls, keen cyclist and founder (with Henry Royce) of Rolls-Royce.

Here he is again that year, this time on a more conventional two-seat tandem:

Rolls and Legard riding a tandem, Cambridge University, 1895 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These wonderful pictures are from an album put together by Rolls that’s now in our Library and Archives collection, available to view by appointment at our Swindon site.

Half a century on, the technology seems barely to have changed. We’ve a handful of tandems in our historic bikes collection, including this lightweight touring model by Rensch from 1948:

Tandem bicycle, 1948 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

For Charles Rolls, though, history was to be cut tragically short. Besides his cycling and motoring, he was also a pioneering aviator. In 1910, at an air tournament at Bournemouth, Rolls was killed performing a complex aerial manoeuvre. He was just 32.