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By David Rooney on

Good vibrations

David Rooney, Transport Curator, takes a closer look at the 'Whippet' cycle, introduced in 1885.

The bike I currently use has no suspension. This doesn’t bother me. I only use it on London streets and I’d rather my pedalling effort went into going forward than compressing a spring up and down. But it would have been a different matter on badly-made Victorian roads using a bike with solid rubber tyres… enter the ‘Whippet’ cycle, introduced in 1885:

Whippet bicycle, c.1885 (Science Museum / Science & Society)
‘Whippet’ bicycle, c.1885 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The sprung-framed Whippet was made by a firm called Linley & Biggs in their factory at 29 Clerkenwell Road, London. As their publicity blurb stated, the Whippet was “the only machine upon which The Rider is completely insulated from all Vibration”.

But just three years after the Whippet’s introduction, in 1888, the pneumatic tyre was introduced by John Dunlop. We’ve got what’s reputed to be one of Dunlop’s own original tyres from 1888 in our collection (in store at Blythe House), and here’s a photo of the man himself (with his splendid Victorian beard):

John Dunlop, c.1890 (Science Museum / Science & Society)
John Dunlop, c.1890 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Following the introduction of pneumatic tyres, bike vibration was cut dramatically and the spring-frame was gradually dropped in favour of the rigid frame we know today (which is easier to make and maintain). But cycle-makers never stop innovating. Modern mountain bikes can now come with highly sophisticated suspension systems, and also in our collection is this rather sexy carbon-fibre bike, although it’s more for the race-track than the New Cross Road…

Lotus carbon fibre bicycle, 1992 (Science Museum / Science & Society)
Lotus carbon fibre bicycle, 1992 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Footnote: historians of technology amongst you may want to refer to your copy of Wiebe Bijker’s ‘Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs’. Bijker discusses the Whippet at length.