At a casual glance fans of the work of William Heath Robinson and Rube Goldberg might assume that the sketch above was one of the many outlandish and improbable machines they drew during their respective careers as illustrators and cartoonists. In fact it’s the sketch that accompanied Hiram B. Nickerson’s 1896 US patent for an “Aerial Bicycle” for use on an elevated railway.
The idea seems to have been a popular one, at least if patents of the time for other similar inventions are taken into account. A year earlier Henry Weaver and Harry Phillips of Burlington, New Jersey, had patented their design for an “Overhead Bicycle Railway” which was “particularly well adapted for use by ladies, as the parts will be arranged so as not to interfere in any way with the dress.” In the same year Willard Gillman of Boston, Massachusetts, submitted his patent for an “Aerial Velocipede and Track“. As recently as 2009 Kenneth Vaux saw mileage in the idea when he submitted his patent for an “Elevated bicycle-based transportation system, connection apparatus for bicycle and modified bicycle“.
Quite how Nickerson’s invention was supposed to function in day-to-day life is unclear. If intended as a means of mass transportation in urban areas it would have required an extensive network of overhead rails and a complicated system of switching mechanisms to allow aerial riders to change lanes and enter and leave junctions. Not to mention the development of a set of rules and traffic signs to govern use and manage the flow of traffic as airborne cyclists whizzed through the streets.
As impractical as it sounds the aerial bicycle has appeal. Imagine a busy city street where, instead of cars packed bumper to bumper (or fender to fender if you prefer), hundreds of people fly through the air, legs pumping furiously, as they glide along a few feet above the ground. Personally I think it would be a vast improvement.
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