The early 20th Century was, it seems, the age of contraptions, due in no small part to the genius of people like W. Heath Robinson, whose imagination knew no bounds. In the household of my formative years the term “gold-plated Heath Robinson” – somewhere in that vague area between noun and adjective - came to signify not just any old complicated what-you-ma-call-it, generally constructed from recycled bits and pieces that happened to be lying around, but a device put together with some flair and panache. If it actually did the job intended this was, of course, handy, but incidental. One of his more famous cartoons was the potato peeler, shown above, no doubt designed to the free hundreds – nay, thousands - of bored staff from their tedious tasks in field kitchens behind the lines all along the Western Front, for the far more stimulating duties which awaited them in the trenches.
A great many of these contraptions, unsurprisingly, never amounted to much, and only n0w see the light of day due to the penchant for people like yours truly for pointless dwelling on the past, and an unexplainable desire to unearth such curiosities from dusty archives.
This rather unusually shaped bicycle may not have been designed, or even owned, by my great-grandfather Frans Smit (1865-1955), but there are no obvious scuff marks or gaping tears in the elbows or knees of his suit, so presumably he had mastered the required technique. The otherwise friendly Friesian cow seems to be showing a little alarm, and may be concerned that it’s some new-fangled milking machine, rather than a human plaything. According to a note on the reverse, the photo was taken at Sneek on “Pinksteren 24,” which my mother interprets for me as Pentecost or Whitsunday, 1924, and my trusty Calisto calendar utility tells me was on 20 May.
By this time Frans Smit and his wife Akke de Jager (1863-1951) were living in Amsterdam, but he was born in nearby Leeuwarden, and they returned frequently to south-west Friesland on holiday, often with children and grandchildren in tow. Judging by the frequency of its appearance in family albums, and in spite of the apparently rather featureless landscape, Sneek was a favourite destination.
Apart from a frame of roughly conventional, if low slung, shape and vertically-extended handlebar, the apparatus appears to have the usual wire-spoked wheels with pneumatic tyres, mud guards, cable-or rod-operated rim brakes and forks. When examined in detail, however, the absence of the normal rotary pedals becomes evident, replaced by two sets of what appear to be lever-style pedals. I think they might operate in a similar manner to those of children’s pedal cars – drive rods and crank axle - but the method of linkage to the back wheel/hub is hidden, so I can’t be sure. The thought briefly occurred, both to my wife and to myself, that it might have been designed without any propelling mechanism – in other words, a push bike in the true sense of the word – but I think that even in Holland where a rise of a couple of metres might be regarded as significant topography, that might be a little pointless.
However the contraption worked, I hope he carried a supply of Elliman's Universal Embrocation (or whatever the local equivalent was at that time), and didn't venture too far afield. It doesn’t look a very easy bike to push for miles, in the event of a puncture or some other misadventure.
Sepia Saturday this week has a photograph of an early aerial contraption which looks as though it might have benefited from having the pedal design from Frans Smit’s velocipede. I’m keen to head off and see what delights other contributors have unearthed. I’m also hopeful that visitors brought here by said meme, presumably also folk with a keen interest in the esoteric and irrelevant, might have come across something similar in their wanderings, and can enlighten us further.