Welcome to my blog!

Hi!  My name is Liz and I am a professional historian of technology.  I will be blogging sporadically mostly about history of technology and science with a bit of cycling and travelling goodness thrown in now and then to keep you interested!  My background is in history of communications but I’m also interested in contemporary writings about technology as well as museum collections.  I love researching, whether it’s going through documents in archives or reading historical periodicals with the Electrician being a personal favourite.

You can find out more about me or if you have any further questions feel free to get in touch.

Guglielmo Marconi, portrait, head and shoulders, facing left, 1908. Image available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The many faces of Marconi: a review of “Marconi: the Man Who Networked the World” by Marc Raboy

A review of Marconi: the Man Who Networked the World by Marc Raboy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), originally published in the February 2017 issue of Physics World and re-published here with kind permission.

Guglielmo Marconi, portrait, head and shoulders, facing left, 1908.  Image available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Guglielmo Marconi, portrait, head and shoulders, facing left, 1908. Image available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In July 1897 the young Italian entrepreneur Guglielmo Marconi was granted what is considered to be the world’s first wireless patent. To commercialize and popularize the embryonic technology that was wireless telegraphy, he founded his own company – the Wireless Signal and Telegraph Company, which later became Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company. The Italian innovator – and future Nobel physics laureate – had an ambitious vision for an interconnected, global wireless network, modelled on the existing global telegraphic network that spanned the globe in the late 19th century.

The success of Marconi – the man, as well as his many companies in the fields of wireless communications, broadcast radio and early television – is well documented in many a popular and academic publication. And yet, despite continued interest in Marconi’s public and private life throughout his time and even today, Marc Raboy’s Marconi: the Man Who Networked the World is the first detailed, thorough and academically rigorous biography of Marconi. Raboy presents a critical account of Marconi’s personality and private life, connecting the many different strands – commercial, political, social and public – surrounding Marconi, as well as covering the inventor’s important contributions to wireless communications and other technologies that have impacted our modern world.

The book neatly divides Marconi’s life into five chronological sections, describing various aspects and impacts of Marconi’s personality. The first section, “The Prodigy”, looks at Marconi’s early life as he grew up in Bologna, with his Italian–Irish family – his mother was Annie Jamieson of the Irish whiskey family. In 1896 at the age of 22, Marconi moved to Britain to begin his early commercial and international work in wireless technology, which led to his ground-breaking transatlantic transmission in December 1901.

Around this narrative of the more well-known parts of Marconi’s life, Raboy also describes more personal tales, including Marconi’s early and secretive romantic entanglements, such as his unfulfilled engagement to the American Josephine Holman.

The book then moves on to “The Player” – a section that examines the eight busy years between the transatlantic transmission in 1901 and Marconi’s Nobel prize (awarded jointly with German wireless pioneer Ferdinand Braun) in 1909. The book deftly intertwines Marconi’s charming personality and highly successful use of publicity – Marconi presented himself as a celebrity inventor – with the early commercial and international development of the various Marconi companies. Raboy also points out Marconi’s less charming use of legal action, including patent litigation, in an attempt to stifle competition.

In “The Patriot”, Raboy moves on to wider changes in the Marconi Company, such as the appointment of new managing director Godfrey Isaacs, and the ups and downs of Marconi and his companies before and during the First World War. The latter included the life-saving and headline-grabbing application of wireless telegraphy during the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912. Another point of note was the “Marconi Scandal”, also in 1912, in which the company lost its lucrative contract with the British government to construct the Imperial Wireless Scheme, in light of political deals and share-rigging. Raboy also describes how Marconi reconsidered his role, and that of wireless communications, in the aftermath of the world wars and the global devastation they had wrought.

The final two sections of the book – “The Outsider” and “The Conformist” – look at the inventor’s first forays into Italian fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the end of his first marriage and subsequent second marriage. Raboy also explores Marconi’s interest and involvement in wider technical applications of wireless technologies including beam navigation for ships and aircraft, broadcast radio, and short-wave long-distance radio. Marconi conducted many experiments in these new and promising technologies, with much of his experimental programme conducted on his floating laboratory, the yacht Elettra after whom his daughter Elettra from his second marriage was named (and not the other way round).

Raboy concludes with Marconi’s somewhat early and unexpected death in July 1937 at the age of 63, his heritage and the concerted efforts of Marconi and later his family to control his reputation and guarantee his legacy – a task continued by the Marconi Company publicity department well beyond Marconi’s death into the late 20th century.

In this readable and authoritative biography running to nearly 900 pages, Raboy provides a critical and illuminating study of how Marconi’s complicated personality and personal attributes – an irresistible combination of magnetic charm, singular vision and ruthless grand ambition – shaped his own life as well as the lives of many others. Unlike previous studies of Marconi, Raboy does not gloss over the more negative aspects of the inventor’s personality: his absence as a father; his many romantic affairs; his multiple and frequent threats of patent litigation to limit commercial competition; his use of the work of others (only some of whom worked for him and his companies); his (ultimately unfulfilled) monopolistic ambitions for a global wireless network; and his close involvement with Italian fascism towards the end of his life. Instead, Raboy argues that it was these very personality traits that shaped and determined the majority of Marconi’s business and technological choices, many of which contributed ultimately to the interconnected wireless world we live in today.

In claiming Marconi as “the man who networked the world”, Raboy is perhaps on shakier ground, as he downplays the importance and successes of the pre-existing global telegraph network in order to present Marconi as a unique visionary. Despite this somewhat overly ambitious underlying premise, Raboy’s volume is a major and long overdue biography that combines archival sources and publications to create a highly readable and fascinating insight into the public and private aspects of Marconi’s life. The book will appeal to popular and academic readers alike, including those with an interest in early wireless and tele­communications technologies, as well as those interested in a more insightful and illuminating look at Marconi’s life.

By Elizabeth Bruton, originally published in the February 2017 issue of Physics World.

Photograph of William Preece, 1899. Image available in the public domain via Grace's Guide.

William Preece on messenger boys vs telephones: worst technological prediction of all time?

The Americans have need of the telephone, but we [the British] do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.
William Preece

William Henry Preece, 1896. From the Bodleian Library Marconi Company archives and made available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

William Henry Preece, 1896. From the Bodleian Library Marconi Company archives and made available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Today (15 February) marks the birthday of one William Henry Preece, born in Caernarfon, Wales on 15 February 1834 who later went on to become Engineer-in-Chief of the British Post Office. Little known today, Preece was a prominent Victorian and electrical engineer who held a key role in the development of telegraphy and introduction to telephony and wireless telegraphy in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through his three-decade long service with the British Post Office and previous work in private electrical telegraph companies.

Where he is known today, it is perhaps in his early support of the young Guglielmo Marconi and his wireless system when both arrived in Britain in early 1896 with Preece providing a platform and technical expertise from which Marconi could promote his wireless system to scientists, engineers, and the general public.

But it was perhaps a casually made comment by Preece with regards to the telephone, a comment considered one “worst one of the worst tech predictions of all time” and a “top 10 bad tech prediction” (and many more along these lines) for which he is best known today.

The quote is generally presented as being a response to a question about the future potential of the telephone with the question being sometimes falsely attributed as being a response to a question from Alexander Graham Bell no less! In this blog post, I will attempt to answer the following questions:

  • What was the actual context, source, and form of the original quotation?
  • Is it documented as actually being said by Preece?
  • If so, what is the context – historic and personal – for the quotation?
  • How was the quotation popularised, particularly in terms of technological predictions?

The original quotation and documented evidence

The quotation at the beginning of this post has appeared in various forms and with various dates attached over the years. After much searching, one of the oldest versions of the quotation I was able to find was in an article entitled “Entertaining Varieties” in Popular Science Monthly from August 1882, which is most probably quoting and summarising content from Blackwood’s Magazine. The Popular Science Monthly article quotes (unnamed) “one of the most able and experienced electricians of the day” as saying before a Select Committee hearing in 1879 and with regard to the future of the telephone in Britain:

But there are conditions in America which necessitate the use of instruments of this kind more there than here. Here we have a superabundance of messengers, errand boys, and things of that kind. In America they are wanted.

entertaining-varieties

“Entertaining varieties” article in “Popular Science Monthly” (1882), 541.

This quotation and the key phrase “superabundance of messengers” leads to the 1879 Select Committee on Lighting by Electricity where Preece was called, in his role as Post Office electrician (electrical engineer), to give evidence on 2 May and where he was questioned extensively by Select Committee member Lord Lindsay and others on electric lighting.  Lord Lindsay’s questions included those about the electric currents induced by powerful exterior electric lighting and relatedly how the new telephone lines and instruments were especially sensitive to these induced currents.  About halfway through Preece’s evidence, Lord Lindsay almost as an aside asked Preece the fateful question: “whether the telephone will be an instrument for the future which will be largely adopted by the public?”

In answer to this question, Preece replied: “I think not.” When further questioned by Lord Lindsay as to whether “[The telephone] will not take the same position in [Britain] as it has already done in America?”, Preece replied in more detail:

I fancy that the descriptions we get of its use in America are a little exaggerated; but there are conditions in America which necessitate the use of instruments of this kind more there than here. Here we have a superabundance of messengers, errand boys, and things of that kind. In America they are wanted, and one of the most striking things to an English-man there is to see how the Americans have adopted in their houses call bells and telegraphs, and telephones, and all kinds of aids to their domestic arrangements, which have been forced upon them by necessity.
Lyon Sir Playfair, “Report from the Select Committee on Lighting by Electricity; Together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, and Appendix,” in Document type: HOUSE OF COMMONS PAPERS; REPORTS OF COMMITTEES (London: House of Commons, 1879), 69.

So here we have the quotation in its original form and context, documented and attributed to Preece himself in 1879 but does this accurately reflect the context – historic and personal – of Preece and his personal opinion of the potential and development of the telephone?

Historic and personal context

Photograph of William Preece, 1899. Image available in the public domain via Grace's Guide.

Photograph of William Preece, 1899. Image available in the public domain via Grace’s Guide.

To better understand this quotation, we have to look more closely at Preece’s background and interest in telecommunications, particularly in the electrical telegraph and the telephone. Preece’s interest in electrical engineering was sparked (so to speak) by attending public lectures given by pioneers in the field such as Michael Faraday and John Tyndall. In 1852 Preece began working at the Electric Telegraph Company (ETC), a company he worked at for the first fifteen years of his career.

Preece began at ETC as an unpaid apprentice working for Edwin Clark, then Engineer-in-Chief of the company, and a year later in 1853, Preece was taken on as a clerk at ETC and was employed in ordinary electrical work with a focus on submarine cable manufacture and cable laying. Preece also briefly assisted Michael Faraday with telegraphic experiments in 1853 but his later claim to have learnt everything he knew about electrical engineering at “the feet of Faraday” is more rhetoric than reality. In 1854 Preece became an assistant to Latimer Clark and in 1856, three years after joining the company, Preece was promoted to superintendent of their southern district with headquarters at Southampton.

In 1870, Preece entered the employment of the Post Office in 1870, shortly after the 1868 and 1869 Telegraph Acts nationalised the domestic telegraph network – including the parts of the network belonging to Preece’s employer ETC – and brought it under the control of the Post Office. Preece was a dedicated, loyal, and prolific man, both professional and personally. Preece worked for the Post Office for over thirty years, eventually retiring as Engineer-in-Chief and Electrician (the latter part of the title by request of Preece himself) in February 1899.

Lord Kelvin caricatured by Spy (Leslie Ward) for Vanity Fair, 1897. Image available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Lord Kelvin caricatured by Spy (Leslie Ward) for Vanity Fair, 1897. Image available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile in September 1876, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and Preece introduced Bell’s telephone before the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) held that year in Glasgow. Less than eighteen months after Bell filed his controversial US patent, 1878 marked a series of firsts in relation to the telephony in Britain with all of these events taking place. In June 1878 Bell established the Telephone Company Ltd in order to exploit his British patents. A few months later, Preece made the first practical demonstration of a pair of telephones before the annual meeting of the BAAS in Plymouth and later that same year, the Post Office provided its first telephones – a pair of Bell telephones – on rental to a firm in Manchester.

From this, we can see that Preece was supportive of the development telephone, both in a personal capacity as well as in his role as a Post Office engineer so from where did his Select Committee answer originate?

For further clarification, we can look forward to 1880, a mere two years after Preece first introduced Bell’s telephone to Britain and just over a year after his much-quoted Select Committee hearing comments on the future development of the telephone

IET Archives: A set of hand-written notes by Sir William Preece, dated 1 June 1877, describing the mechanical and physical properties of Thomas Edison's newly invented 'speaking telegraph'.

IET Archives: A set of hand-written notes by Sir William Preece, dated 1 June 1877, describing the mechanical and physical properties of Thomas Edison’s newly invented “speaking telegraph.”

From November to December 1880, the legal case of The Attorney General v The Edison Telephone Company of London Ltd was heard in the Exchequer Division of the Hugh Court of Justice. This legal case referred to a dispute between the Edison Company and the Post Office on the rights of the Post Office over telephone systems and would have a long-term effect upon the development of the telephony in Britain.  In a landmark ruling the court decided in favour of the state, in this case the Post Office. The judgement concluded that the telephone was a “speaking telegraph” and a telephone conversation was a de facto telegram and therefore came under the state licensing for telecommunications, then managed by the Post Office.

Based on this judgement as well as Preece’s 1877 notes (right), we can see that Preece (as well as the British state through the legal judgement listed above) viewed the telephone as a “speaking telegraph”, and hence Preece’s judgement of the future usage and potential of the telephone in Britain was very much informed by his background in electrical telegraphy as well as his naturally cautious personality.

And so, in his 1879 comments on the future of the telephone, Preece most likely viewed the development of the telephone in Britain as following that of his beloved electric telegraph: a technological system which was widely developed and carefully licensed and controlled by the state via the General Post Office but a system which would not enter the domestic sphere in the way that it had in America. Rather, access would be, as it had for the telegraph, via commercially operated lines and offices with the last mile or so to the domestic sphere being provided by the messengers and errand boys mentioned in Preece’s comment to the Select Committee hearing. The telephone would have been a “speaking telegraph” and operated in a similar commercial rather than domestic sphere with access through necessity and cost being only to the government, business, military, and some private wealthy individuals.

While his quotation may indeed have been an inaccurate prediction of where telephones would be used (in the domestic sphere), it is not the damning verdict of non-development and hindrance that limited quoting / mis-quoting would suggestion. It is also important to remember the context:

  1. It was an opinion somewhat casually asked and made in the midst of evidence being gathered before a Select Committee about electric lighting, a naturally conservative and limited forum
  2. It was also a comment made in the more general context of Preece’s personal and professional context of electric telegraphy – in predicting the future, Preece looked both to the past (specifically his electrical telegraphy past) as well as the differences between Britain and America at the time. In the late 1870s, British cities were closer together and more densely populated than American ones and British society did not have such a large and prosperous middle class as that of America. In addition, British society was a more cautious adopter of domestic electrical devices than America society. For these reasons and more including the problems of electrical interference mentioned in his original Select Committee hearing, Preece preferred a vision of British developments in telephony as being akin to the “speaking telegraph” accessed through telegraph officers rather than the busy-ness of electrical devices in the domestic sphere, as it was in America

With this in mind, Preece’s comment reads like a historically and personally sensible comment rather than the outlandish technological prediction it is made to be today. He did not believe in a limited development of telephony but rather expressed a desire for the limited development of telephony in the domestic sphere.

Popularisation of Preece’s quotation

So how did this quotation come to be popularised and mis-quoted in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? After languishing in relative obscurity with a plethora of mentions in periodicals and journals in the late nineteenth century, the quotation was mentioned in passing in Marion May Dilts’ The Telephone In A Changing World, published in New York and Toronto in 1941 but it was not until the mid-1960s that the quotation was given its current understanding, emphasis and ridicule.

One of the earliest popularisers of Preece’s quotation was Harold Sharlin’s “The making of the electrical age; from the telegraph to automation.” which was published in Britain in 1963/1964. It was also around this time that the quotation was further popularised by Tony Benn, very possibly in his capacity as Postmaster General between 1964 and 1966, and who then allegedly passed the quotation on to Arthur C. Clarke who then published and popularised it further in his essay ‘Communications in the Second Century of The Telephone’ in The Telephone’s First Century — And Beyond: Essays on the Occasion of the 100th anniversary of Telephone Communication by Arthur C. Clarke et al (1977). Hence, the quotation appeared in various forms with regularity and ridicule in print and now online through to the present day.

Conclusion

This quotation is regularly included in lists of “worst technological predictions” in print and online, ridiculing Preece (when attributed) and his under-estimation of the popular development of the telephone in Britain and how messengers and errands boys would be more satisfactory and suitable – messengers and errand boys, how quaint, we say!  But, as explored above, the full context of the quotation including Preece’s personal and professional capacities demonstrates that the quotation in full is not an under-estimation of the future but rather a mis-understanding and under-estimation of the past and an uncontextualised one at that.

By Elizabeth Bruton.

CQD lock, image courtesy of Bill Liles.

Unlocking the mystery of CQD

CQD lock, image courtesy of Bill Liles.

CQD lock, image courtesy of Bill Liles.

A good friend sent the image above, knowing it would be of interest and hoping I could find out more about the unusual lock in question which shows a ship sending out the emergency signal “CQD” wirelessly with the wireless signal being depicted as akin to lightning bolts emerging from the ship’s aerial.

Dating the lock is relatively easy as the use of “CQD” as the emergency signal over the more familiar and later “SOS” instantly dates the lock to approximately the first decade of the twentieth century.

“CQD” was the emergency wireless signal suggested by the Marconi International Maritime Company around February 1904 and adopted by most other British wireless companies at around this time. Like many of the signalling practices in the embryonic field of wireless communications at the turn of the twentieth century, CQD had it’s origins in the older electrical telegraph practices with “CQ” being the general call and “D” being shorthand for “distress” or “danger.”

At the 1906 Radiotelegraph Conference held in Berlin in October and November 1906, a number of important decisions were made about international regulations for wireless communications. The key decision was agreement to the principle of intercommunication, that is communication between wireless systems operated by different wireless companies, which had been strongly opposed by the Marconi Company who believed this principle strongly threatened their monopolistic goals as well as their patent rights. Meanwhile, the principle of intercommunication was strongly supported by many other nations at the conference in particular Germany.

"NC" distress flag. Image available in the public domain.

“NC” distress flag. Image available in the public domain.

Another discussion at the 1906 conference which fell along broadly national lines was that of the international standard for wireless distress signal.

  • The German contingent proposed “SOS”, this being an adaptation of their original distress signal “SOE” with the terminal “S” (3 dots) making a more distinctive signal and the “SOS” signal had been adopted by Germany as their nationally recognised distress signal a year previously in April 1905
  • The British delegates proposed “CQD” which, as mentioned previously, had been proposed and popularised by the Marconi Company, then Britain and the world’s largest wireless company
  • Meanwhile, the delegates from the United States suggested “NC,” this being shorthand for “Call for help without delay” which was not widely considered at the 1906 conference but which continues to be used as the international flag signal for distress.
Morse Code Signals: SOS and CQD. The illustration shows the dashes and dots that make up the international call for help at sea.  Image available in the public domain.

Morse Code Signals: SOS and CQD. The illustration shows the dashes and dots that make up the international call for help at sea. Image available in the public domain.

Ultimately, the German proposal of “SOS” was agreed to at the 1906 conference but took a while to be adopted. For example, the Marconi Company wireless operators used both “CQD” and “SOS” when sending out their desperate emergency messages after the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg in April 2012. At the 1912 Radiotelegraphic Conference held in London in June and July 1912 held a mere few months after the sinking of the Titanic, maritime safety came to the fore and the “SOS” signal was determined to be the sole emergency wireless distress signal.

CQD lock, image courtesy of Bill Liles.

CQD lock, image courtesy of Bill Liles.

So, if the lock shown at can be dated to approximately between 1904 and 1912, then is there a particular event it may be depicting?  Well yes – one of the most well-known (if not the best-known) use of “CQD” between 1904 and 1912 and was on 23 January 1909 when the White Star Line vessel RMS Republic (with a Marconi wireless operator on board) collided with the Italian liner the SS Florida in fog off the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts.  The passengers of the RMS Republic were rescued by the many vessels which answered her “CQD” distress call but the ship sank a day later while being towed to New York.

A year later in 1910, US hardware company Simmons Hardware Company began offering the CQD lock in question for sale in their trade catalogues and, with some artistic licence particularly in terms of the funnels (the RMS Republic had a single funnel rather than the two apparently depicted on the lock), the similarity between the RMS Republic and the ship shown on the lock is noticeable.

rms_republic

SS Republic

Although not related to the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the company continued to sell the lock in the aftermath of the sinking and through until around the time of US entry into World War One in 1917 when padlocks depicting wireless distress messages were less desirable and as “CQD” was completely replaced by “SOS.”

These beautifully crafted antique padlocks do occasionally come up for sale on eBay and mark a fascinating insight into the changing practices and politics surrounding wireless communications and maritime safety in the early years of the twentieth century.

By Elizabeth Bruton.

A close-up of the altar at All Saints, Siddington decorated with corn dollies.

Harvest Corn Dollies at All Saints, Siddington, Cheshire

All Saints, Siddington, Cheshire

All Saints, Siddington, Cheshire

Located on the side of the A34 between Congleton and Alderley Edge in Cheshire, All Saints Church at Siddington is clearly visible on a slight rise with its distinctive timber frame filled with wattle and daub plaster and painted with black and white stripes to highlight the timber frame.  However, it was not just the distinctive exterior of this historic church founded in 1337 which caught the attention of this passing cycling but rather the sign for harvest decorations and corn dollies which appeared in early October.

Corn dollies (sometimes known as “corn mothers” or “corn maidens”) are a form of straw artwork with roots in pagan traditions and culture around the harvest festival in October, with beliefs that the corn spirit (a spirit of fertility) lived amongst the crop and that through harvesting the corn spirit was made homeless and so would retreat into the last-standing ears of corn.  And so the corn reapers would handcraft likeness of people or weave geometrical shapes from the last sheaves of the harvest into which the corn spirit could take refuge.

The chandelier at All Saints, Siddington decorated with corn dollies.

The chandelier at All Saints, Siddington decorated with corn dollies.

These corn dollies would be taken home for the winter and kept safe in the farmstead until spring time when a procession would take the corn dolly out to the newly ploughed field where it would be ceremonially broken open so that the corn spirit would return to the ground in the first furrow of the new season (on what was sometimes known as ‘Plough Monday’) and with it the promise of fertility for the newly sown crop.

Corn dollies formed a part of the harvest customs – pagan and Christian – in Europe prior to mechanisation and the related introduction of less traditional variants of wheat in aftermath of mechanisation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Corn dollies were sometimes used to decorate straw ricks around harvest time and were thought to keep away evil spirits and even witches.  Today, corn dollies can be found in some Christian churches as part of the harvest decorations and as a representation of farming craftsmanship and All Saints at Siddington is an example of this long-standing tradition.

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Every October around the time of the harvest festival, All Saints church at Siddington is decorated with a rich display fruit, vegetables, flowers alongside hundreds if not thousands of corn dollies, all hand-made by local farmer Raymond Rush.  Mr Rush also sells corn dollies at his workshop next to the church.

The decorating of the church alone takes a day or more with each corn dolly taking tens or sometimes hundreds of hours to make by hand by Mr Rush, who lives at a farm near the church and has been making corn dollies for most of his life and decorating  the church since the 1960s.  The skill and craftsmanship of his corn dollies are such that the church is kept open during daylight hours while the dollies are on display so visitors can enjoy and admire his beautiful and rare artwork.

The Corn Dollies at All Saints Siddington are on display for about a month every year from the Harvest Festival in the second week in October and, if you feel suitable inspired, you can even learn to make your own!

Further Information

All Saints Siddington Church

Corn Dolly Harvest at Siddington

Eden Project: How to Make a Corn Dolly

Female cyclist wheeling bicycle up muddy hill on St. Clair Avenue West, Toronto, 1907

So what is a “push bike”?

Spine of James T. Lightwood's The Cyclists Touring Club, the Romance of Fifty Years Cycling (1928).

Spine of James T. Lightwood’s The Cyclists Touring Club, the Romance of Fifty Years Cycling (1928).

In a recent post on his excellent blog “Roads Were Not Built for Cars”, Carlton Reid issued an impassioned plea for the UK’s Department for Transport to cease using the term “push-bike” to describe the bicycle.  Reid argued that the term, first put forward in 1903, was offensive, old-fashioned and obnoxious.

Reid cited James T. Lightwood’s 1928 history of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, “The Romance of the Cyclists’ Touring Club”, which suggested that the term “push bike” was first used by Joseph Pennell (1857-1926) in 1903 and was intended as a put down.

Pennell was and is best known as an American author and illustrator but he was also a keen traveller and travel writer.  Based in Britain, Pennell regularly travelled with his high-society journalist wife Elizabeth and together they wrote about their travels and cycling exploits in many of the leading journals of the day.  Pennell was a long-time user of bicycles and tricycles but around the turn of the twentieth century he converted to motor cycling.  Thereafter, according to Lightwood, he began using the term “push bike” to describe his former mode of transport in an “obnoxious” and “objectionable” fashion.

Female cyclist wheeling bicycle up muddy hill on St. Clair Avenue West, Toronto, 1907

Female cyclist wheeling bicycle up muddy hill on St. Clair Avenue West, Toronto, 1907. Image available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It was around the time that this female cyclist was pushing her bicycle (or “push bike”) along a muddy avenue in Toronto that the term itself began to enter common usage.

The earliest recorded usage for “push bike” (n.) in the Oxford English Dictionary (this may require a login) was from a June 1910 issue of Autocar: ‘A scratch race on ‘push bikes’ for A. A. Patrols.’ but the OED also records an early usage of “push bicycle” (n.) from 1906: Bazaar, Exchange & Mart in November 1906: ‘Exchange [motor-cycle]..for good make 25in push bicycle and cash.’

However, I have come across a few slightly earlier references, in particular to “push bike”.

In Henry Revell Reynolds’ Motor for moderate incomes (1905) p47, the author comments on the difficulties of driving a motorcar in adverse weather conditions:

…more considerable that a “push-bike,” so it is very advisable to take precautions and notice whether rain has fallen, little or much.

Also in late 1905/ early 1906, The Bystander: An Illustrated Weekly, Devoted to Travel, Literature, Art, the Drama, Progress, Locomotion Volume 8, p414 compared the bicycle and the motor-bike thus:

Besides the push-bike and its heavier brother, the motor-bike….

Headline from ""The Little Motor-Car. Revelations of the Holidays. On the Portsmouth Road." The Times, 14 April 1914, p10.

Headline from “”The Little Motor-Car. Revelations of the Holidays. On the Portsmouth Road.” The Times, 14 April 1914, p10.

The phrase “push bike” may have begun to be popularised between 1906 and 1910 but it was not until April 1914 when The Times of London decided to use it for the first time and, in an article entitled “The Little Motor-Car. Revelations of the Holidays. On the Portsmouth Road.” (will require login), somewhat contrarily argued that the term “push bike” itself was a signaller of the demise of the bicycle.

In this short article, the author noted:

Even that hansom, as car after car whirls by it, from the stately touring-car to the derisive little imp of a motor-bicycle, must admit that the Portsmouth Road to-day is the road of the motor.  But the motor’s kingdom is not yet undisputed.  It is a year or two now since what used to be known merely as a bicycle came to be called distinctively and contemptuously a “push-bike,” just as a carriage is now a “horse-drawn” carriage.  There is a knell in each epithet: but the push-bike’s day is not yet over.  You notice them only as you notice the kind of midge that does not bite – by reason of their numbers.  They are all over the road, in hundreds – and two per cent of them are by the side of the road, upside down having their punctures mended.

However, it wasn’t until 1916 when the term – especially in the form “push-bike” – began to take off as this Google Ngram (to be taken with a pinch of a salt, at least for the earlier entries) shows.