Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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Denis Johnson

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Denis Johnson (c1759-1833) a coachmaker of Long Acre, London created an improved version of Karl Drais's dandy horse in 1819.

Johnson's, who was sixty years old at this time, patented version featured an elegantly curved wooden frame, allowing the use of larger wheels and was commonly called "hobby horse" or "pedestrian curricle" or "swiftwalker".

In Johnson's model of dandy-horse, like Drais's, the transmission was human-powered transport using the "natural" methods of walking or running, with the rider striking the feet on the ground alternately, left and right.

Although Johnson referred to his machine as a ‘pedestrian curricle’, it was formally referred to as a ‘velocipede’, and popularly as a ‘Hobby-horse’, ‘Dandy-horse’, ‘Pedestrian's accelerator’, ‘Swift walker’ and by a variety of other names.

Johnson made at least 320 velocipedes in the early part of 1819. He also opened riding schools in the Strand and Soho. In May 1819 he introduced a dropped-frame version for ladies to accommodate their long skirts.

For about six months the machine had a high profile in London and elsewhere, its principal riders being the Regency dandies. About eighty prints were produced in London, depicting the 'hobby-horse' and its users, not always in a flattering light.

Johnson's son undertook a tour of England in the spring of 1819 to exhibit and publicise the item. Nevertheless, by the summer of the same year the craze was dying out, and a health warning against the continued use of the velocipede was issued by the London Surgeons.

In Johnson's machine, like that of von Drais, propulsion was simply by ‘swift walking’, with the rider striking his (or her) feet on the ground alternately. However, it led directly (albeit after a long delay) to the invention of the bicycle in the 1860s, when rotary cranks and pedals were attached to the front-wheel hub of a machine based on Johnson's.

In 1819 he opened a riding school near his workshop and charged a shilling for admission. The price of a 'velocipede' was eight pounds.


See Also

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Sources of Information

[1] Wikipedia

  • Bicycle, The History by David V. Herlihy. Pub. 2004
  • Liverpool Mercury etc, Tuesday, March 30, 1869