A Bit of Biking History (part 1)

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Courtesy ANDREWR (originally posted at ukrm.net)

History of the Motorbike (Chapter 1)

Leicester, 1899

At the end of the 18th century the, then village, of Leicester was a very different place to the modern town – the main industry was ferret baiting and you could often see gaps in the outside lane of the M1 (which was used predominantly by horses, hence Mare-route 1).

Leicester was also the home to one Harold “Triumph” Norton. Harry was the son of the noted inventor Ichabod “Unless” Norton, a leading thinker of his day – assuming that his day was sometime in the late Jurassic era. Norton senior specialised in inventing things that people already had, he’d started early developing the wheel during a long carriage journey and had progressed on to rediscover fire, the flint axe, glass and where babies come from. The later discovery had occupied much of his time and resulted in Harold and his 23 siblings.

Leicester in 1899 was an exciting place to live, the bread factory had just burnt down and there’d been a superb punch-up on the high street, but Harry cared little for such things. He was downhearted for two main reasons. Firstly, he dreamt an impossible dream of motor powered bicycle travel and, secondly, his father had just pegged it. Harry’s legacy was a small one, given the size of his family and the fact that his father had never earned so much as a farthing in his whole life. All he inherited was his fathers burning passion for inventing, a one twenty forth share in a 2 up-2 down terrace house and a shiny pebble that his old man had found on a stroll along the beach one day.

Norton was unperturbed by his lack of material goods, the wildness of his dream or even the, very real, danger that he would starve to death and, in September of ’99 he started building his first motorcycle. Keen to keep the family name alive he was to christen his first machine the “Ichabod”, this was just the first of many mistakes he would make.

Since Harry’s day many successful motorbike designers have brought together a popular frame and engine to produce a good bike. Harry’s downfall was probably selecting the penny farthing and the steam engine as the two pieces of technology to merge into one. Biographer Peter “Crumbly” Clayton described this decision, in his 1953 biography of Norton, in the following manner :

“What inspired the thought to meld these two unholy devices into one will remain a mystery. I would suggest that, in the whole of human history, only the cream filled meringue and the lump hammer have been less compatible.”

Of course, Clayton was writing 40 years before anybody had tried to run a 500 user e-mail system on a Microsoft NT server.


The first, running, prototype of the Ichabod took it’s maiden voyage on 22nd January 1900. The journey, of 130 yards, ended in the shop window of the local cobblers and led Norton to make several inescapable conclusions. Firstly he realised it would be a good idea to wear some kind of protection when travelling. His unplanned journey through the boot makers workshops led him believe that leather would be good for this purpose. The second conclusion was that some method of stopping his machine was probably appropriate. The final and perhaps most important realisation was that really the machine required one person to steer it and a separate person to stoke the furnace.

The prototype Ichabod was sold to a 42 year old telegraph operator who “was bored with horse drawn carriages” and had “always wanted a bike”. It was crashed, at full speed, 20 seconds after being sold when the telegrapher foolishly tried to lift the front wheel off the ground for reasons unknown.

Ichabod II saw the light of day on 22nd May 1900. Now based on an extended “bone-shaker” frame it certainly looked an imposing piece of machinery, as period photos show. Norton too was somewhat imposing, dressed head-to-toe in leather with a leather, zipped mouth, mask. The zip, apparently, being there to allow the mouth opening to be closed when it was cold. Harry was accompanied by his youngest brother, Lucian, on the first, and only, public journey. Lucian had the duel tasks of stoking the furnace and, when braking was required, shoving a stout stick into the spokes of the front wheel.

Harry and Lucian set-off along the Leicester by-pass, which, at the time, was largely speed-camera free. Their journey was 10 miles to Melton Mowbray to get some pies and allowed them to reach a top speed of 34mph. They were waved off by Harry’s wife, who shouted “You’ll both be killed on that bloody thing!” after them as they headed off. Unlike Harry’s invention his wife’s phrase gained wide-spread acceptance and has been the staple dire warning of wives, girlfriends and mothers ever since.

Mrs. Norton was, however, proved to be wrong. Only Lucian was killed on that particular trip, as the braking process launched him through the window of the pie shop [this incident, combined with that of the maiden voyage, led to the mark 1 & 2 Ichabods being christened “the glaziers friend” by a remarkably small number of people].

A contemporary report of the journey can be found in the 1902 book “There’s some thick gits in Leicester” by Dr Howard Walthorne :

“The Ichabod was a most devilish contraption to watch move. The sheer size of the engine did unbalance the whole machine and cause a pronounced side-to-side wobble as it moved forwards. Lacking a seat, the poor stoker was forced to hang off the side, wildly waving his shovel in his left hand as he tried to direct it to the coal scuttle behind the rider. Indeed the only way for the stoker to remain aboard the vehicle was to balance by dragging his right knee along the group as they progressed. I noticed that the stoker wore thick leather patches on the knees of his britches, I suppose to protect his legs while carrying out this laughable manoeuvre. Why any man should be forced to get his knee down to the ground while his bicycle is inclined from the vertical by not a single degree is beyond my reasoning.

At some length the machine built up speed and, I must confess, my Stanley Steamer was quite unable to keep pace with them. I did arrive in Melton Mowbray to see the horse drawn hearse leaving the pie shop and Mr Norton attempted to collar me to provide him with a stoker for the journey home. I refused, as did everybody else he approached and, by the time he had been directed to the village simpleton, it was quite dark. His efforts came to nought when, attempting to purchase coal for his return journey, he was bluntly told by the merchant that they did not ‘serve bikers after dark’. In the end I gave the bounder a ride back to his abode. His conversation was most boring, being largely about the exploits of his recent journey. The only levity to my evening was observing him getting a sound ear bashing from his wife upon his return home because it was gone 2am, she had been worried sick about him, the pies he had purchased were stone cold and he had forgotten to get a loaf of bread.”

When Harry returned to Melton Mowbray, by foot, the next day he discovered that the Ichabod II had been stolen.

Undeterred, in the face of unanimous opposition, he immediately began drawing up plans for the Ichabod III, which was to have a lighter frame, larger engine and a trick exhaust pipe.

Sadly, the Ichabod III was never to be. His wife’s parting words as she abandoned him, “you’ll bloody starve without me to cook for you”, were eerily prophetic and Harry was knocked over by a motorcar as he crossed the road to buy a portion of chips on 22nd November 1900. Witnesses recorded that his dying words were, “A petrol engine, now there’s a bloody good idea.”

Harold “Triumph” Norton is commemorated with a small plaque and the pebble his father left him, both situated in a dark corner of The Leicester Museum Of People We’d Have Been Better Off Without.

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