The Idiot and The Odyssey: The Complete Restoration of my Grandmother’s Singer Sewing Machine

In looking back over my blog, I realise that it’s been over a year since I started the seemingly ludicrous mission of restoring my grandmother’s 1950 Singer 99k sewing-machine. I am proud to say that as of the date of this posting, the restoration is complete!

Gran was born on the 7th of May, 1914 in Singapore. She died on the 28th of November, 2011, in Melbourne, Australia. Weet-Bix are suspected to have played a role in her demise. She was 97.

Granny was a dressmaker, and from the early 1950s until the early 1980s, was in this trade professionally. When she retired, she moved to Australia, and her Singer sewing machine came with her. A battered, but trusty Singer 99k knee-lever electric sewing machine. This machine was gran’s life and she used it in place of any other machine that might ever have been, or might have become available for her to use.

When gran moved to the nursing-home, in the early 2000s after worsening Alzheimer’s Disease, her most treasured possession, her Singer, was placed in the basement, where for the next eight or-so years, it sat in a corner at the bottom of a bookcase, gathering dust.

When gran died, I hauled the machine out of the basement and began a steady restoration process. I don’t know what possessed me to do this, other than the fact that this machine was gran’s livelihood for most of her adult life.

The majority of what happened next is covered in my earlier article. This posting is more of an addendum to what I’ve already written.

The Frankenstein Moment




Actually getting the machine running and sewing for the first time really was an exhilarating experience. Second only to getting the machine-case off the base! It took a lot of oil and fiddling with a screwdriver, but I got it off eventually, and was very happy.

Getting the machine running was a considerable task. It was literally frozen solid when I got the lid off the machine-base, and not a single thing apart from the presser-foot lever and the bobbin-winder worked. Everything else was jammed solid from a complete and total absence of lubrication. And it’s no exaggeration to say that it took me nearly a week to lubricate the entire machine to a level where it would run as well as it did when it was brand-new.

I must admit, it was rather fun. There is the incredible thrill of a challenge, combined with the later sense of accomplishment, when it came to getting that machine running again.

I had almost given up at one point, but perseverance was the key. It was a real joy to see it running at full speed again, for the first time in probably ten years (or whenever the last time it was used, happened to be. At least ten years ago, though).

Duhr…Now What?

It’s working! Oh my god it’s working! It runs, it stitches, it sews, it runs at every speed,  the light turns on, gets hot enough to fry breakfast on, and then turns off. Everything is excellent! But what do we do now, huh?

I really wasn’t sure. Like I said, I didn’t have any real reasons for wanting to bring this thing out of the basement other than to tinker around with it. But once I’d got it running, I started thinking about these other things that I could do. And that’s when the thought entered my head that I could bring the machine back to its former glory, by tracking down and purchasing all the necessary bits and pieces for it. I had no idea where on earth I would begin. But as luck would have it, I live very close to a large and very well-stocked flea-market. And it was from that market that I purchased nearly everything for this machine.

The Scavenger Hunt

I started with simple things, like needles and bobbins. These were pretty easy to find. And all the while, I was busy cleaning and fixing the machine. It was like a gunk-generator. Every time I thought it was clean, I’d find some other part of the machine that required my attention. Like under the bed. Or behind the balance-wheel, or inside the electric motor, or underneath the bobbin-case. On top of everything, the machine required constant lubrication! It drinks oil like Barney Gumble drinks Duff Beer.

The harder things which I had to track down were the sewing-machine accessories boxes, the attachments that went inside them, the accessories that went with them, and the green oil-can that went inside the machine-case. I had no idea what these things looked like, and it took a long time to track them down. I actually ended up buying multiple boxes of attachments and pouring them all out, and scrambling them around until I had assembled one FULL box of attachments from the dribs and drabs found in other boxes. Those dribs and drabs would be useful for spares later on.

One big problem with this machine was finding the original square steel bobbin-plate or ‘slide-plate’. The slide-plate was a protective metal plate that shielded the spinning bobbin-mechanism from dust and tangling threads. There wasn’t anywhere local that I could buy one, and waiting for one to show up at the flea-market would take years.

The only way I could get one was to buy a replacement online. You can buy ORIGINAL Singer plates online (and there are people who sell these), but obviously, stock is limited, and as a result, prices are much higher. I had serious doubts about this. So instead, I went the reproduction route. With the help of a cousin, we bought the replacement plate from an eBay store based in the U.S.A., and had it shipped halfway around the world to…here.

Boy that took so long. I think it was something like a month or more, of waiting.

Finding the oil-can for the sewing-machine was rather challenging. There are all kinds of Singer oil-cans and bottles. And I had no idea which one I would need to fit the slot inside the case-lid. All I knew from what I saw, was that it had to have a flange at the bottom, and it had to have a curved base. Out of sheer luck, I found the can which I needed at the flea-market, hidden in the pre-dawn mists, amongst a bookcase full of all kinds of other cans which were for sale. I paid $5 for it and walked off.

Sentimental Attachments

Finding all the attachments for the sewing-machine was another big challenge. No one box of parts which I bought ever had the full set. So I was forced to buy four or five boxes of parts, and slowly piece them together, to form one big box of attachments. In the end, I had enough bits and pieces around to create two complete boxes!

On top of all the usual steel attachments, was the challenge of finding the zigzagger and buttonholer attachments. These old Singer sewing machines performed a very basic straight lockstitch. To allow these machines to make more complicated things like zigzags and buttonholes like modern machines can, the manufacturers came up with all kinds of fascinating gizmoes which you could bolt onto your machine.

Quality of Manufacture

One thing that I love about all these items is the quality of manufacture. The bobbins, the attachments, screws, plates…everything is made of solid steel, without exception. Nothing like that exists today. Today, bobbins are made of plastic, feet and other attachments are made of plastic. Even the screws are made of plastic. One crack or warping renders them useless. The older steel parts are nigh indestructable.

It’s stiff? Oil it. It’s rusty? Sand it. It’s dull? Polish it.

With plastic parts…it’s cracked?…Uh…I dunno. Throw it out and buy another one?

Money wasted and thrown down the toilet.

These steel pieces will literally last forever. And their simple, no-nonsense construction means that they will always do the job that they were made for, without any compromising on quality. Back in the good old days, this was standard. These days, we have to pay extra for quality that should come with the original product. Which doesn’t. They literally don’t make ’em like they used to.

The Last Piece

By the start of 2013, I had finally gathered all of the main components of the sewing-machine. I had the needles, oil, feet-attachments, the two main mechanical attachments, instruction manuals and other dribs and drabs. However, one piece remained elusive. The bed-extension table.

The bed-extension table came with most Singer sewing machines and it was used to extend the bed of the machine, to give you a larger work-area. This had the advantage of stopping your sewing-piece from sliding off the end of the machine-bed, and pulling your carefully-pinned cloth out of alignment with the needle and presser-foot.

Sadly, they’re not easy to find. The bed-extension table is of very simple construction, and it wasn’t uncommon for them to be thrown out or lost due to their rather bland and simple appearance. Unless you knew what you were looking at, the extension-table looks like just another plank of wood.

I discovered one recently at an antiques shop, along with a box of other bits and pieces, and snapped it up then and there. The standard Singer bed-extension table measures 8.5 inches wide (the width of the machine-bed), and about eight inches long.

Finding that final, missing piece means that the machine is finally back in its original and complete condition, having been reunited with all the items that would’ve come with it when it was purchased brand-new from the shop.

Like New!

The pictures below show the machine looking as it would’ve done back in the 1950s, complete with the parts that would’ve come with it when purchased brand-new:

Bits and pieces such as zigzaggers, buttonholers and other bits and pieces were purchased separately on a required basis. But those photos illustrate what came with the machine when it was brought home for the first time.

This model, the Singer 99 series, was manufactured from the mid-1920s up until the late 1950s, and came as a handcrank machine, or as a knee-lever machine. Knee-lever machines started coming out in the 1930s, and both hand-crank and knee-lever models were produced side by side until the model ceased production ca. 1958.

The body of the Model 99 changed significantly in the later years of its production, but the machine as it appears here would’ve been identical to one from the 1920s, minus the motor and the knee-lever, and with a spoked, instead of solid balance-wheel, with a crank-handle bolted to the side.

Built like a watch? More like a tank. The Model 66, the 99’s immediate predecessor, was highly popular, but extremely heavy and cumbersome.

The Singer 99 model was designed to be a 3/4 size “portable” machine, a step down from the full-size Singer 66 model, which came out in 1905. The 99 was designed to overcome the 66’s problems with regards to size and weight.

This advertisement from 1928 emphasizes the new machine’s portability! And with portability comes choice! You can now sew anywhere you want! Bedroom, living-room, parlour, guestroom, even outside if you wanted to. The one thing this advertisement does NOT publicise is the fact that this machine is DAMN HEAVY.

Keep in mind that the 99 was supposed to be a “portable” machine, a step down from the larger and highly popular 66 model. But despite the downsizing, the 99, complete with all its bits and pieces, still weighs in at 33.25lbs, or just over 15kg! I know this because I weighed it myself. Not so portable now, is it?

Nevertheless, it’s a practical, popular, stylish and robust machine, well worth restoring and using.


A Story on Two Wheels: The History of the Bicycle

In the history of transport, fewer inventions were more compact, innovative, liberating, practical and enjoyable than that of the bicycle. And yet, the bicycle as we know it today is only just over 100 years old. What is the story behind this invention? Why was it created? And how did it reach the design which we know so well today? Let’s take a ride…

The World Before the Bicycle

Before bicycles came onto the scene with their dingling bells and rattling drive-chains, transport was slow, dependent, and/or crowded. You had ships, boats, carriages, horseback, or your own two feet.

When it came to pre-bicycle travel, you had three options available when it came to the characteristics of the journey that you were likely to receive:

Fast, Private, Comfortable.

You may pick only two.

If it was fast and comfortable, such as a railroad-train, you were resigned to sharing the carriage, and even the compartment, with others.

If it was private and comfortable, such as a carriage, then it certainly wasn’t fast. The average speed of horse-drawn transport in the 19th century was about seven or ten miles an hour at best. In the same bag is walking. Private and relatively comfortable, but don’t expect to get anywhere in a hurry.

If it was fast and private, such as riding on horseback, alone, then it certainly wasn’t going to be very comfortable, being jolted around in a saddle for hours on end.

What was needed was a fast, relatively comfortable, individual mode of transport, that relied purely on the rider for propulsion, and which didn’t need to fed, fired, stabled, stoked, sailed, steamed or otherwise externally operated.

With the internal combustion-engine still a dream, and coal-fired steam-carriages being large, loud, slow and unpredictable (to say nothing of dangerous), there was a serious market for a convenient, fast, practical machine which a rider could use for individual transport: The Bicycle.

The First Bicycles

The first serious attempt at a bicycle-like machine was the German-made ‘hobby-horse’ or ‘dandy-horse‘ machine of the 1810s.

The ‘Dandy Horse’ bicycle was a fascinating…um…experiment. It was hardly what you could call a bicycle, and it was never utilised as a serious mode of transport. It was seen more as a toy, for the use and amusement of the ‘dandy’, the well-dressed, leisured, upper-class gentleman of Regency-era Europe. As you can see, the Dandy Horse has no seat to speak of, no driving-mechanism, no pedals, not even a real handlebar! Steering and propulsion are rudimentary at best, and without any form of suspension, riding one of these on the rough, dirt roads of 1810s Europe would’ve been hard on the back and spine!

You didn’t so much ‘drive’ or ‘operate’ the dandy-horse as you ‘glided’ on it, similar to a skateboard. You kicked it along the ground with your feet to build up speed and then coasted along until the momentum gave out. An amusing gimmick for a Regency garden-party, but hardly a practical form of transport!

During this time, the word ‘bicycle’ was not even coined. And wouldn’t be for several decades. Human-powered, wheeled land-machines were called ‘Velocipedes‘, from the Latin words for ‘Fast’ (as in ‘Velocity’), and ‘Foot’ (as in ‘pedestrian’). And as the 1800s progressed, there was a growing range of fantastical and ridiculous ‘velocipede’ machines with which to delight the population of Europe.

The next advancement in bicycle technology came from France, and we look to Joseph Niepce and his contraption known as the…um…’velocipede‘.

Any long-term readers of this blog may fancy that they’ve heard the name ‘Niepce’ before on this website. And you’d be right. Apart from tinkering with bicycles, he was also instrumental in the development of modern photography. 

Joseph N. Niepce’s contribution to the bicycle came in the early 1860s, although it wasn’t a great departure from what had existed before.

The Niepce ‘velocipede’ differed from the earlier ‘dandy-horse’, but only a couple of ways: The front wheel now had pedals, and a proper seat or saddle which was adjustable to the height of the rider, along with proper handlebars and steering. But other than these minor additions and improvements, the French velocipede was not much of an improvement.

A French ‘velocipede’, as invented by Joseph Niepce. Note the presence of the handlebars and steerable front wheel, and the centrally-mounted saddle

The Ordinary Bicycle came next. Invented in the late 1860s, the Ordinary was the first machine to be specifically called a ‘bicycle‘, using the two words ‘bi’, meaning ‘two’ and ‘cycle’.  The Ordinary also introduced something which has become commonplace among all bicycles to this day: Wire-spoked wheels!

The Ordinary was variously called a High Bicycle, a Boneshaker (due to its lack of suspension), or, most famously of all – a Penny Farthing, after the largest, and smallest denomination coins in circulation in Britain at the time.

The Ordinary was the first bicycle for which there was any serious commercial success, and they became popular for personal transport, as well as being used as racing-machines!

Despite its relative popularity, the Ordinary had some serious shortcomings: There were no brakes, there was no suspension, and they were incredibly dangerous to ride! The immense front wheel could tower up to six feet in the air, which made mounting and riding these machines quite a feat of acrobatics in itself! Accidents could cause serious injury and stopping, starting, mounting and dismounting were all big problems. Something better had to be devised!

The Safety Bicycle

The Ordinary or ‘Penny Farthing‘ was one of the first practical bicycle designs, but its many shortcomings and dangers meant that something better had to be found. Enter the ‘Safety Bicycle’.

The ‘Safety Bicycle’ is the direct ancestor to all bicycles manufactured today.

The prototype ‘safety bicycle’ came out in the late 1870s, in response to the public dissatisfaction with the fast, but dangerously uncontrollable Penny Farthing.

Henry John Lawson (1852-1925) developed the first such machine in 1876. Lawson, the son of a metalworker, was used to building things, and loved tinkering around with machines.

Lawson’s machine differed from others in that the rider sat on a saddle on a metal frame. At each end of the frame were spoked wheels of equal size, with a handlebar and steering-arrangement over the front wheel. The rear wheel was powered by the use of a simple crank-and-treadle-mechanism, similar to that used on old treadle-powered sewing-machines, a technology familiar to many people at the time.

The great benefit of Lawson’s bicycle was that the front wheel was used solely for steering, and the rear wheel was used solely for propulsion, and the rider’s legs were kept well away from both of them! On top of that, the wheels were of such a size that the rider’s feet could easily reach the ground, should it be necessary to stop, or dismount the machine in an emergency. Lawson was certainly onto something!

Lawson updated his machine in 1879, with a more reliable pedal-and-chain driving-mechanism, but sadly, although innovative, his bicycle failed to catch on. All the extra parts and the radical new design meant it was hard to produce and too costly to be sold to the general public.

Although Lawson’s machine was a commercial failure, his invention spurred on the development of this new contraption: The Safety Bicycle! Building on what Lawson had already established, over the next few years inventors and tinkerers all over the world started trying to produce a bicycle that would satisfy the needs of everyone. It had to be practical, fast, easy to use, safe to ride, mount and dismount, it had to stop easily, start easily, and be easily controlled.

All manner of machines came out of the workshops of the world, but in 1885, one man made something that would blast all the others off the road.

His name was John Kemp Starley.

Starley, (1854-1901), was the man who invented the modern bicycle as we know it today. And every single one that we see on the road today, is descendant from his machine.

Building on the ideas of Mr. Lawson, Starley rolled out his appropriately-named ‘Starley Rover’ safety bicycle in 1885.

The Starley Rover was revolutionary. Like the Lawson machine, it had equal-sized (or near-equal), spoked wheels, a diamond-frame made of hollow steel, a seat over the back wheel, handles over the front wheel, and a pedal-powered chain-drive in the middle, linking the drive-wheel and the rear wheel with a long drive-chain.

By the late 1880s, the modern bicycle had arrived. It was Starley who had brought it, and he cycled off into the history books on one of these:

This model from the late 1880s has everything that a modern bicycle has, apart from a kick-stand. And this is the machine that has revolutionised the world of transport ever since!

The ‘Rover’ was so much better than everything that had come before it. It was easy to ride, easy to mount, easy to dismount. It was close to the ground, but did not compromise on speed with smaller wheels, because of the 1:2 ratio between the pedal-wheel and the rear wheel. You could reach tremendous speeds without great exertion, and you could stop just as easily!

The Bicycle Boom!

At last! A functional, fun, fast machine. Something you could ride that was safe, quick, light, portable, quiet, comfortable, practical, and which could get you almost anywhere you wanted to go!

With machines like the Rover, and the ones which came after it, all other bicycle-designs were considered obsolete! The Rover had shown the way, and others would follow.

With the success of this newly-designed bicycle came the cycling boom of the the 1890s! For the first time in history, you didn’t need a horse to get anywhere! You needn’t spoil your best shoes in the mud! You didn’t have to worry about smoke and steam and soot! Just roll your bicycle onto the road, hop on it, kick off, and down the road you went. What a dream!

With a truly practical design, the true practicality of the bicycle was at last, fully realised. At last, the ordinary man or woman on the street had a machine which they could ride anywhere! Although, that said, most bicycles in the late Victorian era were expensive toys for the wealthy. But nonetheless, they were used for everything from cycling through the park, cycling around town running errands, cycling to and from work, cycling to visit friends and relations across town, cycling to take in the sights! What a wonderful invention!

The ‘Gay Nineties‘, as this period of history is fondly called, saw the first big boom of the bicycle. Or a medium-sized one, at any rate. There were still a few problems: Bicycles were still rather expensive. And it was considered scandalous for a woman to ride a bicycle! Women opened their legs for one thing, and one thing only. How dare they sit, mounted…on a bicycle! Lord knows what other things they might be mounting next!

Women and Bicycles

A woman on a bicycle? Who’da thunk it?

The mere idea of this radical collaboration sent Victorian men into a tizz! Famously straitlaced and buttoned-up, Victorian morality dictated that a woman’s legs remained covered and obscured at all times. In fact, legs of ANY kind had to be covered at all times. Some people even draped floor-length covers over their pianos to prevent offense to visitors!

Women were generally expected to ride a horse side-saddle. But it was impossible to do this on a bicycle, since both legs were required to drive the pedals. And it was also impossible to ride a bicycle with the huge, floor-sweeping dresses and skirts of the era.  Something had to be done!

Fortunately, tailors came up with a solution!

The second half of the 1800s saw the arrival of the Rational Dress Movement, also known as the Victorian Dress Reform. Aimed mostly at women, this movement said that it was impractical for women to wear the clothes that they did, and still be expected to do all their wifely and womanly duties. The clothes were too bulky, too restricting and far too uncomfortable! Especially for such activities as sports, riding, walking and bicycling! Something had to be done! And fortunately, something was.

It came about in the 1850s, when Elizabeth Smith Miller of New York State, invented a sort of pair of baggy trousers for women. When their legs were together, they looked like a full skirt, but they parted company quite easily, for greater comfort and freedom of movement.

Women’s Rights advocate Amelia Bloomer, a strong supporter of more sensible women’s attire, liked the idea of these newfangled trousers, and they were eventually named after her: ‘Bloomers‘.

With bloomers, a woman could ride a bicycle safely and comfortably. But even if she didn’t have bloomers, a woman could still ride a bicycle in a skirt. She simply had to buy a woman’s bicycle!

Instead of a regular bicycle with a diamond-shaped frame, a woman could buy a step-through bicycle, like this one:

A step-through was identical to a regular bicycle in every way, except one. Figured it out yet?

Without a central bar between the handles and the seat, it was possible for a woman wearing a skirt to ‘step through’ the frame, so that she could get her feet either side of the pedals. Then, she simply hopped onto the seat, put her feet onto the pedals, and cycled away!

If that wasn’t handy enough, a woman could also purchase bicycle-clips, or ‘skirt-lifters’, which clipped onto the waist of her dress or skirt, and trailed down the sides of her skirt. Here, they were clipped onto the fabric to keep the hem of the skirt or dress off the road, but also, away from the pedals, where the fabric might get caught and tangled in the drive-chain!

The Safety Bicycle was ideal for women. Even with bloomers or bicycle-clips or skirt-lifters, it was almost impossible for a lady dressed in Victorian or Edwardian garb, to operate a Penny Farthing! The bikes were too big, too cumbersome, far too unstable, and generally unladylike to ride!

With the safety bicycle, a woman was able to ride with much greater comfort and security. The risk of accidents was smaller, they were easier to mount and dismount, and much easier to operate and control.

The Social Impact of the Bicycle

From the mid-1880s onwards, the bicycle became more and more popular, as safer, easier-to-ride models were invented, produced, and put on sale to the general public around the world. Bicycles caught on quickly, and were popular then, as they are now, for the very same reasons.

They provided free, motorless, quiet, smooth, quick transport, without the need of a horse. They were relatively easy to ride and control, and with a little practice, you could use one to get almost anywhere, and so much faster than walking!

A bicycle also had load-bearing capabilities, and could be used to transport and carry all kinds of things, provided that they could either fit in the front basket, or were strapped securely enough to the rear luggage-rack. Some bicycles even had side-satchels which hung over the back wheel for even greater storage.

Bicycles allowed people who previously couldn’t travel very far, the chance to explore much further afield. Women and children were no-longer restricted to riding in carriages or on railways, or horseback – they could climb onto a bicycle and ride around the village, go to the park, cycle through town, ride along the canal-paths. They did not need men, or older people around, to operate a horse and carriage, or a railroad train, or a steam-powered canal-boat. They simply needed two functional legs, and a decent sense of balance.

This ease of use and versatility allowed the bicycle to be used for almost anything. It was a commuting vehicle for office-workers and labourers. It was a cargo vehicle for anything from the weekly trip to the high street, to a day on the town. With the spread of bicycles came the rise of home-delivery and advertising. Now, bicycles could be used by butcher’s boys and apprentice bakers, shop-boys and telegraph-delivery boys, to provide effective and swift home-delivery of everything from bread, to meat, parcels, mail, telegrams and pre-ordered items of clothing or other items that might be small enough to be delivered safely on a bicycle.

Their open, light frames meant that it was possible to hang signs from the horizontal connecting-bars between the seat and the handlebars. Local businesses could paint advertisements on these signs, or on the mudguards of their store-owned bicycles. At the same time, a business could deliver merchandise or produce, and tell strangers where these things could be purchased.

Cycling clubs became incredibly popular. Friends and relations would gather and ride around the countryside for a day’s outing. They might go picnicking, or they might ride from town to town, visiting new shops, restaurants and public houses. This kind of freedom of movement had never been possible before. Not with a horse, that you had to feed and rest and saddle, not with a carriage which was slow and cumbersome. Not even with a steam locomotive and carriages, which was restricted to the railway lines. Before the rise of the automobile, only a bicycle allowed this level of freedom. No waiting, no fuss. Jump on, kick off, and pedal down the road.

Bicycles in Literature

The impact of the bicycle can be seen by its inclusion in literature of the late Victorian and Edwardian age. In ‘The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist‘, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes’ client is a piano-teacher who uses her bicycle as her main mode of transport, and who is shadowed everywhere by another cyclist.

In the mid-1890s in Australia, Andrew Barton ‘Banjo‘ Paterson, wrote the famous comic poem, “Mulga Bill’s Bicycle“. The cocky Mulga Bill declares that he can control absolutely any form of transport, even this newfangled ‘safety bicycle machine’. He purchases it from the local store and cycles off down the street with it, before losing control of the machine and spectacularly crashing it into a pond, deciding thereafter to stick to riding a horse!

The Bicycle in Wartime

During times of war, the bicycle proved to be a very popular mode of transport. Driving off-road was almost impossible, and at any rate, petrol was often in short supply and severely rationed. On the home-front and on the battlefront, civilians and soldiers often left motor-vehicles behind and fell back to the old-fashioned, reliable bicycle to get themselves around. During the First World War, British soldiers even formed bicycle infantry units! Bicycles didn’t need to be fed like horses, they were quieter, and they could get troops moving a lot faster!

During the Second World War, bicycles were used extensively by both sides. The Allies developed folding bicycles which soldiers could strap to their backs and jump out of airplanes with. Once they landed, they threw away their parachutes, unfolded their bicycles, braced them up, and cycled off to their rendezvous points.

The soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army, maybe even to mock the British and their severe lack of preparation, invaded the Malaysian Peninsula and Singapore…on bicycles! It was impossible to drive tanks through the thick Asian jungles, but a bicycle on a dirt track could go anywhere!

As well as being used for military transport, bicycles were also highly popular on the home front. With petrol-rationing strictly enforced, driving became almost impossible. Unless you were in a reserved occupation (you had a job which was essential to the war-effort), or had some other important status which allowed you a larger petrol-ration, chances were that your car was going to be up on blocks for the duration of the war.

Bicycles don’t need petrol. They only needed whatever strength you could muster from your new diet of rationed food. At any rate, it would be easier to cycle through the bomb-shattered streets of London, Coventry, Singapore and Shanghai, than to drive a car! Most roads were so covered in craters, downed powerlines or the rubble from collapsed buildings that even if your car had fuel, it wouldn’t be able to make it down the road for all the obstructions!

Bells and Whistles

As bicycles became more and more popular during the Edwardian era, more and more features were added to them. One of the most famous additions is the bicycle-bell!

The idea of some variety of warning-device on a bicycle goes back to the 1870s, when the safety bicycle was in its infancy. The modern, thumb-operated bicycle-bell, which you clamp onto the handlebars of your machine, was invented in 1877 by John Richard Dedicoat, an inventor and eventual bicycle-manufacturer in his own right.

The bicycle bell works on a very simple spring-operated lever system. Pressing the button on the side of the bell rotates gears inside, which vibrates a pair of discs which jangle and ring when they move, a bit like a tiny pair of cymbals. This dingling noise is amplified by the bell-housing. Then, the spring simply pushes the bell-button back, ready for the next ring.

Dedicoat also invented a sort of spring-loaded step for helping people mount their bicycles. When Penny Farthings were still the rage, the step was designed to give the rider a boost into his seat. It worked rather well, but if the spring was more powerful than the rider was heavy, it might accidentally shoot him over the handlebars, instead of giving him a helping leg up onto his bicycle-seat!

The popularity of the safety bicycle meant that it was ridden at all times of the day, and night! To make it safer to ride at night, bicycle lamps were clipped to the front shaft, underneath the handlebars.

As with automobiles of the Edwardian era, bicycle headlamps were gas-fired calcium-carbide acetylene lamps. The reaction of water and calcium-carbide produced a flammable gas which could be ignited, and produced a bright, sustained glow. These lamps and their reaction-chambers were small enough to clamp onto the handlebars of early safety bicycles.

Pellets or chunks, or even powdered calcium-carbide was stored in the lower reservoir of a two-chamber reaction-canister. Water was poured into the upper chamber, and a valve between the two chambers allowed water to drip from the top canister onto the calcium-carbide stored in the lower canister. The reaction caused the production of acetylene gas, which escaped through a valve into the headlamp, where it could be ignited, producing light.

Increasing or decreasing the amount of light coming from your bicycle lamp was a simple process of adjusting the opening of the water-valve on the reaction-canister. The more water, the greater the reaction, the greater the amount of gas, which caused the flame to burn brighter. Less water meant fewer chemical reactions, which reduced the overall supply of gas to the headlamp.

At the dawn of the 20th century, bicycles could also be fitted with dry-cell battery-powered headlamps, and alternating-current dynamo-systems. A dynamo really works very simply: You clip the headlamp to the front of the bicycle, and clip the dynamo and its lead, near to a wheel on your bicycle, usually on the mudguard, or on the frame if there isn’t a guard. Engaging the dynamo presses a small wheel against one of your bicycle wheels. As the bike wheel spins, it rotates the dynamo generator, which produces the electricity necessary to power the lamp.

The Bicycle Today

Whether it be a racing-machine, a manner of commuting, an A-to-B mode of transport, a delivery-wagon, a cargo-bicycle or a method of exercising, the humble 1885 safety bicycle remains essentially unchanged since its entrance onto the transport stage back in the closing decades of the Victorian era. The bicycle remains popular because of its simplicity, ease of use, and its seemingly endless practical advantages over various other forms of transport.

The Bicycle World Record

‘Flying Pigeon’ bicycle manufactured in China

Based in Tianjin, in northeast China, the Flying Pigeon is the most popular make of bicycle in the WORLD. In fact, it’s the most popular VEHICLE in the world. That includes motor-cars. The Flying Pigeon company was established in Tianjin in 1936. The Flying Pigeon model, after which the company was renamed, came out in 1950. The communist government in China demanded that the company produce a strong, practical, easy-to-use, and aesthetically pleasing bicycle. It had to ride good, and look good. And it’s been doing that for the past sixty-odd years. Cars were expensive in China, and bicycles were far cheaper and more practical for the average working Chinaman. So much so that the Flying Pigeon was seen as a sign of prosperity in China.

Echoing Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Chinese president Deng Xiaoping said that prosperity in China meant that every household would own its own Flying Pigeon bicycle.

Most popular car in the world: Toyota Corolla
Units made: 35,000,000+

Most popular bike in the world: Flying Pigeon
Units made: 500,000,000+

I think we have a winner.

More Information?

I found the documentary “Thoroughly Modern: ‘Bicycles‘”, to be very helpful. I wonder why…At any rate, it’s fascinating watching.

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