Thursday, June 7, 2012

Fanciful Bicycle Propulsion - Sails (1896)

Article from the 1896 Washington Times describes a growing (at the time) popularity for sails fixed to bicycles.
Possible to Equip the Wheel Like a Ship - WINGS OF WHITE SILK
Connected to Bamboo Poles, the Sails Are Ran Up and Down as the Wind May Turn - They Make Wheel the Ideal Locomotion for a Sultry Day.

There is activity at the sailmakers, though this is the season when all sails should be finished and floating the blue horizon.

This unwanted activity is caused by the sudden appearance of the bicycle sail, out of which has sprung a demand for sails, unprecedented even in cup years. The bicycle sail is a little affair. It is made of duck or sailcloth, and its dimensions are a little more than a yard square.
Bike With Sales (1896)
Somewhat fanciful illustration that accompanies the article
The cost of white sails for a bicycle comes to something like $3, if you are contented with a good quality and a fairly white sail. If you want the silk finish and the dazzling white, you must pay for it fully twice as much.
This is not a perfect propulsion system, however.

In rigging up a bicycle's sails there is a great deal of care necessary. A person not an expert, starting off swiftly upon a wheel rigged with sails of his own making, would undoubtedly get a fall of the most sensational description. His sails being raised too high would carry him along at a top-heavy pace and he would be unable to keep back his machine by back-pedalling, or any of the arts known to the wheelman. More than that, it would throw him forward upon his wrists in a frantic effort to keep his seat. And the result would be awkward, even if he escaped calamity.
Another trend from the 1890s that met with some success in the press, but not in reality.


  1. Wow. I have seen some interesting bike designs over the years - but sails mounted to bicycles? That also sounds just so incredibly dangerous.

  2. The article seems to suggest that if you buy your sails from the right source (and don't try to do it yourself) you won't have safety issues. I'm a little dubious. I did some laps around Hains Point (in Washington DC) today and there was a reasonably strong wind, steady from the SE (I think). But I certainly wouldn't be able to tack into the wind on the upwind leg and on the downwind leg the wind was not "dead astern" so I think keeping the wind from blowing one over would be difficult.

    I think there are good reasons why we aren't using sails for additional power on our bikes.

  3. Looks like alot of effort. Might work in certain areas of the prairies on a frozen lake.