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Anecdotes from the Archive

Anecdotes from the Archive


Intriguing finds from Scientific American's past
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Over 100 Years Later, an Old Invention Takes a New Spin

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In many parts of the U.S. and here in New York City, we’ve had the pleasure of experiencing above-normal temperatures, and the sunshine has brought hibernating city-dwellers outdoors to soak up the warm rays while enjoying a number of activities—jogging, playing basketball, riding bicycles, or just lounging on park benches. Over the weekend, I was running along the East River when a man rolled by and caught my eye. He had something like a small bike tire attached to each of his feet and propelled himself forwards, backwards, and around in circles by gliding like an inline skater. An inquisitive crowd quickly formed, and I heard someone suggest they were “the roller skates of the future.” However, I recognized them as an updated version of a 142 year-old invention, the pedespeed.

The March 19, 1870 issue of Scientific American featured the pedespeed, the invention of Mr. Thomas L. Luders of Olney, Illinois. According to the article, Mr. Luders and his son walked into the Scientific American offices with the invention, and while the elder explained the device, the younger fastened the pedespeed to his feet and performed a rousing demonstration.

The pedespeed wheels measured 14 to 15 inches in diameter and were attached to a stirrup and foot bed by an appendage made of hickory. The appendages had metal plates fastened to them with short axles protruding from their centers which allowed the wheels to turn. The stirrups were made of wooden strips about 3 inches wide and were bent to form a loop, at the bottom of which sat the foot bed. The foot bed had a toe strap and heel clasp to hold the rider’s foot in place. A second wooden strap was fitted to the top of the stirrup and was fastened around the rider’s calf.

While basic roller skates (particularly the parlor skate, which was the first roller skate granted a U.S. Patent) had been enjoyed by the public for some time, the article warned that “no mere carpet knight accustomed to roll about on the parlor skate can use these at the first attempt.” However, after some practice on the pedespeed, one could gracefully maneuver over surfaces where parlor skates were unable to go.

All types of people were encouraged to use the pedespeed without worry. For example, “The inventor, a large and heavy man, informs us he can use it constantly for two hours without fatigue.” For women riders, a cover could be placed over the wheels to protect the women’s dresses, as seen in the above image.

While more traditional “quad” roller skates took over in popularity, versions of the pedespeed continued to appear over time. This video from 1923 shows men “cycle-skating,” using skates much like the pedespeed but with the wheels on the inside of the foot rather than the outside:

A NEW SPORT CYCLE SKATING

Another video from 2007 shows a cycle-enthusiast’s first time using a homemade version of the pedespeed (with some difficulty):
The man I saw in the park was using something similar to the original pedespeed—most likely Chariot Skates. One of the major differences is that Chariot Skates have an extra small wheel at the back of them, giving them added stability that had to be earned on the pedespeed.

It’s always great to see old inventions roll back around in new forms and to see that people never tire of finding new ways to get around. I think the original Scientific American article sums it up best:

“Some three thousand years hence, some antiquarian digging for relics among the ruins of American cities, will discover that Yankee Mercury had his feet furnished with wheels, and that he probably made faster time than the Greek Mercury by odds.”

Enjoy the spring!

About the Author: Nature Publishing Group and Scientific American are working to digitize all past issues of the magazine. Mary Karmelek is in charge of checking over each issue, and in the process she uncovers fascinating, captivating and humorous material buried in the yellowed pages of our past.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. RHoltslander 10:43 am 03/20/2012

    They don’t really show how you’re supposed to stop with them, should that become imminently necessary.

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  2. 2. Dean8 5:19 pm 03/20/2012

    I assume one would do a “T-stop” just like one should with regular skates. That is, turn the trailing leg perpendicular and gradually lean back on it until you stop.

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  3. 3. rikonjohn 12:29 am 03/22/2012

    I’m 55, have foot problems that keep me from running at speed and have a 2-year old Blue Pit Bull that REALLY wants to go for long, fast walks

    These would be perfect, where can I find them?

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  4. 4. FeralReason 11:28 pm 03/22/2012

    Reminds me of L. Frank Baum’s “Wheelers” in is 1907 “Ozma of Oz” — only they had wheels for hands as well as feet. Much more hazardous if you should lose your balance :)

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