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Spinning Around the Globe by Bicycle in 1884

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Spinning Around the Globe by Bicycle in 1884


Spinning Around the Globe by Bicycle in 1884

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One hundred and twenty years ago, Thomas Stevens became the first person to ride around the world on a bicycle. But the bike was a high-wheeler, a penny-farthing, 41-pound Victorian bike with a big front wheel that came all the way up to his shoulders. He left San Francisco in 1884 and pedaled east for the next two and a half years, more or less.

Thomas Pauly, a professor of English at the University of Delaware, wrote the introduction to the re-issue of the book that Thomas Stevens wrote about his journey, "Around the World on a Bicycle."

Professor Pauly joins us now from the studios of WHYY in Philadelphia. Thanks so much for being with us.

Professor THOMAS PAULY (University of Delaware) Oh, thank you for including me.

SIMON: 1884, there were no rest stops, no interstate highways, no plastic water bottles. How did he do it?

Prof. PAULY: Well, he did it with great resourcefulness - I think you'd say - because there were very primitive roads, usually for wagons. I mean this was before automobiles, obviously. And he could rely on them when he got to the flatlands, I mean when he got to Chicago and from Chicago to the east. But the hard part was when he just started because he had to get over the Sierras. The wagons...

SIMON: The Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Prof. PAULY: Yes. The only roads over those were really crude wagon roads that wouldn't work. And he found that the best way to go was to actually walk his bike on the railroad tracks, but he didn't have any reliable train schedules. So that when trains came by he just had to make do. One time a train came along when he was on one of those big trestles, and he had to get out on one of the rails and hold his bicycle over the precipice while the train passed.

SIMON: Well, what did he see, or how did he see the world differently than if he'd walked, if he road a horse?

Prof. PAULY: Well, I think the major thing was that he was riding an industrial product. Now, that didn't create much of a stir when he was going through Europe, and it was surprising how easy his trip was actually to even get to Constantinople. But once he started going east of Tehran, he began to encounter people who were seeing a white man for the first time. And here he came riding on this shiny metal contraption that situated him, you know, almost four feet above anybody. They were astounded. They thought he was a deity.

But as he went further east, particularly when he got to China, all of a sudden they thought of him as diabolic and they actually chased him and tried to stone him. He was very lucky that he wasn't slain in China.

SIMON: And why did he do this?

Prof. PAULY: I think he did it because his workingman life was going nowhere. He had always been just a worker, a laborer. He came from England originally, but went out West and tried to ranch, he worked in some iron mills, and then he even worked as a miner. I mean, I think he was ambitious and he was going to be a kind of a Horatio Alger. Even though he came from England, he was going to the United States and work his way up. And he quickly encountered what a lot of immigrants did. He was going nowhere, he wasn't making money, he wasn't making a livelihood.

So he read accounts of people who had tried and failed to ride around the United States. And it is astounding. He made the decision to ride across the United States before he ever road a bicycle, because he took his money, went to San Francisco, bought the bicycle, got rather adept at using it by riding around Golden Gate Park, and then said, I'm off.

SIMON: Professor, thank you very much for being with us.

Prof. PAULY: I enjoyed it. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Thomas Pauly, professor of English at the University of Delaware. He wrote the introduction to Thomas Stevens's book, "Around the World on a Bicycle," which was re-issued in 2001.

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