Thomas Stevens – born 1854 in Hertfordshire, England – was the first person to circle the globe by bicycle. He rode a large-wheeled Ordinary, commonly known as a penny-farthing, from April 1884 to December 1886. This made him the world’s first ever bicycle touring adventurist and one that that traveled it in a very impressive way…
A 50-inch wheeled Penny-Farthing
Thomas and his family emigrated to the USA in 1871 and it is there that he learned to ride a bicyle.
In 1884 he acquired a black-enameled Columbia 50-inch ‘Standard’ penny-farthing with nickel-plated wheels, built by the Pope Manufacturing Company of Chicago. He packed his handlebar bag with socks, a spare shirt, a raincoat that doubled as tent and bedroll, and a pocket revolver and left San Francisco at on 22 April 1884. From Sacramento, Stevens traveled through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. En route, he was greeted by members of local bicycle clubs, most prominently the president of a chapter of the League of American Wheelmen in Laramie, Wyoming. He had never seen North America east of the Mississippi but was about to venture a whole lot further.
He reached Boston after 3,700 miles to complete the first transcontinental bicycle ride on 4 August 1884.
In those days Harper’s Magazine reported: “More than one-third of the route followed by Mr. Stevens had to be walked. Eighty-three and a half days of actual travel and twenty days’ stoppage for wet weather, etc., made one hundred and three and a half days occupied in reaching Boston, the distance by wagon-road being about 3,700 miles. He followed the old California trail most of the way across the plains and mountains, astonishing the Indians, and meeting with many strange adventures.
European Penny-Farthing journey
Stevens passed the winter in New York and contributed sketches of his transcontinental trip to Outing, a popular magazine at the time. Due to great success they made him a special correspondent and sent him on the steamer City of Chicago to Liverpool. He arrived there 10 days later, on 9 April 1885. He left his bicycle in the underground storerooms of the London and North Western Railway and went by train to London to arrange his crossing of Europe and to investigate the conditions in Asia. He was helped by an interpreter at the Chinese embassy who discouraged him from riding across Upper Burma and China
He returned to Liverpool on 30 April 1885 and on 4 May made a formal start of his ride at Edge Hill church, where several hundred people watched him leave. He wrote:
A small sea of hats is enthusiastically waved aloft; a ripple of applause escaped from 500 English throats as I mount my glistening bicycle; and with the assistance of a few policemen, 25 Liverpool cyclers who have assembled to accompany me out extricate themselves from the crowd, mount, and fall into line two abreast; and merrily we wheel down Edge-lane and out of Liverpool.
He rode, wearing a white military helmet through England, passing through Berkhamsted, where he had been born. He recorded that roads in England were better than in America. He then took the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe to cross to France and continued through Germany, Austria, Hungary (where he picked up a temporary cycling companion with whom he shared no language), Slavonia (current day Croatia), Serbia, Bulgaria, Rumelia (the current Balkans), Turkey.
Riding into Asia on the Penny-Farthing
In Constantinople he rested among people who had heard of America, refitted with spare spokes, tires and other parts and a better pistol (a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson), waited for reports of banditry to subside, and then pedalled off through Anatolia, Armenia, Kurdistan, Iraq and Iran, where he waited out the winter in Teheran as a guest of the Shah.
Having been refused permission to travel through Siberia, he set off on 10 March 1886 through Afghanistan where he was expelled by local authorities. He then took a Russian steamer across the Caspian Sea to Baku; rail to Batoum; steamer to Constantinople and India. In the Red Sea his knowledge of mules was useful to the British Army. He cycled across India, noting that the weather was always hot and the Grand Trunk Road (which would later be famously cycled on a tricycle by the a pair of ‘Nomad Cinema’ artists) was excellent wheeling and free from bandits. Much of his description of life in India, however, suffers from being based on the opinions of experts rather than his own observations.
Another steamer brought him from Calcutta to Hong Kong and southern China. He pedaled to eastern China, encountering great difficulty in asking directions in a language he couldn’t pronounce. A Chinese official gave him refuge from rioters who were angry over a war with the French. From the coast he took a steamer to Japan, where he delighted in the calm of that country. The bicycle part of his journey around the world ends 17 December 1886, at Yokohama. His itinerary accounts “DISTANCE ACTUALLY WHEELED, ABOUT 13,500 MILES”. Stevens returned by steamer to San Francisco, in January, 1887.
The First Bicycle Touring Book
Along the way, Stevens sent a series of letters to Harper’s magazine detailing his experiences and later collected those experiences into a two-volume book of 1,000 pages, Around the World on a Bicycle is available in a single-volume paperback and publicly available at digital library projects. The price of an original has been put at between $300 and $400
The Pope Company preserved Stevens’s bicycle until World War II, when it was donated to a scrap drive to support the war effort.
And that’s how this Kickass trip ended!