The Petrol Velocycle

28 Sep

Edward Butler found his way into London’s Stanley Cycle Show. It was 1884, and the Imperial capital enjoyed indulging its limitless appetite for modern wonders and technical marvels.

He was there to display and demonstrate his own brainchild, the Butler Petrol Cycle, what he termed the Velocycle, a motorized bicycle that he thought held the promise of transforming human transportation.

In bowler hat and woolen suit, Edward looked important with his sidewise-pointed moustaches. He gave a friendly nod to the director of the public displays and stepped over to where his three-wheeled vehicle stood. What should he name it? He had thought of the term “motor-cycle”, but then had chosen to place a large tag saying “Velocycle” in front of the mechanism he had brought here to the exhibition hall. Its formal title was going to be “The Butler Petrol Cycle”. That was how his submission papers for a Royal Patent were going to call what he had assembled.

The enthusiastic bicycle hobbyists entered in droves and passed by his display model. Only once in a while did anyone stop to ask him a question about what he had brought there for people to see.

“This is a tricycle with a petroleum engine to drive it forward,” explained the smiling engineer who had designed and had it built for him. “The motor works by internal combustion in its master cylinder. It is mounted here in the center, between the front wheels. A drive chain connects the single rear wheel to the engine.

“It is like a self-propelled tricycle, an auto-mobilized carriage. There are no pedals or foot gears at all. The driver sits in the seat with his feet resting on a footboard below him.”

A young man asked Edward a question. “Can this machine be stopped?”

“There is a brake handy for the driver to halt the front wheels,” answered the inventor with patience. “The vehicle will be a safe method of movement, yet it will travel faster than the steam-powered cycles that burn coal. Petroleum and benzolene have served as engine fuel, and the velocycle has reached the amazing speed of fourteen kilometers per hour.

“It promises to become an economical, effective substitute for the traditional safety bicycle we see on the roads today. I envision this motor-cycle revolutionizing the way that men and women move from place to place.”

Edward smiled, enjoying what he saw as triumphs to come.

A group of three men watched and listened as Edward pointed out and described the spark plug, magneto, ignition coil, and spray jet carburetor that were essential components of his invention.

When he was finished, two of the strangers moved on to other displays in the exhibition, but a huge, athletic-looking man stayed behind, obviously intent on asking some question. He began to speak in a low, resonant voice full of self-assurance. “I am deeply impressed by what I have seen here today, and my wish is to take part in a demonstration of how the velocycle operates out on the streets of London.

“But first I should introduce myself, Mr. Butler. I am Edwin Parker, and I like to define myself as an independent entrepreneur, a man of business interested in the formation of new manufacturing companies of all kinds.

“My purpose in coming to this exhibition today was to look for possible new investment ventures in the bicycle field. I expected to see new versions of the popular steam-powered “boneshakers”, as they are popularly called. One occasionally catches sight of those uncomfortable motor-cycles out among the horse-drawn vehicles. My aim has been to hunt for a more practical auto-cycle, one that the prosperous classes of our city might wish to purchase and ride in place of their pedaled cycles.

“I ask myself this question: does Mr. Butler have what I am looking for to back and become involved with? Is it a petroleum-fueled tricycle that can fill the bill?

“That is what I aim to discover for myself, my good man.”

He focused his large, powerful brown eyes on the startled engineer.

The latter reached into his vest pocket and removed a business card, handing it to the impressive stranger. “Here is my address, sir, where I have my storage garage. It would be possible for you to take a ride yourself in the Petrol Velocycle. I will teach you how to manipulate the simple controls that turn and stop it.”

The pair shook hands and the entrepreneur made a fast exit.

Gushing with enthusiasm and hoping to recruit a financial supporter, Edward took his only velocycle home with him, waiting impatiently for the expected visitor to appear.

Parker was there early, soon after the summer dawn.

The inventor showed him into the garage next to his modest cottage.

“This is the throttle valve lever that allows the driver to control the speed of the vehicle,” pointed out Edward. He went on to describe the liquid-cooled radiator sitting over the rear wheel. “The engine starts when compressed air ignites this spark plug,” he said, directing the attention of his guest to that location on the engine.

“May I take a ride for myself?” inquired Edwin. “That would show me how hard or easy it is to exercise control over the mechanism.”

Butler proceeded to seat the big man on the velocycle seat. He then gave him detailed instructions on how to operate the vehicle out on the streets of London. “It will stay within the speed limit of ten miles per hour set by the law. You will not be breaking that ordinance in the least, sir,” he said with a sly smile.

The inventor walked vigorously beside his invention as Edwin slowly drove it around the block on the narrow streets. Anyone outdoors at the early morning hour stopped and stared at the passing tricycle as it passed, a man in a business suit running along at its side.

When the velocycle came back to Butler’s home, Parker spoke from the driver’s seat of the standing vehicle whose engine he had just shut off.

“I like it, and I can foresee marvelous prospects for making and selling the petrol velocycle. I know a lawyer who will draw up a partnership contract for us, and then we shall be in business, Edward!”

The latter’s face glowed with happy visions of success.

As soon as the Cycle Exhibition came to an end, the new project got under way on a fast, thorough scale. Edward Butler and Edwin Parker signed the partnership contract that the latter’s solicitor provided for them.

“We need investment funds and a factory building where we can have workers we hire make the petrol velocycle that you designed, Edward,” said the one who claimed a great amount of practical business experience. “I plan to sink my own available resources into the venture, but that alone will not be sufficient. Are you able to make an immediate contribution from what you have?” asked the dominant partner of the technical engineer with a broad, shining smile.

Edward made a slight grimace that quickly disappeared.

“Of course, I have already sunk most of what I own into the velocycle, but I believe that I can find some of my past earnings and savings to supplement your own investment in the enterprise, my friend.”

Edwin gave him a look of disappointment. “I fear we shall have to seek outside capital to fill out the needs of producing the vehicle and placing it on the bicycle market beside the standard ones and the recent innovations.

“But I believe that we can find investors willing to join us. I am certain of that.”

Edward went with his partner to inspect an empty tool plant that had been on the market for a considerable time.

“What do you think? Will it be adequate? I am willing to make the down-payment that is asked for. It would serve our beginning needs, I am certain. Should we proceed to purchase this building for our use?”

With full trust in the judgment of Edwin Parker, Edward gave his assent to going ahead with this as their first manufacturing facility.

That evening, the inventor began to suffer second thoughts about what he had agreed to. Were they advancing in the right direction? Were they leaping ahead too far and too fast?

The wife of Edward Butler was an adventurous young spirit named Erith. She had acquired an enthusiastic passion for the petrol velocycle almost by contagion from her husband. The pair, still in their twenties, lived in a shared monomania over the invention. Their hopes of material and social success resided in the future of the tricycle vehicle.

Erith was a small woman with an attractive, circular face. Her dark brown hair was carefully styled in what was popularly called a “French pompadour”, rising high and upward in the middle, with falling curls on both sides and bangs over the forehead.

“I want to be able to say that I have driven the velocycle,” she told Edward over and over again as the days of 1884 passed. “Why can’t I take it out on one of the country roads? You can be there right beside me as I go along seated on the chair.”

What was the inventor to do? Her will finally prevailed with him. “Very well, my dear Erith,” he said to his wife at last. “If you walk out there with me tomorrow morning, I shall put you into the velocycle. But you must study the controls thoroughly and follow my instructions to the letter. I will be right there, running along at your side, and the ride must be a very short one. Are you happy?” he smiled at his spouse.

Early the following day, Edward slowly drove the test vehicle out to a private suburban road that he illegally used for practice and experimental purposes. The “red flag law” that required men with warning banners in front of and behind a vehicle without a horse did not apply out here in this kind of unpaved roadway.

Edward stopped the velocycle and climbed out of it. He turned to his wife. “It is now yours to occupy and drive, Erith,” he told her.

She wore a specially chosen housedress that would not interfere with any sudden movements on her part. “I am ready to drive forward,” she announced as she placed herself into the driver-passenger seat.

Edward helped and supervised her starting of the engine, which gave a sputtering, cranking kind of noise.

A nod from her husband, standing at the side of the contraption, was the signal for her to press gently on the throttle lever. The velocycle began to inch forward at a perceptible, increasing speed.

Neither Edward nor Erith had noticed what was happened on the road in front of them, ahead of the vehicle she was sitting in.

A large bakery delivery truck, pulled by a strong, aged nag, was coming toward them at a brisk speed from the opposite direction.

Erith, advancing forward at a speed below ten miles per hour, was first to see the hurrying horse and the wagon behind it. By the time that her husband noticed it approaching them at a vigorous pace, Erith had already succumbed to instant panic.

An unprecedented terror that she had never before experienced took firm hold of mind and emotions. She lost control over herself first, then command of the velocycle itself.

How was she going to escape what she foresaw as inevitable disaster?

Could she save herself from the menace approaching at a faster speed than her own?

Erith made the mistake of rising from out of the seat that she sat on. The result was that she lost her equilibrium and fell out of the vehicle, to the side of the roadway. This occurred before he husband was able to lean over into the velocycle and brake the vehicle to a sudden stop.

His wife, dirty and disheveled, lay thrown to the ground. Her body was aching and had suffered several minor but at first painful injuries to her skin in various places.

The bakery truck passed them by without halting. It was soon gone.

Edward helped her to her feet.

“I must now walk back home while you drive this thing back,” she told her mate in a cross tone, snarling tone. “I will never get into your invention, ever again, Edward.”

Erith stayed in bed for the next three days and nights, her husband looking in on her continuously and satisfying every need or whim that she could think of.

Edward realized that his business partner had not dropped by to report on how the projected assembly hall was coming along. By the third day of his absence, the inventor began to worry about what might have happened to Edwin Parker.

He regretted that he had never asked for or received the man’s address or how he could be reached in case of emergency.

Edward decided to make a visit to the empty building that had been purchased by the two of them. He was astonished to find the “For Sale” sign still attached to its wooden walls. What did this mean? What might have happened?

The disturbed partner remembered who the attorney in charge of the property was. He went to the man’s Whitechapel office to try to obtain an explanation.

The sale agent happened to be there and looked at Edward with astonishment. “No, sir. There was never any sale contract made nor any terms agreed to by the buyer. The offer to buy made by Mr. Parker was just too low and unacceptable to us. It was a portion of an estate that I myself am handling, and the property in question remains vacant and unsold. That is its current status,

“Can I help you with anything else, sir?”

Edward made a rapid exit, his thoughts in a whirl.

What had happened to Edwin Parker? Why did he not appear and give an explanation for this embarrassing situation?

A couple of worried, troubled days followed.

Edward did not dare tell the injured Erith about this matter of the missing partner.

She began slowly to return to her home duties, going around on her feet. The accident in the velocycle had become an almost forgotten memory.

One afternoon, an unrecognized man in worsted suit appeared and asked the housewife if her husband were there at home.

“Yes,” she told the stranger and invited him to wait while she found her spouse and brought him to the door.

When Edward appeared, he at once realized that the visitor was there with some very serious business.

“I am Inspector Malcom Jones of the London Metropolitan Police, sir. May I speak with you in private for a little time? The matter is of great importance to you, I believe.”

Edward, uncertain what he was going to hear from the police officer, ushered into the small parlor and asked him to take a chair.

When both men were seated, Jones started to explain what brought him there.

“I am present because I am concerned with the activities of Mr. Edwin Parker. It has been related to me that you and that gentleman have formed a partnership for the purpose of constructing some new kind of bicycle. Am I correct, Mr. Butler?”

“We are involved in developing a motorized tricycle that is named the Velocycle. That is the mechanism we plan to offer the public in a short time, Inspector.”

The latter seemed to twist his large face into a gruesome mask.

“I am currently investigating the dealings and behavior of Mr. Parker, your business partner. It seems that he is missing on his own initiative. There are unconfirmed rumors that he may have fled to France or elsewhere on the continent. That remains unknown, for now.

“Several persons have made criminal complaints against Parker, accusing them of having swindled them out of funds they invested with him. They claim that the money given by each of them to Parker are now gone, since he has disappeared with their funds.

“No one knows how to make contact with the gentleman. He is gone, and so are all the wealth they have handed over to him.

“Please tell me this, sir: do you have any knowledge of his whereabouts? Can you provide any information concerning the investments made by these complainants with your partner?”

By now, Edward felt his spine shaking with fright.

“I know nothing about such things,” said the inventor in an grating voice. “Edwin revealed nothing like that to me. He kept other business secret, to himself.

“It would appear that he concealed many aspects involved in our own partnership. Edwin said he was going to buy a vacant building for constructing my vehicle. But I have learned that he failed to complete this purchase, although I advanced him a large amount of money for that purpose myself.

“I feel highly troubled by what you have said to me, Inspector.”

The latter frowned, then spoke. “It is tragic, the effects that such a mountebank can have upon the lives of the innocent and trusting. I am afraid to have to say that this scoundrel has no conscience whatever.

“We can only hope that the law authorities in other countries are able to find and arrest this evil man, then return him to us.

“Excuse me, Mr. Butler, but I must leave now. I assure you that you have my sincere sympathy, and that the London Police will do all that they can to bring Parker to justice.”

Jones found his own way out, leaving the suffering, stricken inventor to his torturous thoughts.

The petrol velocycle is now out of my hands, he said to himself.

Perhaps someone else will take up the design and the engine.

But it will no longer be mine, that much is certain.

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