As billions of people around the world can attest to, bicycling wasn't just an 1800s fad. The water velocipede, however, was.
The water velocipede dates back to 1868, according to author Caroline Rochford, when it was reported to have been used “by pleasure-seekers on Lake Enghien on the outskirts of the capital.” It was much like the one that was patented in the United States on this day in 1869: “essentially a bicycle crossed with a boat.” Think a pedal boat with a bicycle seat. But this was the age of the penny-farthing and the Flying Yankee Velocipede: no potential cycling innovation could go undiscovered. It got a little weird.
Fisher A. Spofford and Matthew Raffington weren’t the first Americans to follow French footsteps, according to an April 1869 article in Scientific American that mentions “a water velocipede, devised by a Boston inventor, which is a very neat device” along with various other velocipede inventions–including a giant tricycle meant to be pedaled by two people. But their design does seem somewhat practical, or at least unlikely to fall over with a splash. Another 1869 design, patented that July by one David J. Farmer of West Virginia, was amphibious. In its aquatic form, the rider was balanced on three pontoons in about the arrangement of a tricycle, powering the device using handheld levers like a modern elliptical machine. Then there’s the 1891 Pinkert Navigating Tricycle, which used balloon-like tires and was featured in Scientific American when Georg Pinkert tried to cross the English Channel on it.
According to the magazine, Pinkert was hard at it and about halfway across when “the tide turned.” He realized he would be carried out to sea, “so he hailed a passing vessel and was taken on board,” the magazine recorded. “He will probably make further experiments.”
While it's true that it's possible to ride modern descendants of some of these designs at beach resorts, water bicycles never gained the popularity, practicality or ubiquity of land bicycles. But that doesn't mean these designs weren't incredibly creative. Take a look at what these inventors came up with:
1869: D.J. Farmer's "Land and Water Velocipede
This "land and water velocipede" was meant to be convertible.
1869: Lewis Bunn's "Paddle Wheel"
This design took an extra note from boat design with its ornamental figurehead.
1891: Georg Pinkert's "Water Tricycle"
The water tricycle made headlines when its inventor attempted to use it to cross the English Channel.
The Channel Attempt
An artist's rendering of the attempt to cross the Channel.
1905: E.C. Fowler's Bicycle Boat
A tricycle design was popular in the water bicycles that didn't employ a paddlewheel, because it helped provided stability. This 1905 "Bicycle Boat" has a little propeller on the back.
Edited to add the existence of modern water bicycles and clarify their relationship with these designs.