history of unicycling

Hi, I was wondering if anyone knew a semi detailed version of the history of unicycling. I’m interested in how the actual unicycle was created, and also how it has gainned popularity and evolved into the form you see it today (ie. how it went from the circus to MUni and other crazy forms). I’m a student, so unfortunately I don’t have any money to buy books–but i’d love to hear from you knowledgable uni folks out there.



Sebastian Hoher’s book- ‘unicycling, from beginner to expert’ has a nice chapter on unicycle origins.

It confirms what many of us here know in our hearts, that unicycling did not evolve from the circus.

The first unicycles were big wheeled and made from the old ‘penny farthing’ or ‘ordinary’ bicycle.

Some penny farthing riders took to removing the small back wheel, leaving a massive wheeled unicycle. Others also removed the handlebars. Possible reasons were that the penny farthing could be lethal in a fall as the bars trapped the riders legs resulting in a 6 foot drop to a face plant.

There’s some old photos in that chapter of althletes lined up to start one wheeled races, also a photo of a German guy who’s just ridden 200 km on his uni.

All this was taking part well before the advent of the 20" uni and it’s use in entertainment/circus.

The recent rise in muni/big wheel/distance riding is actually way closer to those early origins than to anything you’ll see in a circus/entertainment context; it’s unicycling getting back to its true roots.

One look at those photos in Hoher’s book would be worth a thousand words of description; maybe someone here can post a scan, or provide a link to somewhere on the net that has them?

There are also illustrations of trick riding competitions from the early 1890s with performers doing classic entertainment/circus routines.

Raphael Lasar
Matawan, NJ

That’s true, as you may have realised by now from some of my previous posts I feel a little unhappy that the unicycle is associated with circus to an extent that bares little connection to reality.

However, in all fairness to my original reply, I would point out that the images of the big one wheel racers and distance riders are photographs (and therefore very accurate), whilst the trick riding images are illustrations, and therefore not necessarily accurate.

Assuming that the illustrations are accurate though, I would question that they are classic circus routines-

Firstly, the majority are of the bicycle stunts that were common at the time.
Secondly, all but one of the genuine one wheelers are big wheels (i.e. larger than Cokers) with only one of 20"/24" size as used in circuses.
Thirdly, the image they convey is far closer to a modern day indoor trials set-up i.e. emphasis on skills rather than the pure entertainment we generally see in circuses.

Lastly, as we are talking about the origins of unicycling, it’s important to ask which would have come first out of the two sets of images- the big wheel racing photos, or the illustrated trick cycles.

My feeling is that, since penny farthings existed well before the invention of the bicycle in modern form (i.e. two equal sized wheels with a chain drive), and since the illustrations of the trick cycling includes several modern bicycles, that the big wheel/distance photos precede the illustrated trick event ones.

Not for certain, because the big wheel unis could have lingered after the adoption of the modern bike; however, I notice that one of the big wheel racing photos has the date 1886- nif the modern bicycle was invented after this date, then it would be firm evidence that the distance/racing use if the uni preceeded its entertainment use.

So, does anyone know when the modern two wheeler came into being?

JJuggle, thanks for your reply; deep in my heart I feel that unicycling was born of heroes and atheletes, not clowns and entertainers, but, to be able to declare this with certainty requires dealing with challenges to this view and getting my facts straight.

Re: history of unicycling

In article <onewheeldave.119nju@NoEmail.Message.Poster.at.Unicyclist.com>,
onewheeldave <onewheeldave@NoEmail.Message.Poster.at.Unicyclist.com> wrote:
)Not for certain, because the big wheel unis could have lingered after
)the adoption of the modern bike; however, I notice that one of the big
)wheel racing photos has the date 1886- nif the modern bicycle was
)invented after this date, then it would be firm evidence that the
)distance/racing use if the uni preceeded its entertainment use.
)So, does anyone know when the modern two wheeler came into being?

It’s credited to George W. Marble (US), in 1884.

To be honest, and this is a bit off topic, I think here you have a much too broad concept of hero and a much too narrow one of athlete.

I will think about the rest of your argument, though.

Raphael Lasar
Matawan, NJ

I’ve spent several minutes trying to think of a nice way to say you’re full of shit, but it’s eluding me right now. You paint the groups of “heroes and atheletes” and “clowns and entertainers” as mutually exclusive. What’s the factual basis for that? Circus acrobats frequently outperform world class gymnasts…are they not atheletes? I’ve seen a Cirque du Soleil performer hold a one-handed handstand for over two minutes. Was she simply “entertainment”? What’s the source of your obsession here? Is anyone REALLY trying to claim that a clown invented unicycling? Show me that claim you’re fighting against… I think the acknowledged history of the unicycle would indicate the first riders were not clowns, entertainers, OR heroes…possibly not even atheletes. They were pioneers, yes, let’s give them credit for that. But otherwise Average Joes that connected the dots and tried something that hadn’t been tried before…

On the grand time scale of both unicylcing and circus, how much time have you invested in related activities?

hey mr tom blackwood, your getting slightly over emotional here, maybe you should get of this guys back. He obvious just sick of randoms in the street asking him if he wants to join the circus, just as I am. Fair Enough, circus performers are good at what they do and they should be given credit for it but the circus stigma gives unicycling a more “humourous” feeling when really it could be classed in the same group as Skating and BMXing.
Then again we all feel differently about unicyling, I wouldnt be surprised if there were unicyclists out there that would rather be in the circus than in the X-games. In the end we’ll just have to agree that unicycling is a sport adopted by the circus just as each and everyone of us adopts unicycling to do whatever we feel with our skill.
OK guys, are we kool with that???

I posted this over in Just Conversation, but I guess I’ll repeat it here as well.

Hi Jen,

I’ve held on to a few of John Foss’ posts that outline some of the name history in unicycling. It’s by no means exhaustive but it’s a start. Here’s one:

The original Mr. Pashley began building bicycles in England more than 60 years ago. The original Mr. Miyata began building bicycles in Japan over 110 years ago. Mr. Schwinn? He’s long gone. Mr. United? I think that was a made-up name. Same goes for Torker, Savage,Cycle Pro, and many others. Mr. Jugglebug? That was Dave Finnegan, aka Professor Confidence but he sold the company to SportTime, and I think they added the unicycles after that. Mr. Coker? He specializes in tires. David Coker is our contact when it comes to the Coker Tire company, but He doesn’t read/post here. Mr. Semcycle? That’s Sem Abrahams. I think he was the first unicycle "star"to have a unicycle with his name on it. He comes to most of the unicycle conventions (and lots of juggling ones too) and is an expert rider and professional performer. Former Guinness record holder for tallest unicycle(twice), and original author of the 10 skill levels and the IUF StandardSkill rules. But he doesn’t post to the newsgroup. Mr. Unicycle Factory? That’s Tommi Miller. He’s a custom builder, and wasthe place everybody went to get special unicycles and parts before the Internet made doing it online so much easier. Tommi does not use email. Mr. DM is David Mariner. He’s been building unicycles himself, since the1970s. A great source of unicycles for professional performers in the UK and all of Europe. Maker of the first production unicycle with a splined axle (the ATU). I think he also made the first production unicycle with a brake (the Vortex). Mr. Wyganowski is Paul Wyganowski from Minnesota. He’s a bike frame maker,who started building custom unicycle frames for members of the Twin CitiesUnicycle Club (TCUC). Now his market has expanded to all the customers of Unicycle.com and beyond. Hunter is Rick Hunter (Hunter Cycles of Santa Cruz), another frame builderlike Paul Wyganowski. Rick started out by making a MUni frame for Bruce Bundy. Mr. Cordy is Charles Cordy, a deaf man who came up with his own design and hand built almost the whole cycle, not just the frame! (I have deaf relatives, so Mr. Cordy is extra cool). Mr. Wilder? The unicycle is built by Scott Bridgeman of New Jersey (www.muniac.com). He hasn’t posted lately, but I think he reads the group. His site is loaded with unicycle information. The cycle’s name comes from Wilder State Park (Wilder Ranch) in Santa Cruz, CA. It’s a great place to ride a Wilder! Kris Holm? I think we all know who he is. He posts a lot. Profile? This is a bike-parts company. What they make for us is the Poznanter hub. David Poznanter, from Santa Cruz, is a hard-core MUni rider who helped Profile design the world’s second splined unicycle hub. That was all the names I came across while going through the unicycles at Unicycle.com. Here are some others:Telford: Geoffrey Telford Faraghan. A computer engineer (professor at Stanford) from Redwood City, CA, designed his elegant frames based on the Rick Hunter design. Bedford: Darren Bedford imports and resells unicycles in Canada, and posts frequently to the newsgroup. Matthews: Bill Matthews made/imported his own brand of unicycles from Southern CA until his death about 10 years ago. Emory: This is a guy in Florida, also making his own frames. Don’t know much about him. Loyd: Loyd Wicker Smith came up with the design that later became the Schwinn unicycle. Loyd started making them in the late 50’s, I think. There are lots of other older brands out there, but I don’t know much about them. Many are distributors, (like Torker, Savage, Cycle Pro) and didn’t actually make the cycles they sold.
That was fun!
John Foss, the Uni-cyclone

I personally don’t want to be classified in the same category as Skaters. There are some pretty good ones out there, but when I go to a skate park, I have to laugh at all the posing and the way too serious attitudes that I see.
I have more respect for a good unicycling entertainer who doesn’t take themself too seriously than for a skater who does. And the longer the law considers us as “a bunch of harmless clowns,” the longer it will be before they start trying to regulate us.

Firstly, your initial sentence is offensive; I’m up for reasoned discussion of the points you make, but any more like that and I will report the post to a moderator.

Concerning your points

  1. this is not an obsession, I’d appreciate you not using such linguistic tricks
  2. I’ve nothing against circus, as you say performers in Cirque du Soleil are top class atheletes; however unicycling didn’t originate from circus
  3. the claim I’m ‘fighting against’ is the widespread misconception that unicycling originated from the circus- a quote from the intial post om this thread: -

shows this common misconception in action.

I must confess, my use of the terms 'hero; and ‘atheletes’ was initially based purely on the feelings conveyed to me by those photos, the paragraph itself was also a little ‘tongue in cheek’.

However, once again your response has made me look more deeply into those feelings, and, I can now state that, in my opinion, those terms do apply admirably to the early one wheelers, here’s why: -

The dictionary definition of ‘hero’-

hero n -roes 1 someone admired for bravery ~ism courage

While many associate it more with extreme acts in military or life threatening situations, I would argue that that is a biased view, and that heroism applies to all situations where courage is required.

Even modern unicycling, with its well tested/designed equipment (confortable, small, easily mountable wheels, air seats, excellent selection of crank lengths, safety pads/helmets, vast online information resources) requires some physical courage to start and continue to learn.

But think of what the pioneers were riding.

It’s easy for us to take the pneumatic (air filled) tyre for granted; recently I was reading a book by a ‘back to basics/keep it simple’ proponent of bicycle technology. With reference to the growing use of mechanical suspension systems for bikes he pointed out that any bike today has the finest suspension system ever invented- the pneumatic tyre.

Anyone here who’s felt the difference in going from a narrow uni tyre to one in the 2"-3" range will appreciate what a difference in comfort and bump/drop handling ability it makes.

Think of wheel size also, there have been many posts here about the difficulty of learning to mount a Coker with its 36" wheel, also posts about the consequences of coming off one at speed (eg, a broken wrist in the case of the very experienced Roger Davies).

Now reflect on the fact that Penny Farthing riders were riding wheels twice the size of a Coker, with solid rubber tyres, and racing them!

I have no hesitation in saying that the guys who persisted with Penny Farthings after the invention of the modern low two wheeler (known at the time as the ‘safety bike’) were both atheletes and heroes in the fullest sense of the word- it took not only courage, but, in the event of a high speed crash they could, and did, sometimes die.

And then some of them went a step beyond; on these solid tyred giant wheeled contraptions, they removed the back wheel, sometimes the handle bars, and, in the case of the guy in one of the photos, the seat as well! He’s perched on probably the biggest ultimate wheel in history.

So, going back to the dictionary definition: -

hero n -roes 1 someone admired for bravery ~ism courage

The one wheel pioneers certainly had courage, and they have my admiration, therefore i declare them to be heroes (I don’t think I need to make a case for them being athletes, you don’t get legs as big as the guy on the giant ultimate wheel by being non athletic).

i think that someone should set up a school of unicycling and we should learn all the differnt unicycling skills and have lessons on stuff like ‘how to repair your unicycle’ and ‘mkaing your own unicycle or ultimate wheel’ and ‘the history of unicycling’ now then and only then would i actually enjoy going to school!

Sorry onewheeldave. I’m clearly guilty of the same thing that set me off with your post, which was a careless choosing of words. I was out of line, and never should have clicked send on that little tirade.

My apologies also to anyone else I might have offended. Slinking off now to adjust my meds…

I agree that the word “hero” applies much more broadly than to military bravery.

However, I do not believe that it applies to a bunch of guys tinkering and experimenting with what essentially amount to toys.

Raphael Lasar
Matawan, NJ

Well seeing as you like to throw words around, if you call a unicycle a toy, you could go on to call a plane a toy. Both are modes of transport, both have atleast one wheel and both have a large fan base, but the different is planes kill people, unicycles don’t, so lets not throw words about without thinking

If they were practical tools for killing others I’m sure someone at the pentagon would be writing out checks for $100,000 unicycles (your basic Torker, probably) at this very moment. Your own example demonstrates exactly why unicycles are toys and planes for the most part are not. Planes also carry large loads great distances in relatively short periods of time. Last I checked neither FedEx nor UPS were using unicycles to deliver unicycles.

Aside from their use for personal enjoyment and entertainment is there anything done on a unicycle that is not done in a more practical, efficient, or quicker manner by some other mode of conveyance?

Don’t we ride these things because they are inherently peculiar, challenging, fun, and weird? Did anyone here take up unicycling because he or she thought it was the quicker way to get around, the most efficient way to transport things, or even the most likely way to create opportunities for romance?

Raphael Lasar
Matawan, NJ

As long as we’re playing semantic word games…
Wouldn’t circus performers be considered heros as well? Trying to walk a high wire while blindfolded without a net (I’ve seen this done) requires a lot of courage. This to me could be a hero.
How many of us are brave enough to go ride around in a clown costume and be made fun of, occasionally assaulted? I have done this. It’s scary to get in front of hundreds of children and try to entertain them for an hour. Does that make me a hero?
Clowns, athletes, performers, heros… None of these are mutually exlusive. I have met clowns who fit all these definitions. And yes, they ride unicycles. This has nothing to do with the original orgument, but I just wanted to point out that there is a bias against circuses here, when we should be embracing a part of our heritage. Unicycles didn’t originate from the circus, but there’s a reason people associate us with the Big Top. Think about it…

My ride to work would be faster by bike, but I haven’t got room for a bike in my flat, so it’s the fastest way to get there that I’ve got room for. It’s also easy to store at work, I just bring it into the office and I don’t need to lock it up when I just pop into a shop for something. By public transport it takes about 5 minutes longer and by car it takes about 20-30 minutes longer.


I ride mainly because I love the feel of being balanced on one wheel. I also have a bike, which is a wonderful machine, but it feels a bit clumsy compared to my unis.

I do use them for transport, they are usually slower than bikes (over short distances with rush hour traffic they can compare in speed though) but make up for it in other ways (more fun, can be taken in shops without having to lock them outside, hands are free to carry shopping/objects etc, more sociable as you tend to get talking to people).

Over the past two years, I’d say that in terms of transport I’ve used the unicycles about 95% of the time and the bike about 5%.