When the English poet Thomas Gray sat in the churchyard at Stoke Poges, four miles south of Windsor, and searched for the opening lines of his famous "Elegy," it is doubtful whether he let his eyes wander to the stained-glass window above his head. Had he done so he would have seen, among the colored lozenges, a male figure astride an awkward contraption consisting of a saddle connecting two cumbersome wheels.
The window dates from 1642. Two and a half centuries later the machine the glazier had outlined was to be denounced as the invention of Satan himself, at best a snare for the weak and willful, at worst an engine for human destruction. On a Sunday morning in 1896 a Baltimore preacher thundered from his pulpit:
"These bladder-wheeled bicycles are diabolical devices of the demon of darkness. They are contrivances to trap the feet of the unwary and skin the nose of the innocent. They are full of guile and deceit. When you think you have broken one to ride and subdued its wild and Satanic nature, behold it bucketh you off in the road and teareth a great hole in your pants. Look not on the bike when it bloweth upon its wheels, for at last it bucketh like a bronco and hurteth like thunder. Who has skinned legs? Who has a bloody nose? Who has ripped breeches? They that dally long with the bicycle" (Minneapolis Tribune, Jan. 11, 1896).
The preacher was not alone: the bicycle was once regarded as sheer evil by many of America's men of God. They assaulted the machine from pulpits, they swatted it with newspaper columns, and they swooped down on it with street corner sermons. It was altogether a strange attitude.
PART TWO TOMORROW