At a time when the possibility of being alone with a loved one was considered taboo, the Punnett -or also known as the “sociable bicycle”- was born, a bicycle designed for courtship.
On this bicycle, couples from the end of the 19th century would be able to spend time together in an activity that allowed proximity between both sexes giving free rein to courtship, away from the inquisitive glances of the time.
When you hear or read that the bicycle: is the machine of freedom and equality, it is not in a figurative sense.
In two centuries the bicycle has done more for women’s freedom and gender equality than anything else, but it has not only given women independence and self-determination, it has also been responsible, to a large extent, for sexual freedom, but far beyond that which encompasses each and every sexual and reproductive right. But in its broadest meaning that has to do with body, mind, dignity, individual and couple decisions and, in this particular case, the Punnett provided the possibility to exercise sexuality and courtship between the sexes.
The Punnett, or “side by side bicycle”, was a bicycle that was marketed in 1896 with the aim of carrying two cyclists in parallel, who unlike the traditional tandem bicycle, their seats were located next to each other, and not one behind the other; a fact that gives rise to one of its nicknames: “the sociable bicycle”, which alludes to the relative ease with which the two cyclists could talk to each other – unlike the tandem -, in addition to having various technical and geometric changes in its design.
It is believed that the “sociable” bicycle was invented by the controversial Australian cyclist Hubert Opperman (1909-1996), although in its basic form it has existed for longer, at least since the end of the 19th century, between 1886 and 1887, and was mass marketed by a company based in Rochester, New York, the Punnett Cycle Company, from 1896, and such diverse ride sizes, ranging from 21″ to 30″, but even today there are craftsmen who continue to build them.
This bicycle weighed 18 kilos – something outstanding for the time – and cost $250 dollars at that time (about $ 6,560 USD at present), which were spent with pleasure by those Casanovas – eager to conquer – wealthy, as long as they had the possibility of spending time alone with those maids who otherwise would be away from their flirtations.
This early design of a bicycle for two – which is somehow related to the “sociable tricycle” – was bought mostly by young men, because at that time it was recognized that the bicycle was a suitable method for exciting rides and therefore offered couples the opportunity to get to know each other better and to find a common balance when courting.
Parallel riding is a metaphor for equality in the couple
The secret of his balance was the symmetry in his paintings, since it was made up of two independent paintings, joined at their ends: by the rear axle, seat tubes and, by the steering, it had two wheels in a linear arrangement and, although the two passengers pedaled and it had handlebars and transmission for each one, it had to be driven without discrepancy and unanimity between the couple.
In spite of its unorthodox design, but well implemented mechanically, it was not necessary that the occupants had the same weight to keep it in balance, even, having only two wheels in line, because the wheels acting as a gyroscope level the advance of the bicycle.
In spite of the romantic concept, the idea did not flourish, partly because of the difficulty of getting on and off – imagine the lady in question getting on and off dressed in a huge skirt while the lover was holding the bike – of her, her geometry did not allow for the ease of getting on and off since one of the cyclists had to hold the bike while the other one got on. And due to its high cost it was not widely sold so it disappeared from the market.
The idea continued well into the 50’s and was resumed during the 70’s, with some mechanical changes, mainly in its direction and frame, since one of the frames was removed, and the ride as a whole, by a single driver who gave it direction in a modification of the handlebars.
Likewise, the new designs; the new social customs and the way couples interacted in the era of the sexual revolution made the “sociable bike” not suitable and its commercialization was abandoned again. Nowadays, in the middle of the bicycle fever, there are still those who build them and collectors who buy them as a cult object.
Which inevitably makes me wonder
Will design last in the taste of cyclists this time? Will it help couples to know each other better and to build more lasting relationships? Is their riding in parallel a metaphor for equality in the couple? What do you think?