The Eccentric Era of Monowheels: Vintage Photographs Unveil the Curious Machines of the 1930s

Vintage photographs from the 1930s uncover the captivating saga of monowheels, peculiar inventions that once sparked a frenzy of innovation in transportation history. Dating back to 1869, the origins of the monowheel were rooted in a French inventor’s creation, albeit one that sported two wheels. This giant wheel encompassed a seat with a smaller wheel beneath it, driven by the rider’s pedaling actions.

However, even in its nascent stages, the monowheel was deemed a cumbersome and challenging mode of transportation, described as “impracticable for ordinary mortals.” Despite its initial impracticality, inventors throughout the early 20th century persisted, experimenting with variations powered by engines and even incorporating airplane propellers for steering assistance. Yet, none of these designs transitioned into mass production, remaining as visionary concepts confined to the pages of science magazines.

The pinnacle of this eccentric invention emerged in 1932 with Dr. J.H. Purves’ creation – the Dynasphere. This motorized monowheel gained notoriety, purportedly reaching speeds between 25 to 30 MPH. Dr. Purves championed the monowheel as the epitome of simplified motorized transport. Nevertheless, his creation fell short of widespread success due to inherent instability, limited passenger capacity, and various design flaws.

Davide Chislagi, the Italian inventor, testing his single-wheel engine. 1933.

Distinguished from a unicycle, the monowheel featured the rider positioned within the wheel’s circumference, resembling a giant ball bearing. Its operation relied on the principles of a gyroscope, maintaining stability through external force, primarily an engine, or sometimes pedal power.

Navigating a monowheel posed formidable challenges. Maneuvering this singular-wheel vehicle demanded delicate balance, with riders strategically positioning their feet close to the ground to avert tipping. Steering remained an arduous task, compounded by the vehicle’s lack of additional wheels and an unwieldy stance. Moreover, braking proved exceptionally difficult, especially for models equipped with potent engines.

J. A. Purves drives a Dynasphere spherical car, an automobile shaped like a giant radial tire. Mr. Purves was the vehicle’s inventor. 1932.

Inherent design flaws plagued the monowheel, including impaired visibility, instability, steering complexities, and the unsettling phenomenon of “gerbiling.” The abrupt acceleration or braking caused the rider to spin inside the machine, akin to a pet gerbil in its wheel, further exacerbating safety concerns.

Despite these setbacks, the monowheel failed to garner mainstream traction. However, the allure of these bizarre machines persisted, captivating enthusiasts who continued to construct and attempt riding them, primarily for entertainment purposes.

Electronically driven wheels which revolve while the drivers remain stationary are tested at Bream Sands, Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, England. 1932.

The vintage photographs serve as an indelible record, documenting an era when the monowheel held promise as a futuristic mode of transport. Spanning from the 1860s to the 1930s, these snapshots offer a glimpse into the fervent endeavors of inventors who envisioned diverse iterations of the monowheel – human-powered, electric, or gas motor-driven – all unified by the fundamental concept of the rider ensconced within the inner ring, propelling the vehicle forward against the outer wheel.

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