Back Mark Twain, “Taming the Bicycle”

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890

Woman on tricycle, followed by men on penny-farthings, c. 1887. Detail from a chromolithographic print of an aquarelle (water color) by Canadian artist Henry “Hy” Sandham (1842–1910). Printed by L. Prang & Co. (Boston). (NYPL Digital Collections)

Mark Twain (a.k.a. Samuel L. Clemens) was born 182 years ago today, and we celebrate it by presenting one of his glorious failures that he turned into one of his breezily humorous (if exaggerated) stories.

Throughout his life Clemens was fascinated with the latest inventions. He owned one of the first home telephones, and he invested (and nearly always lost) money on a variety of businesses peddling the new and the odd, including engraving machines, telegraph equipment, and Plasmon, an alleged protein powder (“One teaspoon is equivalent to an ordinary beefsteak”). His financial downfall and bankruptcy occurred when he sunk most of his fortune into the Paige Typesetter, a monstrous device that would have revolutionized the printing industry—if it had ever worked as well as it did when the inventor demonstrated a prototype to the hapless investor.

So when the Columbia Bicycle Factory opened up near his home in Hartford, Clemens leaped at the opportunity to try one. He bought his own bicycle and hired one of the factory’s employees to teach him how to ride it. It did not go well, and therein lies the tale, “Taming the Bicycle,” which was found among Mark Twain’s papers and published posthumously in 1917—and which we present here as our Story of the Week selection.

Read “Taming the Bicycle” by Mark Twain

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