Thomas Stevens: The man who cycled the world on a penny-farthing bicycle

Boban Docevski
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This is the story about Thomas Stevens who became the first man to cycle around the world on a bicycle. Even today, a journey of these proportions is a challenge, but making it back in the 1880s with a simple penny-farthing bicycle was even a greater challenge.

Thomas Stevens, also known as Tom was born in Castle Street, Berkhamsted. After finishing his education in the Bourne Charity School, he found a job as an apprentice in a grocery. In 1871, when he was 17 years-old, Tom and his half-brother moved to Denver and later to San Francisco. Here, Tom learned how to ride a bicycle, without knowing that this skill will bring him a lot of fame.

Tom found a job in a Wyoming railroad mill, where he stayed for two years before he got chased out of town because he imported British workers and took part of their salaries for the favors he did for them. Later, he started working in a Colorado mine where he got the idea to ride a bicycle across the States.

1885 Advertisement for the Columbia brand of bicycles made by the Pope Manufacturing Company of Chicago

Everything started in 1884 when Stevens bought himself a penny-farthing. It was a 50-inch black-enameled Columbia Standard bicycle with nickel-plated wheels, made by the Pope Manufacturing Company of Chicago. Tom packed his handlebar bag lightly; he only took some socks, a spare t-shirt, a raincoat that he also used as a tent and bedroll and a small pocket revolver.

After putting everything in order, he hopped on his bicycle and left San Francisco at 8 o’clock on 22nd April 1884. He reached Sacramento, and after that, his journey took him across the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. On every stop, Steven was greeted by members of local bicycle clubs. Finally, on 4th August 1884, after 103,5 days, he reached Boston and the East Coast of the United States, thus, making the first transcontinental bicycle ride.

A Columbia ordinary penny-farthing (1886)  Photo credit

Harper’s made a report on his effort:

“More than one-third of the route followed by Mr. Stevens had to be walked. Eighty-three and a half days of actual travel and twenty days’ stoppage for wet weather, etc., made one hundred and three and a half days occupied in reaching Boston, the distance by wagon-road being about 3,700 miles. He followed the old California trail most of the way across the plains and mountains, astonishing the Indians, and meeting with many strange adventures.”

With his journey, Stevens made foundations for a new way of traveling – one that didn’t involve rifles and a whole expedition – traveling just for the sake of visiting a place, hiking and meeting new cultures. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a member of the Massachusetts Bicycle Club, heard Tom’s speech and stated the following:

“Instead of going round the world with a rifle, for the purpose of killing something – or with a bundle of tracts, in order to convert somebody – this bold youth simply went round the globe to see the people who were on it; and since he always had something to show them as interesting as anything that they could show him, he made his way among all nations.”

Stevens decided to pass the winter in New York, and while he was there, he started making plans for his next journey – a trip across Europe. In the meantime, he started making sketches of his transcontinental journey to a magazine called Outing.

The magazine decided to make him a special correspondent and sponsored his trip to Liverpool – the starting point for his new journey. After arriving in Great Britain, Tom went to London to arrange his trip across Europe and the returned to Liverpool. On 4th May 1885, Stevens began his journey with a formal start at Edge Hill Church, Liverpool. He cycled across Britain and symbolically passed trough Berkhamsted, his birthplace. Then, Stevens took the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe and arrived in France.

An illustration of Thomas Stevens on his bicycle

From France, Tom cycled through Germany, Austria, and Hungary. In Hungary, he was joined by another cyclist who didn’t speak English and rode with him for a while. From Hungary, Stevens continued cycling through Slavonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Rumelia, and finally arrived in Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey – the final destination of his European journey.

Constantinople, or modern-day Istanbul, is the cross-over point between Europe and Asia. This was a nice starting point for Stevens’s plan to pedal across Asia. Here he took some well-deserved rest, obtained spare spokes for his bicycle and bought himself a new pistol. Soon he headed off and passed through Anatolia, Armenia, Kurdistan, Iraq and made it to Teheran, Iran where he was invited to stay for the winter as a guest in the Shah’s palace.

A map of Stevens’s bicycle journey across the world Image credit

Tom’s initial plan was to cycle through Siberia, but after being denied a passage, on 10th March 1886, he went to Afghanistan where he was again denied to pass. Being unable to go in that direction, Thomas returned to Constantinople and took a steamer to India.

Stevens described his trip through India as pleasant. Besides the weather being always hot, he noted that the Grand Trunk Road was in good condition for cycling and it was free of bandits. From Calcutta, he boarded a steamer that took him to Hong Kong. Here he began his journey through China. When he reached the coast, Thomas took another boat to Japan. He immediately fell in love with the country. It was calm and beautiful to cycle around. Japan was also the end of Tom’s bicycle tour across the world. His bicycle Journey ended on 17th December 1886, in Yokohama. From Japan, Stevens took a steamboat back to San Francisco. The last entry in his travelogue says: “DISTANCE WHEELED, ABOUT 13,500 MILES.”

An illustration of Stevens and his bicycle in Japan

After his bicycle journey, Thomas Stevens continued living an adventurous life. Up until 1895, he made several other trips in different places around the world.

Here is another story from us: Grandma Gatewood was the first woman who solely hiked the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail

Then, Stevens moved back to England and settled down as the manager of the Garrick Theatre in London. He died on 24th January 1935, aged 80.