This month, the RYNO, a one-wheeled electric motorcycle, is slated to start rolling off the assembly line. Why, one might ask, might human society need a one-wheeled electric motorcycle? Well, we don’t, but that hasn’t stopped us from churning out all kinds of vehicular experiments with dubious utility—today’s prime example being the Segway. But the all-time poster child for claptrap transportation might well be the monocycle, or the monowheel, in all of its myriad forms over the last century.
Humankind has, for some reason, been intent on perfecting a one-wheeled form of transportation since the 1800s. Below is the Rousseau Monowheel, invented by Rousseau of Marseilles in 1869.
Douglas Self, who curates an online museum of retro technology, notes that:
This elegant monowheel cycle- the word "bicycle" seems somehow inappropriate, though there are certainly two wheels involved- dates back to 1869. It was built by Rousseau of Marseilles.
"In 1869 the craftsman Rousseau of Marseilles built this monocycle, which perches the cyclist on the inside of a 2 1/2 yards-high wheel. As there is no steering mechanism, it makes uncommon demands on the rider's sense of balance." (from Galbiati & Ciravegna)
Note that bicycles had been invented a whole half-century earlier, and that there probably was never any feasible possibility that a one-wheeled vehicle would ever, for any reason, be more effective, efficient, or an improvement of any kind over its duel-wheeled predecessor. And yet inventors around the world continued to experiment with the monowheel—there were dozens of designs, some better than others, and multiple patents filed.
This, for example, is the only known design for a ludicrously inefficient hand-powered monowheel. It was invented by Richard Hemmings of Connecticut at around the same time as Rousseau's.
But it wasn’t until we started outfitting the monowheels with internal combustion engines that things became truly absurd. Here, according to Self, is the first motor-powered monowheel.
It was displayed in an exhibition in Milan in 1904, and is known as the Garavaglia Monowheel.
“The picturesque machine shown below was shown at the Milan Exposition by the House of Garavaglia. It was, it appears, a genuine success ... The big tyre with its rim fitted internally with ball-bearings, upon which the fixed frame sits, which supports both the driver of this strange vehicle, and the petrol engine; the rim of the tyre is moreover toothed on the side, and engages with the pinion of the engine; this can be seen at the bottom right of the picture. In sum, the mobile tyre rolls around the built fixed engine.
In following decades, the monocycle would become a popular technical curiosity, appearing on magazine covers and at exhibitions around the world.
They were something of a phenomenon well through the 1930s, though again, motorcycles had risen to prominence decades prior, and were clearly the more practical vehicle.
M. Goventosa , an Italian from Udine, built this, the culmination of an era of motorized monowheeling, in 1931. It was allegedly capable of reaching speeds of 150 km, or 93 miles mph. Someone dug up some archival footage of the bizarre monocycle being ridden in France:
And so the strange dream of the monowheel had reached its apex; magazine readers were tired of hearing about weird unicycles with motors, and inventors were tapped out—there were only so many ways you could sit a man inside of a wheel, obviously.
Until the end of the century, that is, when hobbyist motorists started tinkering with monowheels again for sport. Search YouTube for monocycle, and you’ll be treated to a surprisingly large selection of dudes in their one-wheel contraptions, running with Goventosa and Rousseau’s torch.
One of which reveals the dangers inherent in monocycles:
Finally, in the 2000s, companies started to look at the potential of actually marketing a monocycle—the popularity of the Segway revealed that there was an interest and a market for off-kilter electric personal transit vehicles, and the pursuit of a feasible one-wheeled variant was on.
A company in the Netherlands, for instance, is now marketing the monocycle as a vehicle for kids:
Elsewhere, sustainability factors play a key part of the pitch. Which brings us back to RYNO, which is on the verge of offering the most widely-produced monocycle yet:
RYNO is poised to create real fundamental change. Since you can take it on the train in the suburbs, get off downtown and quietly ride it all around, city planners will finally have a product that will allow urban centers to clear out automobile free zones and get people out of their cars and back to meeting face to face.
Slide the battery out and take it upstairs to charge or simply ride the RYNO through a lobby and up the elevator to your own apartment.
Once again, it’s a little difficult to see how the RYNO is more practical or energy efficient than a bicycle, or a Segway for that matter. It's clearly worlds better than the monowheels that lodge their drivers inside the frame of the wheel. But as the history of our odd fascination with the monowheel reminds us, the pursuit of practicality has rarely governed our technological tinkering—when we seek to innovate, it seems we’re drawn to pushing the boundaries of the novel and the bizarre as much we are to overcoming concrete problems. If we weren’t, the patently ridiculous monocycle would never have been built in the first place.