In 1899, as the world edged toward a new century promising many technical marvels and Henry Ford was tinkering in his backyard with a car that achieved 25 mph, the U.S. was caught up in a craze for speed. The ubiquitous bicycle was part of it. Millions of Americans rode cycles, and a brash 28-year-old racer from Brooklyn, Charles Minthorne Murphy, titillated the nation by claiming that no locomotive could outspeed him. On Friday afternoon, June 30, 1899, Murphy was given the opportunity to make good on his boast. More than 3,000 people gathered along 2‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö‚à´ miles of Long Island Rail Road siding near what is now Farmingdale, N.Y. to watch this history-making confrontation between machine and man. Fast cyclists were plentiful, but Murphy had promised to do something no one had ever done: break the mile-a-minute barrier.
While talking to reporters 13 years before the trial took place, Murphy had made the preposterous claim that he could keep pace with a train. At a demonstration in Philadelphia, the 16-year-old upstart had pedaled a stationary training bike the equivalent of one mile in 79 seconds, using a 64-inch gear. The reporters were unimpressed. What worked indoors on a stage wouldn't outdoors with a normal bicycle, they concluded, and, besides, Murphy was still well off a mile-a-minute pace.
But even at his age Murphy realized that the reason he could pedal so fast was the absence of wind resistance. He knew from experience what engineers and theorists would learn later—that most of a racer's effort was spent in tearing a hole through the air. Goaded on by the reporters, he blurted out the boast he was to live with for over a decade: "If I can be protected from the wind, there's no limit to how fast I can ride. Why, I can keep up with the fastest train! There's not a locomotive built that can get away from me!"
As Murphy later ruefully recalled, "I immediately became the laughingstock of the world."
As a professional bike racer, Murphy set 29 New York state records, 17 U.S. records and seven world records. He was nearing the end of his career when he met the remarkable Harold B. Fullerton.
Fullerton, a former machinery salesman, merchant seaman, civil engineer and soldier of fortune, was a special agent for the Long Island Rail Road when William H. Baldwin Jr., the president of the railroad, assigned him to do publicity. One of Fullerton's ideas was to equip a baggage car to handle bicycles, and he set about luring city riders onto the island for a weekend of cycling on its quiet rural roads. To meet bikers, he joined the Kings County Wheelmen, a Brooklyn bike club, and in April 1899, at their awards banquet, he met Murphy.
Murphy wasn't yet 29 and Fullerton was 41. The brash athlete and the sophisticated publicist immediately hit it off. Moreover, Fullerton saw in Murphy the chance to promote an especially appealing publicity stunt—a race between a frail bicycle and rider and a massive, thundering locomotive. He told Murphy to get ready, then set about the difficult task of convincing Baldwin and his board of directors that the publicity the stunt would generate would be worth the money for expenses—$12,000. Board members raised reasonable objections: Suppose Murphy, now old for a racer, proved incapable of keeping up with the train? Suppose he was injured or killed in the effort? And even if he was successful, how would that attract business to Long Island? But Fullerton's enthusiasm for the project was so contagious that Baldwin brushed aside all the board's objections.
While Murphy trained at home, Fullerton found a siding suitable for the test and had a crew lay pine planking between the rails. Sam Booth, the engineer who had run Theodore Roosevelt's train when he was campaigning for governor of New York, was chosen to drive the engine that would pace Murphy.
By the third week of June, everything was ready. Without notifying the press, Fullerton took Murphy out to Farmingdale for a trial run. A few reporters found out about it and were on hand, but there was no crowd. Fullerton wanted to erase all doubts about the outcome before he staged the big show.
The train consisted of a locomotive, a coal tender and a coach with a rear observation platform. Extending from the back of the platform was a wooden hood inside of which Murphy was supposed to ride, protected from the wind.
He used his regular cycle, a Tribune "Blue Streak" with 28-inch wheels and a chainwheel-sprocket combination that gave him a 112-inch gear. The bike had 6½-inch crank arms, suitable for the high rpm technique called "spinning." The bike weighed 20½ pounds, the 5'7" Murphy 145.
The first trial was held on Wednesday, June 21. Booth did his best, but couldn't reach the required speed of 60 mph. Murphy stayed with the train and covered the mile in 64.8 seconds. That was the fastest timed mile ever attained by a cyclist, but it wasn't fast enough. It didn't break the magic mile-a-minute barrier.
The effort did, however, disclose one flaw in the planning. How was Murphy to stop? A good part of the two-mile board track was used for accelerating to speed. Then came the measured mile. That left almost no room for slowing down. As the train pulled away, Murphy was hit by the turbulent air currents. His bike was hard to control on the narrow track. Worst of all, he saw that the boards would soon run out—leaving him to crash as he hit the crossties. A Washington Post reporter described the scene: "He quietly steadied his wheel and let it run. He managed to slow down a bit, then saw that the board track ended. He leaped onto the cinders and landed on his feet, unhurt."
Fullerton had the track lengthened by three-eighths of a mile, but decided not to allow Murphy to be buffeted in the train's wake. When he had completed the mile, he would have to be taken aboard the train somehow. Meanwhile, Booth was looking for the line's most powerful engine. He decided on No. 74, which was considerably heavier than the engine used in the trial, and Fullerton pulled it out of service. Two more practice rides were canceled as being too risky. There would be just the main event.
Fullerton had timed the occasion to coincide with the annual meeting of the League of American Wheelmen, being held that year on Long Island at Patchogue. These cyclists swelled the crowd that lined the tracks on Friday afternoon, June 30. Aboard the train were railroad officials, reporters, two physicians, Murphy's trainer and masseur, five official timers, including the county sheriff, and referee James E. Sullivan, executive secretary of the AAU.
Murphy had changed his chainwheel and sprocket to a combination that gave him a gear of 120 inches. Even so, to achieve a speed of 60 mph, he would have to pedal at the rate of three revolutions per second. And the bike was too big for him; he couldn't straddle it comfortably. Fullerton had to hold it steady while photographers took pictures of the racer on the saddle.
At 5:10 p.m., 40 minutes late, Booth gave three blasts on the whistle. Reporters boarded the train; Fullerton pushed Murphy into the hood, and the great trial finally began. The train shuddered from a standing start, with Murphy holding on. He let go when the train reached 40 mph. At the beginning of the measured mile, stopwatches clicked and the race was on. Murphy, keeping his eyes on a white stripe painted on the train's platform, was bent over the handlebars and pedaling furiously. To those on the platform he was a wavering silhouette against the brightness beyond the hood.
He did the first quarter-mile in 15.2 seconds, but the train was still accelerating. The second quarter was faster—14.2. Half a mile had been reached in 29.4: breaking the mile-a-minute barrier was possible!
But the cheering suddenly stopped. Murphy began to lose ground; the train was pulling away from him. Then he was outside the hood, caught in a swirling cloud of dust and cinders. The attempt appeared doomed, and Murphy in danger of falling and possibly being killed. Fullerton shouted frantically, "Are you all right?"
"I can't see!" Murphy shouted back. The locomotive seemed to be tearing up the light roadbed. Murphy was almost blinded by a maelstrom of debris.
Reporters began yelling, "Come on, Charlie! Come on!" The announced time for the third quarter was 14.4—but the reading was probably in error.
In the last quarter-mile, Murphy seemed possessed. The train's speed was now 64.3 mph, and Murphy was catching up to it. Some reporters estimated that he had been 50 feet behind; others said nine. Soon he was coming back inside the hood. In the last 14 seconds, pedaling at a speed of more than 66 mph, he struck the platform's guardrail six times.
The train roared past the flags that marked the finish line. Fullerton and another railroad official reached down, grabbed Murphy under his arms and grappled him aboard. His bicycle, the pedals strapped to his feet, came with him. He was carried into the coach almost unconscious and put on a cot. Trainers and a doctor began working on him. He revived in about five minutes.
The official time for the mile was 57.8. Murphy had covered the distance at an average speed of 62.28 mph. His achievement astonished the world, made Murphy modestly rich and briefly famous, and opened the eyes of designers to the advantages of streamlining.
After a music-hall tour at $350 per week, Murphy joined the New York Police Department and, in 1905, became the world's first motorcycle cop. In 1914 he learned to fly a flimsy monoplane and became the first airborne lawman. His suggestion that planes be used for surveillance was adopted 50 years later.
Murphy died in bed on Feb. 17, 1950, at the age of 79, and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, in Brooklyn.