I want to fly my bicycle, I want to fly my kite: Peter Müller and the Pedroplan

Peter Müller at the controls [sic] of the Pedroplan, Berlin, Germany, March 1931. Anon., “Cologne contre Marseille – Le mystère du ‘Pédroplan.’ [sic]” Les Ailes, 2 April 1931, 14.

Hallo, kamarade. Wie gehts? Ich werde heute über ein sehr interessantes Thema sprechen, und…

What’s wrong with you, my reading friend? You seem very puzzled. Ahh, apologies. Let us start anew. Hello, comrade. How are you? I am going to pontificate on a very interesting subject today.

Ninety years ago today, a German weekly magazine, Kölnische Illustrierte Zeitung, I think, unless it was a German daily, Kölnische Zeitung, both from Köln / Cologne anyway, published a most interesting 3-page illustrated article on the flight performed by a well-known German aviator, at the controls of an aircraft known as the Pedroplan.

The day before, unless it was the same day, a sweaty-faced Peter Müller took off from Tempelhof airport, near Berlin. Having reached an altitude of about 100 metres (330 feet), he made a turn and, having taken the direction of Berlin, gradually disappeared into the distance. About half an hour later, Müller reappeared. He made a turn which brought chills to those eagerly awaiting him and landed to their cheers. Müller had travelled a distance of about 22 kilometres (about 13.5 miles) in about 29.5 minutes, at an average speed of nearly 45 kilometres/hour (nearly 28 miles/hour). A mind-boggling performance, and…

You seem skeptical, my reading friend. Traveling such a distance at such a low speed was nothing exceptional in 1931, you say? It was, say (type?) I, if, like Müller, you rode a flying bicycle. Yes, yes, a flying bicycle, an aerocycle, well almost.

You see, the Pedroplan’s propulsion system consisted of a small propeller powered by a small motor powered by a small compressor powered by a pedal and gear mechanism powered by Müller. And yes, the Pedroplan was a human powered aircraft.

According to the French weekly magazine Les Ailes, Müller had won, hands down, the Prix Peugeot, created in 1910.

The Les Ailes article, however, ended in a completely different vein. The article in the Kölnische Illustrierte Zeitung, claimed the Paris weekly, was an abominable April Fool’s Day, or a magnificent tall tale, created from scratch by the management of the German magazine.

Is that disappointment that I am reading on your face, my reading friend?

The Prix Peugeot was obviously a joke, you say? Nay. The Prix Peugeot, or Prix du décamètre, could not be more real. It was created in 1912, however, by a great pioneer of automobile construction in France and Europe, Robert Peugeot, president of the Société anonyme des Automobiles et Cycles Peugeot.

Worth 10 000 francs (nearly Can $ 48 600 in 2021 currency), said prize was intended to reward the person who would, for the first time, manage to perform a flight of 10 metres (nearly 33 feet) in one direction, followed by another 10 metre (nearly 33 feet) flight in the opposite direction, at a minimum altitude of 20 centimetres (8 inches). This flight would have to be carried out on board an aviette, a human-powered flying machine halfway between an aeroplane and a bicycle.

And yes, the Canada Science and Technology Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, a sister / brother institution of the incredibly good Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, has an incredibly good collection of bicycles.

While nearly 200 people signed up for the Prix Peugeot, fewer than 25 showed up at the site where it was held in June 1912 in the Paris region.

A little disappointed with the results obtained, Peugeot accepted the suggestion of the judges to organise a second competition, the Prix du décimètre apparently, to be held at the beginning of July. Peugeot would then remit a sum of 1 000 francs (about Can $ 4 860 in 2021 currency) to the person who would, for the first time, manage to perform a flight of 1 metre (a little over 39 inches) in one direction, followed by another 1 metre (a little over 39 inches) flight in the opposite direction, at a minimum altitude of 10 centimetres (4 inches). This flight would of course have to be carried out on board an aviette.

A French cycling champion specialising in speed racing, Gabriel Poulain, won this version of the Prix Peugeot by covering distances of 3.6 and 3.3 metres (approximately 11 feet 10 inches and 10 feet 10 inches).

Intrigued, an experimented French aeronaut and vice-president of the Association générale aéronautique launched another Prix du décimètre. Georges Dubois Le Cour would remit a sum of 500 francs (nearly Can $ 2 450 in 2021 currency) to the person who would, for the first time, manage to perform a flight of 3 metres (about 9 feet 10 inches) at a minimum altitude of 20 centimetres (8 inches). The Swiss (or German?) cyclist Sigmar Rettich won that prize in Octobre 1912.

Another prize launched by Dubois Le Cour, a sum of 700 francs (about Can $ 3 435 in 2021 currency), would go to the person who would, for the first time, manage to reach an altitude of 10 metres (about 32 feet 10 inches). It was never won.

Equally intrigued, the well-known French tire manufacturer Michelin et Compagnie launched yet another prize, for a 5 metre (about 16 feet 5 inches) flight. The French lawyer and cyclist Paul Didier won that prize in December 1912.

In July 1921, when he was practically retired, “the man in the green jersey,” as Poulain is sometimes / often called, in translation, offered himself the luxury of covering officially recognised distances of 10.54 metres and 11.46 metres (approximately 34 feet 7 inches and 37 feet 7 inches). He thus won the Prix Peugeot in its initial version, that is to say the tidy sum of 10 000 francs (around Can $ 15 800 in 2021 currency) – and yes, the value of the franc had fallen sharply between 1912 and 1921.

The flights in question were in fact the second pair made by Poulain that day. The judges had rejected perfectly fine flights made an hour before because he had lifted off outside the designated area. This (slightly anal?) decision had not gone well with the people who had cheered Poulain’s accomplishment. The latter simply asked for an hour to catch his breath – a response which earned him the admiration of a great many people in France and beyond.

A digression of I may. Poulain’s aviette was designed by engineers who worked for one of the great aircraft manufacturing firms in the world, a French firm, the Société anonyme des Établissements Nieuport.

And yes, the wonderful Canada Aviation and Space Museum has in its collection a reproduction / replica of a Nieuport Nie 17 C1 fighter aircraft, a type designed during the First World War.

Shortly after Poulain’s triumph, Peugeot launched another edition, the third, of his prize. This time, he would give a sum of 20 000 francs (about Can $ 32 000 in 2021 currency) to the person who would, for the first time, manage to perform a flight of 50 metres (nearly 165 feet) in one direction, followed by another 50 metre (nearly 165 feet) flight in the opposite direction. This flight would once again have to be carried out on board an aviette.

The new Prix Peugeot aroused some interest, but no one managed to achieve the required performance, not even Poulain, whose Nieuport propeller-driven bicycle was seemingly never built.

Had you been a tweenager or teenager in 1930, my reading friend, you might have been interested by what Glide-O-Bike Company of Dallas, Texas, had to offer. In exchange for 25 cents, you would have received a set of plans for said Glide-O-Bike, which consisted of a wing and tail linked by a narrow beam. This contraption could be attached to a conventional bicycle and used to make very brief hops. Yeeeeeaaah! Sorry.

Oddly enough, leadership in human-powered flying machines moved to National Socialist Germany and Fascist Italy during the 1930s. Given that, yours truly has no intention of mentioning the names of the people involved, or their activities.

Please allow me to wish you a good week, my reading friend. Illegitimi non carborundum and keep your feet on the ground.

And yes, I too have the impression that Müller was a fictitious character created from scratch by the management of Kölnische Illustrierte Zeitung.

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Rénald Fortier