Have you ever heard the names William Sachtleben and Thomas Allen Jr.? They were two young American graduates who, in June 1890, embarked on a journey to bike around the world. After finishing their studies at Washington University they travelled to New York City, where they started their adventure. They returned 3 years later, after pedaling some 29,000 km on three continents including Europe, Asia and North America, this was the longest bicycle journey ever made, which made them famous world-wide. They also chronicled their matchless journey with two novel compact Kodak film cameras which they referred to as the “mysterious” black box in the book they wrote.
Fully prepared, these adventurers boarded a steamer to Liverpool, England, where they spent the summer, after which they continued biking in Europe, crossing France and Italy in the fall of 1890. They arrived in Athens, Greece, where they waited out the winter, which is where they met an Armenian revolutionary Serope Gürdjian who had just been expelled from Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Hearing the stories about the Armenian struggle against the Ottoman government, they wanted to learn more, and so they decided to bike across the heart of Turkey.
In March 1891, they sailed to Constantinople, where they were “God’s guest” to the Armenian family for a while, and on a misty morning in April 1891 they boarded a small boat to cross the Bosporus. Once they arrived on the Asian side of the city, their great adventure literally began. Without any prior knowledge of the language, the cultures and customs they rode their strange mechanical horses across the heart of Turkey. Here, they stopped their travel to climb the famous Mount Ararat, reaching its iconic peak in July of 1891, they planted an American flag here, with great joy, as they mentioned in their book.
In August, they arrived in Tehran, and from here they headed to Russia. Once they approached Siberia, they changed their route, and they crossed China via the Gobi Desert. Reaching San Francisco in 1892, Allen and Sachtleben were swarmed by an American journalist, who proclaimed them as ‘the greatest travelers since Marco Polo’. They also wrote a fascinating book (Across Asia on a Bicycle) about their 1-year-long Asian journey, and published it in 1894.
It is said that they captured 1,200 images, but only about a third of the negatives survived, and these are now owned by the University of California at Los Angeles which scanned them in 2013.
Herlihy David. The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance. Houghton Mifflin, 2010
McCullough R. Old Wheelways: Traces of Bicycle History on the Land. Cambridge, Massachussets: The Mit Press, 2015
“Crossroads in the Desest”. Washington Magazine (magazine.wustl.edu | web.archive.org), 2012
“Safety Bikes & Box Cameras”. (www.ctc.org.uk)
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