Sunday, May 29, 2011

Mile-A-Minute Murphy

This bike belonged to Charles Minthorn Murphy, who became a national celebrity as the first cyclist to ride a mile in less than a minute.

Mile-A-Minute Murphy and Tom Butler during a roller race in 1901.

In 1899, Murphy (who was a seasoned cyclist and had covered a mile in 37 seconds on rollers) boasted that there was not a train in the world that could drop him. He theorized that he could ride in the slipstream of any vehicle and keep pace with it.

In a fit of old-timey insanity, a length of track was covered with boards so that both a train and cyclist could ride on it. Dozens of journalists piled into the last car of an empty train (which had been modified somewhat to create a slipstream), and Murphy instructed the engineer to go as fast as he could. On the first run, Murphy finished the mile in 1 minute 8 seconds, but that was because the conductor couldn't get his train over 60 miles/hour. A second attempt was necessary, and this time the engine's regulator was removed.

Mile-A-Minute Murphy riding on the covered train tracks.

The second attempt proved challenging in other ways. According to Murphy,

"Within five seconds the rate of speed was terrific; I was riding in a maelstrom of swirling dust,
hot cinders, paper and other particles of matter. The whipsaw feeling through a veritable storm of fire became harder every second. I could feel myself getting weaker every second I saw ridicule, contempt, disgrace and a lifetime dream gone up in smoke. I saw the agonised faces, yelling, holding out stretched hands as if they would like to get hold of or assist me somehow"

Near the 45 second mark, the train was starting to drop Murphy. He dug in, closed the gap, and then crashed into the back of the train as it crossed the one mile marker (he was able to grab the guard rail and was pulled aboard by journalists). He had covered a mile in 57.8 seconds.

Mile-A-Minute Murphy riding behind the modified train car.

Tests were done to see if the modified train created a back draft at speed by throwing paper and other light objects from the back. It was discovered that there was no back draft or tailwind created by the train and that the wind swirled about two hundred feet behind the train. If Murphy had been dropped by the train at high speed the swirling wind would have blown him off the track and he would have been seriously injured if not killed.

The heavy weight of the train made the tracks sink as it went over them. after the train had passed the tracks sprung back into their original position. This created a constant wave like motion on the board surface that Murphy was riding on. Part of the time during his ride he was actually air borne. This was truly a dangerous ride.

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