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Meet the Man Who Was the First to Travel the World on a Penny-Farthing

By Tereza Antonova

Thomas Stevens was born in England. At the age of 17, he moved to San Francisco – a city that introduced him to bicycles. The young fella then learned how to tame a penny-farthing; skill that would change his life for good. In 1885, Thomas purchased a penny-farthing of his own and came up with the idea of riding it around the world. And so a Colombia Standard bicycle became his one trusty companion for the next couple of years.

Safe to say, Thomas travelled like a true adventurer (one could also say a teenager). With a spare shirt, a couple of pairs of socks, a raincoat and a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver (right, this excludes the teenager comparison), Thomas Stevenson embarked on an incredible journey on 22nd April 1884.

After three months and 3,700 miles in his legs, the August streets of Boston welcomed the weary traveller. He took a bit of time to relax, spent the winter, and headed for Liverpool. Cheered by a crowd of fans, Stevens set out on the next part of his trip, riding across continental Europe to Constantinople (Istanbul). A little rest and then straight to Anatolia, Kurdistan, and Iran where Thomas accepted an invitation to spend the winter as a guest of the Shah.

Finishing his comfy winter vacation in a Tehran palace, Stevens set out on his next travels through Asia. After being denied entry to Siberia and getting expelled from Afghanistan, he had to return to Constantinople and take a steamer to India. Wheeling along the famous Grand Trunk Road, Thomas finally made it to the shore and boarded a steamer to Southern China. Unfortunately, he arrived right on the time for the protests against the war with the French, so the locals offered him refuge until the situation became stabilised.

© American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)

The last part of Thomas’ journey around the globe took place in Japan. In Yokohama, the final destination, Stevens reckoned he had about 13,500 miles in his legs. Afterwards, he returned to San Francisco, got married, bought a house, and worked as an accountant… wait. You didn’t really buy that, did you?

In 1888, Stevens learned that a famous adventurer, Henry Morton Stanley, disappeared somewhere in Africa. Without hesitation, Thomas volunteered to join the search. The mission took 14 months and ended up somewhat ironically. Unfortunately, Thomas did not find Mr Morton even though they eventually met up. But it was Mr Morton who found the famously long lost Dr Livingstone.

In the following years, Thomas travelled across Russia on horseback. Then he bought a boat and sailed the rivers of Eastern Europe. Afterwards, he embarked on his India exploration trip. And (who would have guessed) he actually did get married and settled down as a manager of Garrick Theatre in London. The adventures of Thomas Stevens ended in 1935 when he died, aged 80. What a life.