Twenty-five year old Phyllis Brawley was installed as a living window display at Cincinnati’s Hotel Sinton on the day of Aquacycle’s debut. Clad in a “beach costume,” the blonde model peddled the newly-patented marine invention that allowed users to propel boats and canoes by foot power.
Spectators congregated around the window in such numbers that Cincinnati patrolman, Charles Ray, ordered that the live window display to cease–a proclamation that was met with jeers. Ultimately, the authorities demanded that manager of the Aquacycle Company, Earl Metcalfe, either stop the demonstration or be cited for interfering with pedestrian traffic. Metcalfe, a self-employed business consultant and manager of the Aquacycle Company of Covington, stated that he intended to defy police orders to meet public demand for the demonstration continue the next day. Arguably, their interest was likely inspired more by the visible shins and shoulders of Miss Brawley than the newfangled contraption upon which she was perched.
Metcalfe, who lived on a farm in Morning View in southern Kenton County, was not the inventor of the Aquacycle, but was assignor to the company when the trademark was registered in 1948. He was involved with the contraption as early as 1947, when the Aquacycle Company of Covington was chartered and valued at an eyebrow-raising $100,000 (over $1,300,000 today). The design for the “pedal or mechanically propelling and steering mechanism for boats” was the work of Dr. Byrel Billman, a physician of physiotherapy and proctology, educated at the Eclectic Medical Institute of Cincinnati. Billman created the Aquacycle as a device to propel and steer boats in places where motorized watercraft were either outlawed or impossible operate. Sportsmen were potential clients of interest, especially those who enjoyed hunting and fishing in marshy areas. Instead of relying on a loud and potentially destructive motor to power a boat, the Aquacycle attached to any motor-less boat, allowing users to pedal the device with their feet while steering by shifting their weight on the seat, leaving their hands free to hold their fishing pole or firearm.
It is unclear when Metcalfe and Billman came to be business associates, but they both lived in Hotel Sinton in the mid-1930s while Billman practiced medicine downtown and Metcalfe stood as president of his short-lived General Pharmacal Company. It is likely that their mutual involvement in medicine and shared address drew them together, even after Metcalfe moved south into Kenton County in the 1940s.
The Aquacycle was made almost entirely of metal, and manufactured in Covington by the Kratz-Wilde Machine Company. Kratz-Wilde was founded in 1942 in Covington by J.G. Wilde with partners Courtney and Malcom Kratz. The business was located at 1512 Russell Street, where the company manufactured metal parts for the war effort, but broadened their services to die-making after armistice. In July 1948, Metcalfe confidently asserted that manufacturing the device would employ 200 persons by the end of the year.
Further information about the company after launch is scant, though the invention was featured in a 1949 issue of Popular Science Magazine. It seems that the Aquacycle fell short of its lofty goals and valuation, but can still be found from time to time on online auction sites—at impressive four-digit prices—still with “Aquacycle Co., Inc.-Covington, KY” stamped into the metal.
This blog was written by Kaira Tucker, Local History and Genealogy Librarian at the Covington branch.