The Bicycle: A History

The most popular wheeled vehicle in the world is not a car: it is the “Flying Pigeon”, a bicycle manufactured in China. Over half a billion Flying Pigeons have been sold, making it the most widely-produced vehicle in human history. And even in the United States and Europe, bicycles consistently outsell automobiles every year. Here is the history of the venerable bicycle.


1867 “Boneshaker”, on display at the  St Augustine Historical Museum, Florida

The vehicle we now know as the “bicycle” was inspired by a volcanic eruption. In 1815, the Tambora volcano in Indonesia erupted in a massive explosion. The dust that entered the atmosphere was scattered all across the world and blocked sunlight for months, producing unusually cold temperatures. As a result, 1816 became known as “The Year Without a Summer”.

During this time, in Germany, there were reports of horses dying of exposure in the cold sunless winter. This led Baron Karl Drais von Sauerbronn to work on a way to replace horses with a new method of getting around his enormous estate gardens. His solution was the “walking machine”, known in German as laufmaschine and in French as Draisienne. In English it quickly became known as the “hobby horse”. The Drais Walking Machine consisted of two wooden wagon wheels connected by a heavy wood frame with a padded saddle. A rider would sit astride the saddle with his feet on the ground, and push himself along with his feet, steering with a handlebar attached to the front wheel. Drais patented his design in 1818, and it soon became popular in the German and French royal courts. The first American version was patented in 1819.

In 1839, Kirkpatrick Macmillan, in Scotland, devised a way to add pedals to the front wheel, allowing the hobby horse to be propelled mechanically instead of by pushing on the ground with the feet. (This also meant that the rider could not hold himself up with his feet, and for the first time required that he learn to “ride a bike” by balancing himself upright on two wheels.) Macmillan’s version did not become popular, but the idea of “pedals” was an obvious improvement, and in 1863 the first really workable version appeared, produced by a French blacksmith named Ernest Michaux. Michaux attached his pedals directly to the hub of the front wheel. The new machine was called the “velocipede” (“fast foot”), but because the wheels were made of wood, like wagon wheels, and the streets were made of brick or cobblestone, the rough shaky ride led to the more popular nickname “boneshakers”. One of Michaux’s employees, Pierre Lallement, moved to New Haven, Connecticut, and became the first bicycle manufacturer in the US. The velocipede became popular in Europe and the US: in many cities, large wooden oval tracks, like skating rinks, were built for velocipede riders. Citizens began to demand that the cobblestone streets be covered with smooth surfaces for “boneshaker” riders, thus inadvertently “paving the road” for the automobile which would soon arrive.

By this time, advances in technology allowed improvements to be made. Wooden frames were replaced by lightweight metal tubes, and wooden wheels were replaced by solid rubber tires, with metal wire spokes. It was now that the name “bicycle” first appeared.

Pedals gained a mechanical advantage with larger wheels, giving greater speed and efficiency, so bicycles began appearing with huge front tires, almost as tall as a person, and small rear tires. These were known as “High Bicycles”. The best-selling version of this appeared in 1870, designed in England by James Starley, and was called the Penny-Farthing, after the two differently-sized coins.


The Penny-Farthing Bicycle

Although the High Bicycle was efficient and fast, it was also dangerous to ride. Because the center of gravity was so high and the bicyclist’s feet could not reach the ground, it was easy to either fall over sideways or to somersault over the handlebars and crash to the street. As a result, various “Safety Bicycles” began to appear. Some of these placed the smaller tire in front of the large one, to prevent forward tumbles. The most successful Safety Bicycles, however, went back to the original velocipede form, with two equal-sized tires that allowed the rider to reach the ground with his feet to avoid falling over. This arrangement was hard to pedal, however, leaving bicyclists with a stark choice: either the efficient and fast High Bicycle or the less dangerous but slower Safety Bicycle.

This dilemma prompted an important new innovation in bicycle design in 1885, when British bicycle maker John Kemp Starley introduced a new drive system on his Safety Bicycles. Instead of directly powering the front wheel with pedals at the hub, Starley placed his pedals on a sprocket located under the seat between the two tires, and used a chain to transfer the pedaling motion to another sprocket on the rear wheel. Now, the pedaling rider did not need to be directly over the drive wheel, and the drive chain gave a better mechanical advantage in leverage, producing higher speed. It is the basic design we still use today.

With efficiency and safety now combined in one design (and with prices dropping as industrial manufacturing techniques improved), the bicycle’s popularity increased rapidly. They were particularly popular with women, who used them to pedal around town to run errands. (The bicycle also had a profound effect on women’s dress fashion, as the old style of bustles, corsets, and long skirts, all impractical for riding a bike, quickly disappeared.) A number of three-wheeled tricycle versions also appeared.

In 1888, Irish doctor John Boyd Dunlop bought a tricycle for his young son, but the boy didn’t like it because of the rough ride. After some tinkering, Dunlop replaced the solid rubber tires with tubes made of heavy canvass coated with liquid rubber and filled with air. These gave a much smoother and more comfortable ride, and Dunlop patented his “pneumatic tires” in 1889. The pneumatic tire would join the list of mechanical bicycle improvements that would soon be incorporated into early automobile designs, including rack and pinion steering, rubber-pad brakes, and differential gears.

The final development in the modern bicycle was the derailleur gear system, which uses a number of different-sized sprockets at the rear wheel to allow the rider to switch from one to the other, reducing or increasing the gear ratio as needed for climbing hills or for higher speed on level roads. Although various systems for multiple gears had been tried during the 1870’s and 1880’s, the first really practical system was patented in 1895 by French designer Jean Loubeyre. Loubeyre’s “derailleur” system had two speeds.

The multi-gear system didn’t really catch on with the public, however, until the 1930’s, when the international Tour de France bicycle race first allowed multiple gears for contestants. The modern derailleur system using cables and a metal “cage” to move the drive chain from one gear to another, was introduced in 1949 with the Campagnolo Company’s Gran Sport model. Over the next few years, derailleur systems were introduced with three gears, then five, then ten. Since the 1960’s, the ten-speed has been the standard for recreational bicycles.


6 thoughts on “The Bicycle: A History”

  1. When I was a student, for many years a bicycle was my only transport. Alas, nowadays cycling around in South Africa is little more than a sort of elaborate suicide attempt.

  2. A pity really: with Florida’s flat landscape, one could turn it into a cycling paradise like the Netherlands, where bicycles never have to share a lane with cars. Not that I’m holding my breath or anything… 🙂

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