A Quick History of Bicycles

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Bicycles have over 200 years of history. But few riders know how this type of human-powered vehicle evolved to its current shape. If you are one of them and want to figure out the general outline of the bicycle history, you come to the right place, and in the following you can find the answer. Keep reading.

The Walking Machine

In 1817 Baron von Drais invented a walking machine that would help him get around the royal gardens faster: two same-size in-line wheels, the front one steerable, mounted in a frame which you straddled. The device was propelled by pushing your feet against the ground, thus rolling yourself and the device forward in a sort of gliding walk. The machine became known as the Draisienne or hobby horse. It was made entirely of wood. This enjoyed a short lived popularity as a fad, not being practical for transportation in any other place than a well maintained pathway such as in a park or garden.


The Velocipede or Boneshaker

The next appearance of a two-wheeled riding machine was in 1865, when pedals were applied directly to the front wheel. This machine was known as the velocipede (“fast foot”), but was popularly known as the bone shaker, since it was also made entirely of wood, then later with metal tires, and the combination of these with the cobblestone roads of the day made for an extremely uncomfortable ride. They also became a fad, and indoor riding academies, similar to roller rinks, could be found in large cities.


The High Wheel Bicycle

In 1870 the first all metal machine appeared. (Previous to this metallurgy was not advanced enough to provide metal which was strong enough to make small, light parts out of.) The pedals were still attached directly to the front wheel with no freewheeling mechanism. Solid rubber tires and the long spokes of the large front wheel provided a much smoother ride than its predecessor. The front wheels became larger and larger as makers realized that the larger the wheel, the farther you could travel with one rotation of the pedals. You would purchase a wheel as large as your leg length would allow. This machine was the first one to be called a bicycle (“two wheel”). These bicycles enjoyed a great popularity among young men of means (they cost an average worker six month’s pay), with the hey-day being the decade of the 1880s.

High Wheel

Because the rider sat so high above the center of gravity, if the front wheel was stopped by a stone or rut in the road, or the sudden emergence of a dog, the entire apparatus rotated forward on its front axle, and the rider, with his legs trapped under the handlebars, was dropped unceremoniously on his head. Thus the term “taking a header” came into being.

Doing a Header

The High Wheel Tricycle

While the men were risking their necks on the high wheels, ladies, confined to their long skirts and corsets, could take a spin around the park on an adult tricycle. These machines also afforded more dignity to gentlemen such as doctors and clergymen. Many mechanical innovations now associated with the automobile were originally invented for tricycles. Rack and pinion steering, the differential, and band brakes, to name a few!

High Wheel Tricycle

The High Wheel Safety

Improvements to the design began to be seen, many with the small wheel in the front to eliminate the tipping-forward problem. One model was promoted by its manufacturer by being ridden down the front steps of the capitol building in Washington, DC. These designs became known as high-wheel safety bicycles. Since the older high-wheel designs had been known simply as bicycles, they were now referred to as “ordinary bicycles” in comparison with the new-fangled designs, and then simply as “ordinaries.”

High Wheel Safety

The Hard-Tired Safety

The further improvement of metallurgy sparked the next innovation, or rather return to previous design. With metal that was now strong enough to make a fine chain and sprocket small and light enough for a human being to power, the next design was a return to the original configuration of two same-size wheels, only now, instead of just one wheel circumference for every pedal turn, you could, through the gear ratios, have a speed the same as the huge high-wheel. The bicycles still had the hard rubber tires, and in the absence of the long, shock-absorbing spokes, the ride they provided was much more uncomfortable than any of the high-wheel designs. Many of these bicycles of 100 years ago had front and/or rear suspensions. These designs competed with each other, your choice being the high-wheel’s comfort or the safety’s safety, but the next innovation tolled the death of the high-wheel design.

Hard Tire Safety

The Pnuematic-Tired Safety

The pneumatic tire was first applied to the bicycle by an Irish veterinarian who was trying to give his young son a more comfortable ride on his tricycle. This inventive young doctor’s name was Dunlop. Sound familiar? Now that comfort and safety could be had in the same package, and that package was getting cheaper as manufacturing methods improved, everyone clamored to ride the bicycle. This 1898 Yale uses a shaft drive to dispense with the dirty chain.

The bicycle was what made the Gay Nineties gay. It was a practical investment for the working man as transportation, and gave him a much greater flexibility for leisure. Ladies, heretofore consigned to riding the heavy adult size tricycles that were only practical for taking a turn around the park, now could ride a much more versatile machine and still keep their legs covered with long skirts. The bicycle craze killed the bustle and the corset, instituted “common-sense dressing” for women and increased their mobility considerably. In 1896 Susan B. Anthony said that “the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.”

Bicycling was so popular in the 1880s and 1890s that cyclists formed the League of American Wheelman (still in existence and now called the League of American Bicyclists). The League lobbied for better roads, literally paving the road for the automobile.

Pnuematic-Tired Safety

The Kid’s Bike

Introduced just after the First World War by several manufacturers, such as Mead, Sears Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward, to revitalize the bike industry (Schwinn made its big splash slightly later), these designs, now called “classic”, featured automobile and motorcycle elements to appeal to kids who, presumably, would rather have a motor. If ever a bike needed a motor, this was it. These bikes evolved into the most glamorous, fabulous, ostentatious, heavy designs ever. It is unbelievable today that 14-year-old kids could do the tricks that we did on these 65 pound machines! They were built into the middle ’50s, by which time they had taken on design elements of jet aircraft and even rockets. By the ’60s, they were becoming leaner and simpler.

Schwinn Phantom

The Current Scene

The recent history of the bicycle in America that we are more familiar with: the “English 3-speed” of the ’50s through the ’70s, the 10-speed derailleur bikes which were popular in the ’70s (the derailleur had been invented before the turn of the century and had been in more-or-less common use in Europe since), and of course the mountain bike of right now. There are also many oddball designs that never quite made it, including the Ingo.

If you’d like to know more about these fascinating machines, you may be interested in the books about bicycles:

Bicycle Books for Further Researching

1. Collecting and Restoring Antique Bicycles (by G. Donald Adams)

Collecting and Restoring Antique Bicycles

This book is one of the most authoritative and sought after reference books about the antique bicycle. It is a comprehensive sourcebook for everyone from the beginning hobbyist to the advanced collector, and provides a complete overview of these marvelous machines. Almost 400 pages, packed with 350 illustrations and photos, this book covers the development of the bicycle from the earliest 1816 hobbyhorse, through the elegant high wheelers, tri- and quadricycles, to safety bicycles and interesting 20th century models.

  • Tips on locating antique bikes, determining authenticity and condition.
  • Advice on restoration versus preservation.
  • How to ride them.
  • The antique bicycle club movement, and the growing interest in collecting.
  • The first appearance of drive shafts, rack and pinion steering, band brakes … all invented for the bicycle!

About the Author

G. Donald Adams has had a major role in shaping the character of antique bicycle collecting in North America. He is founding editor of The Wheelmen magazine, and an internationally recognized bicycle historian and curator. His writing continues to influence museums and individual collectors worldwide to follow sound practices in preserving historically important bicycles and to interpret how these bicycles and their users shaped nineteenth century social, cultural, and technological history.

2. Buffalo’s Bicycles: Reflections on Buffalo’s Colossal and Overlooked Bicycle Heritage (by Carl F. Burgwardt)

Buffalo's Bicycles: Reflections on Buffalo's Colossal and Overlooked Bicycle Heritage

In Buffalo’s Bicycles the author has carefully chosen, organized, and presented significant historical facts of Buffalo, New York’s, bicycle industry and bicycling records. He has added personal lore and period images, combining these elements into a book that explores and showcases the nearly forgotten but colorful times in Buffalo’s proud past.

Buffalo’s love affair with the bicycle was all-encompassing. By the late 1890s it had involved a significant percentage of Buffalo’s population. Its exciting effect on society and sports was no less than its impact on business and commerce. Buffalo’s Bicycles will introduce you to some of the people who shaped this little-known heritage that left influences and impressions on Buffalo for decades thereafter.

If you’re not a native Buffalonian or Western New Yorker, you will still learn the basic bicycle history background with its emphasis on America’s fervent development of the machine, the many patents, the social aspects, the Good Roads Movement, and the exciting racing. Buffalo’s rich heritage in text and photographs quickly makes you aware that this truly colorful, dramatic, and influential period affected much of the eastern United States.

Was there a bicycle in your past?? Even if not, many non-bicycle people find that this history has surprising asides that kindle and tickle much nostalgia. The taken-for-granted bicycle, through its popular and everyday usage, has touched nearly everyone’s life at one time or another, generally in a pleasurable and memorable way.

About the Author

Carl Burgwardt and his wife, Clarice, are Western New Yorkers who have amassed one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive collections of bicycles, accessories, memorabilia, and ephemera. He has frequently been consulted and quoted by major media seeking expert historical cycling information, identification, and documentation.

3. Colonel Albert Pope and his American Dream Machines (by Stephen B. Goddard)

Colonel Albert Pope and his American Dream Machines

A little over a century ago in Hartford, Connecticut, Colonel Albert A. Pope was hailed as a leading automaker in the United States. That his name is not a household word today is the very essence of this story.

The world’s manufacturer of bicycles (under the Columbia label) in the late 1800s, Pope’s production methods pointed the way for the building of automobiles through lightweight metals, rubber tires, precision machining, interchangeability of parts, and vertical integration of his business. Steam, electricity, and gasoline power vied for supremacy in the fledgling automobile industry, with their competition for investors and customers becoming a tale of vision and greed.

About the Author

Stephen B. Goddard practices law and teaches history at Trinity College and the University of Hartford. He lives in Hartford, Connecticut.

4. Around the World on a Bicycle (by Thomas Stevens)

Around the World on a Bicycle

In 1884, Thomas Stevens left San Francisco on a Columbia high wheeler with the outrageous goal of becoming the first man to ride a bicycle across the United States. When he reached Boston, he decided to continue around the world, and soon sailed to London for the ride across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The high-wheeler was heavy and cumbersome, his supplies were limited to socks, a spare shirt, and a slicker that doubled as tent and bedroll, and much of the country he traversed was wild. Yet he persevered, recording his colorful and often harrowing adventures during the three-year odyssey in a classic of 19th century adventure and travel writing.

About the Editor

Thomas Pauly is a professor of English at the University of Delaware. He has written on a broad range of subjects, including books on Elia Kazan and the musical Chicago.

Photo of author

Randy Joycelyn

Randy is the founder and editor of Cycling Soigneur. He has been passionate about cycling since he was a kid. He has been riding bikes for over 10 years. Cycling has just become a part of life.

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