The bicycle is an invention that many of us use every single day, or at least on the weekends, and still take for granted. However, when you think about it – how much do you really know about the history of the bicycle? How much do you know about its long and arduous journey through time to become what it is today?
The truth is, bicycles have come a long way, and are almost unrecognizable compared to what they used to be – like many inventions in human history. If you would like to learn about the history and evolution of the wonderful bicycle, just keep reading. We will be covering everything you need to know – from its inception to the modern creations we know and love today.
Let’s start rolling.
Who Invented The Bicycle?
While we might think that we know history well, there are still many things that are shrouded in one mystery after the next. Oddly enough, that of the bicycle is one of these mysteries! No one knows for sure when it was invented, and its invention cannot be attributed to any one person.
One possible predecessor of the bicycle was thought to date way back to 1492 to the famous inventor and artist Leonardo da Vinci. However, it was discovered that the sketch of a bicycle on this Codex Atlanticus was found to be a forgery in the 1960s.
According to records, the first ever known bicycle was actually shown by the Comte de Sivrac in 1791. There, he was seen riding what was described as a “wooden horse”, made up of two rigidly-mounted wheels, which made it impossible to steer. This was documented in Paris’ Palais Royal gardens, and the machine was known as a celerifere.
In order to change direction, the rider would have to drag, lift, or jump in a different direction. By 1793, this device became known as unrecognizable velocifere, and gradually became more and more popular, especially among the sports lovers in Paris.
Even this is shrouded in history, as it is possible that this bicycle ancestor was actually a type of horse-drawn coach, and therefore not a true bicycle. While we might never know the truth of the history of the bicycle before the 1800s, it is interesting to be aware of the possibilities nonetheless.
The “Father of the Bicycle” Karl Von Drais – 1817 Germany
In 1817, a German baron by the name of Karl von Drais was the first to make a major development with the bicycle when he invented a steerable contraption on two wheels. This device had many names, including the “running machine”, “hobby-horse”, “velocipede”, and “draisine”. It was thanks to this invention that von Drais is widely acknowledged as being the “father of the bicycle”. However, there were many more changes and evolutions of the contraption to come, thanks to various inventors, additions, and improvements.
Unfortunately, this velocipede created by the baron only remained in fashion for a short period of time. Even the remarkable poet John Keats wrote about the creation, describing it as “nothing of the day”. However, this velocipede quickly spread across Europe nonetheless, and inventors across the continent began to improve on it.
Pierre Lallement – 1860s France
Pierre Lallement was a famous carriage maker and engineer from France, and is one of the most important names when it comes to the history of the bicycle. Throughout his life, Pierre worked hard to improve the first generation of bicycles’ technical capabilities, and even created a number of bicycle models. These models eventually began to be mass produced in various places in Europe, showcasing his success.
He began devising plans on how to improve the dandy horse that he was seeing in the towns and cities – baron von Drais’ creation from decades before. This contraption required the driver to have their feet in the ground to get it moving, then build up speed and coast for a time.
Lallement’s curiosity and prior inventing and engineering experience resulted in him creating the first ever “true bicycle” that we know of – one with pedals. This was done by adding a transmission mechanism with a rotary crank and pedals. This, however, was only done later with the help of others in Paris when he moved there in 1863.
Pierre & Ernest Michaux – 1860s France
A father and son pair, Pierre and Ernest Michaux worked alongside Pierre Lallement after he moved to Paris. They also worked with the Olivier brothers, and were ultimately responsible for the creation of the first factory where these bicycles were mass produced.
At this time in the mid 1860s, the bicycles were made from wood, had two weeks, and pedals. This gave the contraption the nickname “Boneshaker”. However, during production, a dispute about ownership of the designs broke out between Lallement and Michaux, and they fell out, and Lallement eventually settled in Ansonia, Connecticut, in the United States.
Lallement’s Bicycle Journey in the United States
Even after moving to the US, Lallement continued his work on bicycles, and even found ways to improve the pedals, frame, and a more comfortable seat. During the next two decades of his life, he traveled between the US and Paris, securing funds to organize the manufacturing of these bicycles, as well as fighting about patents in courts before dying in 1891.
Only after his death was he awarded with recognition for his work on bicycles, and he was inducted into the hall of fame.
Evolution Of The Bicycle
As you might expect, there have been many drastic changes to the bicycle since its inception. Not only have models and designs changed, but the materials used to create the contraptions evolved over time to be better, stronger, and more durable.
Types of Early Bicycles
There were a number of different kinds of early bicycles that cropped up around the world. They largely consisted of the same general design, with wheels, handles, and beams and the like. However, additions were put on the bike in an attempt to improve it throughout the years.
Unfortunately, not all additions were successful, and many designs ended up being dangerous. Even the overall design of the bicycles themselves were not easy to use, due to the materials they were made out of.
Karl von Drais’ Velocipede Or “Hobby-Horse”
These early bicycles, created by baron Karl von Drais, were made of up a front fork, two wooden tires with iron rims, a wooden saddle, and a steering contraption to angle the front wheel. This early design had no pedals, and was instead moved forward by the rider’s feet pushing off the ground.
The tires were covered in leather, and everything was connected by a wooden beam. Unfortunately, these creations quickly got banned from sidewalks and public places as it did not get a very enthusiastic welcome by the townspeople.
The hobby-horse bicycles weighed in at around 50 lbs, which is close to 22 kg – a very heavy contraption to walk around with. In comparison, modern-day bicycles weigh roughly half of that, making them far easier to work with and carry around.
Powered Velocipedes – Treadles
Between the initial hobby-horse and the boneshakers of the 1860s, treadles were also used on bicycles. These are not like the traditional pedal, but worked much like a cross-trainer, where the user could propel themselves forward by stepping up and down. Treadles were introduced to bicycles in 1839–1840 in Scotland.
Unfortunately, the crank option became more popular than this one, and the treadle bicycle did not take off as creator Kirkpatrick Macmillan hoped. This led to the design essentially being forgotten about, and the more popular pedal was continued as its popularity swept across Europe.
Bicycle Or “Boneshakers”
The creation of pedals was a major step forward in the evolution of the bicycle, and was added by Pierre Lallement and a few others. Added in the mid 1860s, the bicycle was revolutionized, and grew in popularity enough for it to be manufactured.
These bicycles weren’t initially vastly different to those of the Draisine or hobby-horse of 1817. They had a wooden frame, handlebars, a wooden saddle and tires, and a front fork. The addition of the pedals allowed the user to propel the contraption forward without having to place their feet on the ground, making it easier and more comfortable to use.
Because these bicycles now had their users sitting firmly on them at all times, they became known as boneshakers. This name was given to them because they would make the rider’s bones rattle and shake when they used them due to the contraptions having no suspension and steel-rimmed tires. The state of the roads and the general poor road surface at the time meant that using these devices was not always a pleasant experience.
However, these bicycles had their pedals put in the front of the bicycle, but the front wheel. This resulted in the contraptions being difficult to steer properly. As a result, there were numerous safety and stability issues surrounding these designs.
Adding Stability to Bicycles
Early bicycles were not very stable, and not very safe to use. Adding stability to these contraptions was one of the most important things for inventors to focus on, and over the years, addition after addition was added to the inventions. This gradually transformed bicycles into devices that became safer for everyone to use, and also be around.
Three Wheeled Bicycles
The 1850s led to the first three wheeled bicycles being created. This added fantastic stability to the contraption. These stuck around for some time, and typically had back wheels that measured 32 inches, and a 14-inch front wheel with pedals below a wooden seat.
These tricycles became very popular, and were a favorite among many, as they were easy to use and far safer than previous designs. However, they were expensive, and typically reserved for the wealthier classes. Three wheeled bicycles were particularly popular during the 1870s and 1880s.
Oversized Front Wheels on Newer Models
Newer models during this time were quickly created to have larger front wheels. This was done to help people reach better speeds, while reducing the time and energy needed to actually pedal the device.
While this was technically a smart engineering design since it reduces the work required, it came with its own set of problems. A large wheel and the increased speed meant that riders had less time to react to the environment, an especially problematic issue considering they did not yet have brakes.
Another major issue with these bicycles with larger wheels was the issue of ease of use. Getting on and off was challenging enough, and it was easy to injure yourself.
Penny Farthings and Ordinaries
Invented by James Starley and Eugene Meyer in 1871, penny farthings get their name from the shape of the bicycle and the two wheels it has. One wheel is considerably larger than the other, and resembles a penny and a farthing. These bicycles were incredibly difficult to mount and use, and their lack of efficient brakes means that they were (and are) problematic to use.
These bicycles had spoon breaks, which can help to slow the contraption down to dismount. However, it can be easy to be thrown over the handlebars on these devices, especially if going down a hill. These spoon breaks were not sufficient to make these contraptions safe in any way, and it didn’t take long until they were replaced by something far better.
While there are antique penny farthings still kept and even in use today, their numerous hazards mean that they are not allowed on roads (yes, there have been recent reports of penny farthing riders on roads in the UK).
This mode of bicycle was also a popular choice in the 1870s and 1880s, and was certainly a sight to behold. However, these contraptions became obsolete when the modern bicycle was invented, and were able to produce similar speeds in a safer and more comfortable way. These were marketed as “safety bicycles”, which we will cover shortly.
Competitive Bicycle Racing and Clubs
The first bicycle club in the United States was formed in 1878 – the Boston Bicycle Club (BBiC). However, the oldest bicycle club in the world is the Pickwick Bicycle Club, which was established on June 22nd, 1870 in East London.
Cycling began to take hold as a sport in May 1868, and started with a 1,200-meter race in Paris. Soon after in 1878, the United States held its own first bicycle race, which steadily grew in popularity.
At the beginning of the 20th century, specifically 1903, the first Tour de France was officially held. This first race had just 60 individuals on their bicycles – nothing like the 198 who participate in today’s races.
Today, there are thousands of bicycle and racing clubs all over the world. As bicycles have gradually grown in popularity and become a staple in the modern world, more people have found ways to enjoy these creations, and you can find a bicycle club in just about every town and city.
The Safety Bicycle
As the penny farthing was still being developed, it became clear that there were a number of features on the contraption that were less than ideal. With the hopes of offering far safer alternatives, options like tricycles became popular, then more alterations were done.
Eventually, the “safety bicycle” was invented – a contraption with wheels of equal size, a chain-driven rear wheel, a direct way to steer, a low center of gravity, and easier use. This quickly became the popular option, causing penny farthings to become obsolete within years. The final catalog year for the penny farthing was in 1892.
This safety bicycle, called the Rover Safety, was invented by one John Kemp Starley, who was James Starley’s nephew. Eventually, this design simply got the name bicycles as they became the new norm.
The Addition of Brakes to Bicycles
Brakes were added to bicycles as time gradually went on after realizing the dangers of cycling. The first kind of breaks to be added to these contraptions were spoon breaks. However these were improved upon as the rest of the contraption did, and breaks as we know it were introduced in the late 1800s. As expected, this allowed for safer use, and more control.
Adding a Chain Drive
The addition of chain drives to safety bicycles was monumental, and is ultimately one of the reasons why these bicycles became so popular. With the use of penny farthings could get you increased due to the size of the front wheel, a chain drive allowed riders to experience the same speed without all the hassle.
A chain drive was, and still is, a power transmission system that consists of two sprockets and a chain. This allows the wheels of the bicycle to move as you rotate them, and gives you greater control over your ride.
Better Tires Get Developed
Bicycles started out with wooden tires, but safety bicycles initially had solid rubber ones. While this made them heavy, it was a necessary safety feature. Only in 1888 was the first pneumatic tire developed and introduced by a Scottish inventor and veterinarian named John Boyd Dunlop.
The addition of these tires ensured that rides were more comfortable, and the rolling resistance was greatly reduced. Overall, this addition to the safety bicycle had a similar effect as the introduction of the pedal and crank did years before in establishing the bicycle in society.
The use of pneumatic tires helped to decrease the weight of the safety bicycle, making it easier and safer to use for everyone. As such, the idea of using a bicycle instead of a horse started to become a real option.
The Modern Bicycle
The modern bicycle, which used to be known as the Rover Safety, quickly became known as the bicycle after its creation. Officially created by an Englishman named John Kemp Starley in 1885, this was the first modern bicycle.
As materials and designs gradually improved, every possible issue was slowly faded out and fixed. The initial design used steel tubing instead of cast iron and wood, which made these bicycles strong, but even heavier than they were before. At this point in time, it was normal for these bicycles to weigh up to 80 lbs, or just over 35 kg – that’s 30 lbs heavier than the original 1817 bicycle model!
However, with some changes, the bicycles became more lightweight and manageable. These safety bicycles have remained relatively unchanged, and are even the models we use for bicycles today. They consist of a triangular-shaped contraption where the rider is much lower to the ground, helping the center of gravity. The wheels were the same size, and a sprocket and chain system worked together to drive the bicycle forward from the back wheel.
Inflated rubber tires were among the final touches to this creation, and made the previously uncomfortable ride much easier and more pleasant. This resulted in bringing forth the golden age of cycling, where everyone could enjoy their rides safely and comfortably.
These bicycles spread around the world, becoming popular all over North America and Europe, and were used in both military and commercial ways. From there, this model has only continued to improve, with new mechanisms and materials being used to constantly create an even better product.
When Were Bicycles Introduced To Europe?
Bicycles started their journey in Europe – specifically Germany and France. However, this term was not used for some time. In fact, the first use of the word “bicycle” only came into use in Europe in 1868!
Since then, the term has stuck around, and is still what we use to this day, though it is frequently shortened to simply “bike” in many cases now.
Since the invention of the safety bicycle, bikes quickly grew in popularity, and became more accessible to the people. As they spread across Europe and North America, the “bike craze” took off. It became easier and more affordable to own a bike than a horse, and with the safety features essentially solved, bicycles became the new go-to form of transportation.
The Modern Bicycle
Overall, the modern bicycle has not changed very much since the safety bicycle of 1885. However, there have been numerous improvements on it as technology has advanced, in order to make a variety of changes.
Refining the Design of the Frame
Although the overall frame of the bicycle has hardly changed in the last 100 years, the materials we use to create them have changed and improved. Now, we have the opportunity to use materials such as carbon fiber, space-age titanium, and even lighter steels. These have all resulted in our modern bicycles being stronger and also lighter – nothing like the original wooden and iron that we saw in 1817.
There have also been some changes to frames, depending on the types of bicycle and its purpose. There are casual bikes, as well as mountain bikes and the iconic BMX, all of which have different functions and slight differences in frames.
Two-Speed Gearing in 1896
In 1896, William Reilly was issued a patent for another huge improvement on the bicycle – a two-speed internal hub gear. It wasn’t long until these gears became an important part of the modern bicycle and were a common feature on deluxe bicycles in Britain.
Three-Speed Gearing in 1913
Not long after two-speed gearing was invested, three-speed game into the scene and was being produced by the Sturmey-Archer Company. While this was incredibly popular once again, it didn’t take long for it to be improved upon.
Introduction of Derailleur Gears in the 1920s
Around the 1920s, French cyclists began to experiment with a number of multiple-speed mechanisms. Soon after, the derailleur gears became the new go-to, and the best on the market. This allowed the chain to be moved from one sprocket and onto another, and the idea quickly became established in France.
Lightweight Geared Bicycles in the 1950s and 1960s
By around the 1920s the want and need for bicycles for all was already diminishing. Automobiles had essentially relegated the bicycle, a once loved and popular mode of transport, to the people who were too poor or young to drive. This caused bicycles to primarily be manufactured to appeal to children, and steering them away from adult use.
However, things changed during the Second World War when American soldiers in Europe discovered that the previously heavy bicycles were far lighter in Europe. These bicycles were also geared, making them excellent for use in the military – and a market for adults, though small, grew in the 1950s and 1960s.
The 1960s Schwinn Stingray and the High Rise Fad
As the 60s came around, a teenage fad quickly developed and a new design for the one boring bicycle was created – the Schwinn Stingray. These were high-rise bicycles with long handlebars, a banana-shaped saddle, and small wheels.
This fad saved the industry, and around 75% of all bicycle sales in the United States were Schwinn Stingrays by 1968. Roughly 20 million teens owned one of these, but it didn’t take too long for something else to take this iconic bicycle’s place as the teens outgrew them.
Ten-Speed Bicycles of the 1970s
Younger customers moved onto 10-speed bicycles in the 1970s, putting the fad of Schwinn Stingray behind them. These bicycles had five freewheel sprockets and two chainwheels, which allowed an incredible 10 varying gear ratios.
For the second time, all the young buyers created a second boom in the bicycle industry, and between 1972–1974, the annual United States bicycle sales went from 7 million to 14 million dollars. Roughly half of all the bikes they sold were these new and popular 10-speeds.
Thankfully, 974s oil embargo did well to expand the world of adult bicycles and cycling. Because of this, the US quickly became the top market for creating high quality bikes that everybody wanted. However, it took less than a year for sales to go back down in 1975. This resulted in numerous bicycle companies going bankrupt, and Taiwanese and Japanese companies managed to survive and take over the market from various European countries.
1980s “Clunkers” or Mountain Bike Replaces the Ten-Speed Bicycles
The 1980s was the next major resurgence in the world of bicycles and cycling, and the so-called “mountain bike” was created. This type of bicycle was initially called “clunkers” by the inventors in Northern California in the 70s.
By the time the 80s came around, these clunkers took over and replaced the 10-speed bicycles the world had loved so much before in such a fashion it is compared to the transition from the penny farthing to the safety bicycle.
This “mountain bike” became the standard, and quickly spread around the world. By 1993, these clunkers accounted for roughly 95% of all United States bicycle sales. The name “road bikes” were given to the bikes that were used for racing and touring, and we now have these bicycles in every town and city you might visit.
Bicycles have evolved so much since their inception, in many ways they are almost unrecognizable. First created back in 1817, or maybe even sooner, these contraptions were made of wood. They had no breaks, and could not even be steered.
Things began to improve in the mid 1860s, as inventors created bicycles that could be steered easily, but there were still many improvements to be made. Bikes remained heavy and difficult to control, with minimal safety features and low speeds.
Pedals were introduced to allow users to get their feet off the ground, and third and large front wheels were tested. While these allowed riders to go faster, it came with new risks and issues thanks to the high center of gravity and reduced control.
It didn’t take long for these penny farthings, or ordinaries, as they were also called, to be replaced by the “safety bicycle”. This is the model that we all know today, though it has been improved upon since its creation. Now, while we use many of the same features such as the general shape and design, material have changed, and numerous features have been added to turn this bicycle into what we know it as today.