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A Quick History of Bicycles

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.

Draisine

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.

Boneshaker

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 atttached 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 pnuematic 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 familar? 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 Ninties 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 motorcyle 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.

The Current Scene

Pedaling History has on display even 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 (you have to see it to believe it!)

If you'd like to know more about these fascinating machines, you may be interested in the book Collecting and Restoring Antique Bicycles, by G. Donald Adams.

You can also contact Pedaling History at info@pedalinghistory.com

Schwinn Phantom

 

 

 
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