The Long and Fascinating History of the Bicycle

The bicycle is, on the surface, a very simple device. But this betrays its long and interesting development.

The Long and Fascinating History of the Bicycle
History of the Bicycle 1, 2

It would be hard to imagine a world without bicycles. They are everywhere and chances are that most or all of you reading this can or have ridden one at some point in your life. 

Inventions and Machines

The History and Evolution of the Wheel

The history of this apparently simple mode of transport is a long and interesting one but the modern bicycle, as we know it, is actually a fairly new invention.

In the following article, we'll take a quick trip through time and stop off at some of the most important innovations (and hoaxes) throughout its development.

So adjust your seat and get ready to pedal. You are in for one fun ride!

1. A bicycle is nothing without the wheels

Year: 3500 BC to 1700s

Inventor/Developer: Unknown

History of the bicycle the wheel
Source: maxpixel

There's nothing that is more important to a bicycle than the wheel. Just when this simple yet powerful device was invented is hotly debated but historians generally agree it originated in Mesopotamia in around 3,500 BC.

These early wheels tended to be attached to carts and drawn by draught animals. It would remain relatively unchanged for millennia until the Industrial Revolution making human-powered wheeled devices more practical.

2. The first bike might have been Chinese

Year: 500 BC

Inventor/Developer: Lu Ban

Back in 2010 a Chinese historian produced a recreation of what, he believes, might have been invented 2500 years ago by a Chinese inventor Lu Ban. This is supposed to have been a large wooden device with complicated gears and pedals to make it move and was technically speaking a tricycle.

His findings are yet to be verified and accepted by his peers but this is certainly an interesting device.

3. Early bikes also needed good roads

Year: Prehistory to the Roman Empire and beyond

Inventor/Developer: Unknown/John Macadam

bicycle history
Source: FHWA/Wikimedia Commons

Wheels are nothing without a level and smooth surface to run on. Resistance to motion varies widely depending on the surface on which it travels with rough surfaces much harder to move along than smooth ones.

The Romans were one of the first peoples to understand this and develop a largescale network of paved roads. John McAdam would further improve road technology many centuries later literally paving the way for the viability of bicycle technology shortly after.

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4. Leonardo da Vinci's pupil might have invented the bike

Year: 1534

Inventor/Developer: Giacomo Caprotti

da vinci bike
Source: Wikimedia

For some time now there has been a debate that Giacomo Caprotti (a student of Leonardo da Vinci) might have made a sketch of a bicycle-like device back in 1534. The authenticity of this evidence has been suggested as a fake by many prominent historians but yet others attest to its validity.

5. The Celerifere was an early proto-bike

Year: 1790

Inventor/Developer: Comte Mede de Sivrac

History of the bicycle celerifere
Source: Legendre/Wikimedia Commons

Although not strictly speaking a bicycle, the Celerifere was an early precursor to them. It was supposedly developed by Comte Mede de Sivrac in 1790 in France - but it may have been a hoax.

Most bicycle historians tend to err on the side of caution and believe it never actually existed. The general consensus seems to be that it was made up during the 19th Century by a French bicycle historian Louis Baudry de Saunier.

It was said to have lacked any steering, had no pedals but did ostensibly resemble the technology that would later become known as the bicycle.

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The Celerifere, according to stories, had four wheels (though some have suggested just two) and a seat and was powered by the rider using their feet to walk or run to push off and then glide for a short distance.

6. Mt. Tombora lays waste to horses and livestock

Year: 1815

Inventor/Developer: N/A

In 1815 Mount Tambora erupted in modern-day Indonesia. This was turned out to be one of the largest volcanic eruptions in Earth's history.

This cataclysmic event pumped so much ejecta into the Earth's atmosphere that global temperatures plummeted leading to famine and starvation of horses and livestock around the northern hemisphere.

At this time there were very few alternatives to animal-power for transportation and so a new, less famine-sensitive transport method was urgently needed - the gauntlet has been thrown down.

7. The Laufmaschine (Draisienne) comes to the rescue, sort of

Year: 1817

Inventor/Developer: Barn Karl von Drais

History of the bicycle Draisienne
Source: Wilhelm Siegrist/Wikipedia Commons

The Laufmaschine (Draisienne in French), aka the "Running Machine" or "Hobby Horse", was invented by Baron Karl Von Drais - a German inventor. Although it might be unrecognisable as a bicycle when compared to modern examples, it did consist of a frame with two wheels.

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The "Running Machine" was propelled by the operator effectively walking whilst seated. This allowed for a sort of 'gliding' walking or running experience.

The front wheel assembly also had a handlebar that was hinged to allow for a small amount of steering. Several manufacturers in France and England made their own versions during its brief popularity in the summer of 1819.

Owing to the design of the device its utility was restricted to paved areas rather than rough roads.

8. The first mechanically propelled bikes might have been Scottish

Year: 1839/1869

Inventor/Developer: Kirkpatrick MacMillan/Thomas McCall

History of the bicycle McCall
Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is some evidence, though weak, that a Scottish Blacksmith, Kirkpatrick MacMillan, might have developed the first mechanically propelled two-wheeled vehicle. Claims made by his nephew were made at the time about a rear-wheel drive system powered by mid-mounted treadles connected by rods to a rear crank (similar to locomotives).

Whether MacMillan's creation true or not the first documented producer of rod-driven two-wheelers, called treadle bicycles, was one Thomas McCall in 1869.

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9. The Velocipede/Boneshaker is born

Year: 1860s

Inventor/Developer: Pierre and Ernest Michaux/Michaux Company

The Velocipede was a two-wheeled bicycle that came with pedals and cranks on its front wheel. It consisted of a combination of a wooden frame with metal tires that made for a very uncomfortable ride over cobbled streets.

It was invented in France sometime in the 1860s and was first manufactured by the Michaux Company between 1867 and 1869. The Velocipede would fall out favor soon after.

Because of this design is quickly earned the nickname the "Boneshaker" - a name that would stand the test of time.

10. The High-Wheeler Bicycle ("Penny Farthing") takes things to a new height

Year: 1870s

Inventor/Developer: Eugène Meyer

History of the bicycle high wheeler
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by the success of the "Boneshaker", Eugène Meyer decided to improve on the design. This led to the creation of the High-Wheeler bicycle that incorporated one large front and one smaller rear, wire-spoked wheel.

The high wheel allowed the rider to travel farther with a single rotation of the pedals from human direct-power.

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This was the first model to be officially known as a bicycle and was very popular between the 1870s and 1880s. Its metal frame and rubber tires provided a more comfortable ride than the boneshaker.

In Britain, it became known as the "Penny Farthing" after its resemblance to a British penny and farthing coins, one much larger than the other, so that the side view resembles a penny leading a farthing.

11. The Rover Safety bicycle: The World's first modern bicycle

Year: 1885

Inventor/Developer: Harry John Lawson/John Kemp

History of the bicycle Safety bicycle
Source: Kolossos/Wikimedia Commons

In 1876 one Englishman, Harry John Lawson, invented the revolutionary Safety bicycle. This bike featured a strong metal chain powered by two pedals, two wheels and a frame very similar to modern bicycles.

The true bicycle was born.

The name derived from the fact that the bikes were closer to the ground making stopping easier and the rear wheel was powered from the pedals keeping the rider's legs safely away from the front wheel.

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Lawson's model failed to catch on because of its relatively higher price tag compared to its contemporaries. Later another Englishman, John Kemp Starley, developed the first commercially successful version, the Rover.

Harry and John were inspired by the "Penny Farthing" to develop his invention as a safer and more efficient mode of transport - hence the name.

Early marketing for these bicycles focussed on their relative "safety" when compared to its predecessors - and too great success. It also featured direct steering that proved to be very popular.

12. Pneumatic tires become a game changer

Year: 1888

Inventor/Developer: John Boyd Dunlop

History of the bicycle Dunlop tire
Source: Geni/Wikimedia Commons

In 1888 an Irish inventor, John Boyd Dunlop, came up with the clever idea of filling rubber tires with air to provide a smoother ride than existing solid-rubber tires.

Like all important inventions, Dunlop's was born from a problem very close to his heart. His son had been prescribed a dose of cycling to help with his heavy cold by a doctor.

Dunlop noticed that his son's ride was very uncomfortable and decided to make his son's like a little easier. He fitted his bike with tires made of canvas bonded with liquid rubber - he quickly patents it.

His invention soon catches aided by the famous cyclist, Willie Hume, who becomes the first to adopt his tires for racing events. The rest is history. 

13. The 20th Century saw an explosion in bike designs

Year: 1890s - Today

Inventor/Developer: Various

The 20th Century saw a literal explosion in bicycle designs, though all are, at their heart, simple variations on the Safety Bicycle. Minor additions were made to the bicycle from gearing to suspension as well as improvements to tire design like the addition of treads.

During the 1970's the so-called Bike Boom occurred in America as the general public became aware of the value of exercise and energy-efficient transportation.

Bicycles also became lighter and stronger as well as more aerodynamic in design. Notable designs include the recumbent bicycle, BMX and mountain bikes with the latter being one of the first to free bicycles from the need for smooth paved surfaces.

14. The Future of bikes

Year: Today onwards

Inventor/Developer: Various

Over the last few years, there has been a growing trend towards specialization of bike designs. This has led to the growth in so-called hybrid/city/cross bikes designs which combine elements of road racing and mountain bikes.

Hybrid bicycles and commuter bicycles can range from fast and light racing-type bicycles with flat bars and other minimal concessions to casual use, to wider-tired bikes designed for primarily for comfort, load-carrying, and increased versatility over a range of different road surfaces.

Electric bikes have also become more popular of late a trend that is unlikely to slow down in the future.

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