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A Brief History of Bicycles

The Walking Machine (1817)

In 1817 Baron Karl von Drais invented a walking machine that would help him get around the royal gardens faster. It had 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 Draisine (English) or more commonly the hobby horse. It was made entirely of wood and metal. 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 1839 Invention

The first mechanically propelled 2 wheel vehicle was believed to have been built by Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a Scottish blacksmith in 1839. A nephew later claimed that his uncle developed a rear-wheel drive design using mid mounted treadles connected by rods to a rear crank.

The Velocipede or Boneshaker (1863)

The next appearance of a two-wheeled riding machine was in 1863, when pedals were applied directly to the front wheel. This machine was known as the velocipede ("fast foot"), but was commonly known as the boneshaker, since it was also made entirely of wood and metal, 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 - Later called the "Ordinary" (1870)

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). 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 1880's. The first High Wheel Bicycle made in the US was by Columbia in 1879. High Wheel Bicycles were made in the US until around 1890.


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.

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!

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 designs, and then simply as "ordinaries."

The Hard-Tired Safety (1885)

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 over 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.

The Pneumatic-Tired Safety (1888)

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 John Dunlop. 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. The first use of pneumatic tires in the US was 1891. Black tires were first used in 1912 when carbon black was added to the rubber.

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 called bicycles the "freedom machine" and said that "the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world."

Bicycling was so popular in the 1880's and 1890's that cyclists formed the League of American Wheelman. The League lobbied for better roads, literally paving the road for the automobile.

The Motobike of the 1920's

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 bicycle had 28" tires and many had tanks so they would resemble a motorcycle.

Bicycles/Motorcycles of the early 1920's

Aside from the Motobikes noted above, several motorcycle builders also made bicycles in order to get kids interested in the brand name, hoping for future sales. Indian, Harley Davidson, Reading Standard, Iver Johnson and others all made and sold both bicycles and motorcycles, some until the early 1950’s.

The Balloon Tire Classic Bike or Cruiser (1933)

In 1933, the balloon tire changed everything, and today these designs are called "classic bicycles" or "cruisers" and featured automobile or 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, heavy designs ever. They were built into the late '50's, by which time they had taken on design elements of jet aircraft and even rockets. By the '60's, they were becoming leaner and simpler.

The 1960's, 1970's and 1980's

Along with earlier bicycles, Wheels of the Past has on display the recent history of the bicycle in America that we are more familiar with: the "English 3-speed" of the '50's through the '70's, the 10-speed derailleur bikes which were popular in the '70's and '80's. There are also several odd designs of all ages that never quite made it.

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