A gentleman's hobby horse
Credit: Science Museum, London.
You might think that an invention as simple as the bicycle would have an uncomplicated past. But as it turns out, this highly popular invention has a history fraught with controversy and misinformation. While stories about who invented the bicycle often contradict one another, there's one thing that's certain — the very first bicycles were nothing like the ones you see cruising down the street today.
The first known iterations of a wheeled, human-powered vehicle were created long before the bicycle became a practical form of transportation. In 1418, an Italian engineer, Giovanni de la Fontana, constructed a human-powered device consisting of four wheels and a loop of rope connected by gears.
In 1813, about 400 years after Fontana built his wheeled contraption, a German aristocrat and inventor named Karl Drais began work on his own version of a four-wheeled, human-powered vehicle. Then in 1817, Drais debuted a two-wheeled vehicle, known by many names throughout Europe, including Draisine, running machine and hobby horse.
While Drais' invention was viewed by his contemporaries as a curiosity, not a method of transportation, the hobby horse was actually built to solve a very serious problem — a dearth of real horses. Bad harvests and a series of natural disasters occurring in the early 1810s resulted in mass starvation and the slaughtering of thousands of horses. Drais' hobby horse was created as an alternative to transportation on horseback.
However, Drais' hobby horses were a far cry from the aerodynamic speed machines that are today's bicycles. Weighing in at 50 pounds, this bicycle ancestor featured two wooden wheels attached to a wooden frame. Riders sat on an upholstered leather saddle nailed to the frame and steered the vehicle with a rudimentary set of wooden handlebars. There were no gears and no pedals, as riders simply pushed the device forward with their feet.
Drais' invention was eventually copied and reproduced by a British coach-maker named Denis Johnson, who marketed his "pedestrian curricles" to London's pleasure-seeking aristocrats. Hobby horses enjoyed several years of limited success before they were banned from sidewalks the world over as a danger to pedestrians.
Velocipedes and penny-farthings
But, not surprisingly, bicycles made a comeback soon thereafter with the introduction, in the early 1860s, of a wooden contraption with two steel wheels, pedals and a fixed gear system. Known as a velocipede (fast foot) or a "bone shaker," the brave users of this early contraption were in for a bumpy ride.
The question of who invented the velocipede, with its revolutionary pedals and gear system, is a bit murky. A German named Karl Kech claimed that he was the first to attach pedals to a hobby horse in 1862. But the first patent for such a device was granted not to Kech but to Pierre Lallement, a French carriage maker who obtained a U.S. patent for a two-wheeled vehicle with crank pedals in 1866.
In 1864, before obtaining a patent for his vehicle, Lallement exhibited his creation publicly, which may explain how Aime and Rene Olivier — two sons of a wealthy Parisian industrialist — learned of his invention and decided to create a velocipede of their own. Together with a classmate, Georges de la Bouglise, the young men enlisted Pierre Michaux, a blacksmith and carriage maker, to create the parts they needed for their invention.
Michaux and the Olivier brothers began marketing their velocipede with pedals in 1867, and the device was a hit. Because of disagreements over design and financial matters, the company that Michaux and the Oliviers founded together eventually dissolved, but the Olivier-owned Compagnie Parisienne lived on.
Bikes are born
By 1870, cyclists were fed up with the lumbering bone-shaker design popularized by Michaux, and manufacturers responded by enlarging the front wheel of the vehicle to massive proportions to ensure a smoother, faster ride.
Unfortunately, the large front-wheel design championed by thrill-seeking young men — many of whom took to racing these contraptions at newly-founded bicycle clubs across Europe — was not practical for most velocipede riders. Enthusiasm for these wheeled contraptions (known as "penny-farthings") remained tepid until an English inventor named John Kemp Starley came up with a winning idea for a "safety bicycle" in the 1870s. [See also: Explainer: How Do Cyclists Reach Super Fast Speeds?]
Starley began successfully marketing his bicycles in 1871, when he introduced the "Ariel" bicycle in Britain, kicking off that nation's role as the leader in bicycle innovation for many decades to come. Starley is perhaps best known for his invention of the tangent-spoke wheel in 1874.
This tension-absorbing front wheel was a vast improvement over the wheels found on earlier bicycles and helped make bike riding a (somewhat) comfortable, enjoyable activity for the first time in history. Starley's wheels also made for a much lighter bike, another practical improvement over previous iterations.
Then, in 1885, Starley introduced the "Rover." With its nearly equal-sized wheels, center pivot steering and differential gears that operate with a chain drive, Starley's "Rover" was the first highly practical iteration of the bicycle.
At first, bicycles were a relatively expensive hobby, but mass production made the bicycle a practical investment for the working man, who could then ride to his job and back home. Women, too, started riding in great numbers, which required a dramatic changes in ladies' fashion. Bustles and corsets were out; bloomers were in, as they gave a woman more mobility while allowing her to keep her legs covered with long skirts.