Dawn of the Hobby Horse
If it seems like the prehistory of bicycles is filled with contradictory and unsubstantiated claims, the intrigue pales in comparison to the modern story of bicycle development. Just like the old, long-discredited story about Abner Doubleday inventing baseball in Cooperstown, New York, the tale of who actually invented the bicycle is full of legend, inconsistencies, and flat-out lies. One thing that seems indisputable, though, is that the bicycle is a direct descendant of the late-eighteenth century piece of recreational equipment called the hobby horse.
The hobby horse was a popular fad for the French upper class and nobility of the late 1700s, including the soon-to-be-beheaded Marie Antoinette. Hobby horses were little more than a wooden rocking horse or simply a pole with a wooden horse head at the end. Legend has it, in 1790 a French courtier named Comte
Médé de Sivrac got the idea to add two wheels to the hobby horse. That enabled gentlemen and ladies of the court to zip around the yards of the palace straddling the horse and walking, running, or pushing off with their legs. It was a hit. Sivrac's invention was essentially a wooden scooter, either called a célérifère or a vélocifère. Though Sivrac's hobby horse had neither steering nor brakes, it was the first documented case of a vehicle with two wheels in tandem—therefore, an important step in the birth of the bicycle.
But while the wheeled hobby horse definitely existed at the end of the 1700s, there's some doubt about Sivrac. Records are sketchy at best. Perhaps due to Sivrac's questionable existence, he never earned the title Father of the Bicycle. That distinction belongs to the man responsible for the bicycle's next evolutionary step: Karl von Drais.
Von Drais and His Swift-Walker
Baron Karl Drais de Sauerbrun, or Karl von Drais for short, was a nobleman from the German province of Baden, where he was appointed Master of the Woods and Forests. This job required that von Drais travel long distances on foot in order to inspect the forests. Out of practical need, he developed a vehicle that could increase his walking speed while at the same time alleviate some of the strain walking put on his feet. Sometime around 1817, von Drais invented what came to be known as the draisine. The draisine was little more than a well-constructed hobby horse: it had two wheels in line and a simple frame made of wood. But von Drais's machine had steering, which made all the difference. Where hobby horses had been toys, the draisine was actually useful as a walking aid.
Upon patenting his creation, von Drais took his draisine to Paris, where he demonstrated it to curious crowds in the city's parks. Onlookers were impressed to find that the machine could more than double walking speed on level ground and reach even higher speeds downhill. Parisians were shocked to see von Drais riding at up to ten miles an hour, faster than they'd ever seen a human move before.
Around the time von Drais unveiled his two-wheeler, a number of other inventors, either independently or with full knowledge of the draisine, made similar walking machines. In England, the swift-walker caused quite a stir. In the United States, our first brush with two-wheeled vehicles came when W. K. Clarkson patented his own swift-walker in 1820. Though swift-walkers became a popular site in the New York City parks of the early 1820s and even led to the creation of several new laws in the city, by the end of the decade they had largely disappeared. While they successfully increased walking speed, swift-walkers were still too heavy and inefficient, especially on hills and bumpy ground, to take hold in any permanent way.
By the late 1850s in Paris, the old swift-walkers (or vélocipèdes, as they were called in France) were a familiar, if uncommon, sight. At the time, Parisian Pierre Michaux and his sons were in business building coaches and were interested in new ways to improve the efficiency of self-propelled four-wheeled vehicles. But sometime around 1860 a man happened to bring into the Michaux shop an old vélocipède in need of repair. Though Michaux was in no way involved with the vélocipède business, he agreed to give the machine a look.
After watching the vélocipède lay around his shop for a while, Pierre and his fourteen-year-old son Ernest came up with an idea to help the walking machine work a little better. The Michaux attached the crank handles of an old grindstone to the vélocipède's front wheel, thereby enabling a rider to turn the wheel by cranking with his feet. What they created was the world's first pedal-driven two-wheeler, or in other words, the first bicycle.
As usual, though, the story is not without contention. Pierre Lallement, a Frenchman who at one time worked for Pierre Michaux, claimed to have conceived of the pedaled vélocipède first. Lallement eventually took the new invention to the United States, where in 1866 he patented the vélocipède and introduced it to the American public. With the vehicle's small, iron-rimmed wooden wheels creating a very rough ride, the vélocipède came to be known in the United States as the boneshaker.
Back in France, Michaux improved on his original pedal vélocipède design, and the two-wheeler exploded in popularity. Cycling was fast becoming a favorite pastime: On May 30, 1868, the first recorded bike race was held on the outskirts of Paris. Englishman James Moore won the race, and many more contests soon followed.
The High-Wheeler and the Bicycle Explosion of the 1870S
Keep in mind that bicycles did not develop in a vacuum. Alongside the vélocipèdes the 1860s and 1870s saw the rise of a number of vehicles that utilized the pedal crank mechanism, including various models (some downright strange) of tricycles, unicycles, and something called a monocycle that had riders actually sitting in the center of a huge wheel! These other new human-powered vehicles shared innovations with the bicycle and developed simultaneously. The early 1870s saw a wide range of vélocipède innovations that improved comfort and efficiency: solid rubber tires, lighter steel frames, tension-spoked wheels, ball-bearings in the hub, brakes, and lights. With all the changes the vélocipède went through during the period, it became virtually a different machine. At the very least, it deserved a new name. The 1870s was the first time the two-wheeler became known as a bicycle.
Still, the bicycle had not yet become the practical, comfortable vehicle it would one day be. With the pedals attached directly to the front wheel, two-wheelers were difficult to ride anywhere but on the smoothest, flattest roads. Uphill riding required great effort to crank the wheel, while downhill riding turned the wheels so fast it sent the pedals spinning out of control, too fast for the rider's legs to handle. To address some of these problems, English designer James Starley decided in 1870 to increase the size of the front wheel. This made the vehicle move much faster—sometimes up to forty miles per hour—because one turn of the pedal (and therefore one turn of the wheel) would move the rider farther. The larger wheel also made the bicycle easier to pedal. Plus, it made the bicycle more comfortable because the larger wheel increased the shock absorption. Soon, front wheels were being made as large as could be—up to five feet in diameter—while still enabling a rider's leg to reach the pedals.
The new high-wheel bicycles were a smash; soon they were so common they became known as ordinary bicycles to distinguish them from earlier vélocipèdes (later the high-wheel was called the penny-farthing). The elevated seat position of the ordinary ensured that proper Victorian ladies, who wore long skirts and did not wish to expose their undergarments, could not ride the bicycle. Though it was a step backward for women, the high wheel otherwise brought the bicycle a newfound popularity.
In 1874, Colonel Albert A. Pope, along with Pierre Lallement, started the first U.S. bike company, the Columbia Bicycle Manufacturing Company. The League of American Wheelmen, the country's first cycling club, formed in 1880 as bicycling became a popular mode of transportation. New roads and traffic laws were created to facilitate safe riding. The bicycle had finally taken hold.
By 1885, hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of bicycles existed in the United States and Europe. Still, the high-wheeler was far from perfect. For one, large wheels had made uphill riding difficult. Also, the huge wheel size and seat location (near the top of the large wheel) made mounting treacherous and maneuvering difficult. Finally, many riders found themselves falling face first over the top of the wheel when they tried to stop. Clearly, there was room for improvement.
The Safety Bicycle
Though the modern chain-drive transmission had been developed in the late 1860s or early 1870s, it did not come into wide use for decades. In 1884, John Kemp Starley became the first inventor to apply the chain-drive mechanism to the two-wheeler, thus creating the first truly modern bicycle. He called his new model the rover safety bicycle because the chain drive made dangerously large front wheels unnecessary. Riders could safely touch the ground while on the bicycle, and women could ride without causing a spectacle. Within a few years the safety bicycle boasted two wheels of equal size and a diamond-shaped frame that made it look very much like the bicycles we ride today.
But there was still one catch. One of the high-wheelers’ advantages was shock absorption. A return to smaller wheels meant a revival of the boneshaker. To make bicycles comfortable, significant improvements still needed to be made. The answer came in 1888, when a Scottish veterinarian named John Boyd Dunlop created a tire with an inflatable tube for his young son's tricycle. It worked well, and soon Dunlop's invention, the pneumatic tire, found its way onto many bicycles.
Diehard racers considered pneumatic tires wimpy and resisted them at first, but their advantages in comfort, speed, and stability were impossible to resist. By the early 1890s, Dunlop's tires were standard on all bikes, and the safety bike quickly overtook high-wheelers as the model of choice for bicyclists.