Who Invented The Bicycle? The History & Development

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Are you fond of riding your bike? Did you know that your bicycle has had a rich history before it transformed into today’s much more modern counterpart?

Read on to learn the rich history of the bicycle, how it was invented, who were those behind its invention and development, and how it transformed into what it is now today.

Let’s get down to a pretty historic ride.

The Humble Beginnings of the Bicycle

There were a variety of older bicycle prototypes that were simpler forms of the bicycles that we are now enjoying today.

It all started during the 16th century along with the discovery of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches, which included simple frameworks that were known to be bicycle prototypes.

However, historians were quick to debunk this myth that included da Vinci. Reportedly, those drawings that were comparable to today’s bicycle were either made by his mentee, Gian Giacomo Caprotti or were actually fake. 

Fast forward to several years later, those prototypes were never taken into full form. Four hundred years passed once more, and horses were still the only affordable means of transport for the public.

After the da Vinci mishap, a German baron named Karl von Drais came into the picture when he crafted a “steerable, two-wheeled contraption” in 1817.

Von Drais’ clunky prototype did not include brakes, pedals or a chain. The riders should propel the huge 50-pound frame forward by just pushing off from the ground with their feet.

This bicycle prototype was known by several names, which included, “Laufmaschine,” “hobby-horse,” “running machine,” “velocipede,” and “draisine.” With this old contraption, Drais became widely known as the father of the bicycle.

With the velocipede falling out of the spotlight, it became the basis for the continued improvement of the first bicycle prototype across Europe.

In the next 43 years in England, people pushed through exploring the concept of inventing a human-powered transport, but with a slight change. They preferred vehicles like tricycles and “quadricycles,” which have three and four wheels respectively. However, no matter how these two were thought to be a lot more stable, they weren’t that much popular compared to bicycles. 

The 1860s-1870s

During the start of the 1860s, a number of French inventors, including Pierre and Ernest Michaux and Pierre Lallement, also crafted bicycle prototypes with pedals attached to the front wheel.

Apparently, those newer prototypes were the first ones to be called “bicycles,” but because they were difficult to ride, they were also called “boneshakers.” These bikes had frames made from iron instead of wood. They also started the inclusion of ball bearings and rubber tires. 

Moving on, another design of a bicycle model was released and it showcased a larger front wheel. This one was created in 1869 by Frenchman Eugene Meyer and was introduced for mass-production by Englishman James Starley.

This high-wheeled bicycle is reported to be better than the “boneshaker” and has a lighter frame and can give the rider faster speeds. However, it also has a few cons, such as giving difficulties in uphill and downhill riding.

This bike prototype was called “ordinaries” or “penny-farthings” and it introduced the rise of the first-ever bicycle clubs and competitive races.

Later, a fellow named Albert Pope purchased Lallement’s patent and made his “Columbia” bicycle in the United States in 1878. He then continued to make thousands of bicycles.

The 1890s

Fast forward to 1885, when people found that the penny-farthing was too dangerous for daily rides, another Englishman, John Kemp Starley, crafted a “safety bicycle” design that boasts of a chain drive and equal-sized wheels.

This prototype was called “Rover.” With this, developments in bicycle tires and brakes followed, giving way to a basic template for what would be the modern bicycle that we are all enjoying these days.

Ever since that time, the designs of bicycles became standardized across the world and they should encompass four aspects, namely, safety, comfort, steering, and speed.

Going into modernization, bicycles had a basic diamond shape frame which is usually made from metal, has a roller chain, pneumatic rubber tires, coaster brakes, a gear, and more. 

On September 13, 1892, a bicycle railroad was opened between Mount Holly, New Jersey and the H. B. Smith Manufacturing Company in Smithville, New Jersey during the Mount Holly fair. It’s first opening week had 3,000 riders riding for amusement instead of commuting.

Coney Island also wanted its own bicycle railroad, while the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago had one. More bike railroads were built in Atlantic City, Gloucester City, and Ocean City, New Jersey but for amusement (the first two were built in 1893 and the last was in 1894).

The year 1896 came and a severe economic recession happened while on the other hand, the bicycle was spiking up in popularity.

That time, bicycles were somehow excluded from the recession since bicycle sales were increasing and people kept on buying bikes “whether they could afford them or not.”

With this, manufacturers kept on creating new bikes which had an increase in production leading to over-supply and tight price competition causing a diminishing business due to over-saturation. 

This led to a lot of bicycle makers facing a number of unsold bikes at low prices. Not enough to make a profit, this was a reason for a closeout for business. In 1899, however, many bicycle companies converged to be under the American Bicycle Company.

The Golden Age of Bicycles (the 1900s-1950s) 

During this era, bicycles became one of the primary means of transportation for the public. It was also during the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s that bikes were a staple to kids up until the point that training wheels came off.

This was the time when children weren’t forced to go on soccer playdates. The bike, during this period, offered young children a new sense of freedom, a chance to visit their friends, explore their surroundings and have a new hobby. 

Bicycle clubs became popular across Europe and America, and during these times the manufacturing costs of bikes went low significantly, which then pushed the increase of their use all over the world. 

What Happened to Bicycles During the 20th Century?

Time Magazine called the period from the year 1965 until 1975 as “the bicycle’s biggest wave of popularity in its 154-year history.”

After this heyday, there was a sudden decline in sales, which resulted in an increase in the inventory of unsold bikes.

In 1970, seven million bikes were sold in the United States. Out of those, 1.2 million were balloon tires, coaster brake adult bicycles, 5.5 million were bikes for children, and only 200,000 were lightweight 3-coaster speed or derailleur-equipped bikes. 

Once more, Time Magazine reported in 1971 that “for the first time since the 1890s, nearly one-half of all bicycle production was geared for adults.”

In 1972, bicycle sales were doubled to 14 million. Children’s bikes managed to maintain its standing at 5.5 million, balloon-tired bicycles for adults ended up at approximately half a million, and lightweight bikes reached fortyfold, arriving at 8 million. 

The “bicycle craze” or the “bike boom” had its kickstart during the middle of the 1960s with the introduction of several wheelie bikes and of the Schwinn Sting-Ray. Annual sales have reached 4 million units for the first time.

During the height of the boom in 1972, 1973, and 1974, the United States sold more bicycles than automobiles.

The bike boom in the United States clocked in additional factors which included cheaper and user-friendly 10-speed derailleur-geared racing bikes becoming widely accessible, the onset of a lot of post-World War II baby boomers reaching adulthood and demanding affordable transportation for them to recreate and exercise, and the growing interest in reducing pollution. 

During the oil crisis in 1973, the price of driving an automobile has become greater, paving the way for commuting using a bike as a more attractive option for a commute. The 1973 oil crisis was assumed to be the reason for the bike boom to flourish, but reportedly, bike sales have already reached a peak when the crisis hit in October of 1973. 

During the 1990s, it was the time for the United Kingdom to experience the bike boom. Those who were riding road bikes were the ones who are reluctant in spending their money on upgrades. Meanwhile, the market for mountain bikers has new offerings such as aluminum, titanium, and carbon fiber materials and suspension parts. 

By 2001, the market began to implode because of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom. Since then, the bike boom has not recovered much to the level of its prime years. 

What Happened to Bicycles During The 21st Century

In 2008, several economic analysts detected signs of bicycle popularity rising. 

The year 2012 was cited by the British press as another bike boom, brought forward by the successful UK cyclists during the summer namely Laura Trott and Bradley Wiggins. They were in flying colors during the Tour de France at the London Olympics. Another fellow from the United Kingdom named Chris Froome also had several successes in the Tour. 

The year 2016 came and along with it, an influx of several successes in the bicycle world. Simon Mottram of the cycling clothing brand names Rapha recalls the current bike boom back to the aftermath of the July 2005 London bombing, which had the London Underground pushed to a close, encouraging a lot of commuters to turn into using bicycles in the meantime. 

After two years, the Tour de France opened in London during the anniversary of the attack and in the next year, Team GB dominated the cycling events at the Beijing Olympics. 

Mottram also attributed the financial incentive of the “Cycle to Work” scheme, which was introduced in 1999, and the building emphasis on health and congestion. 

The cycling governing body, British Cycling, affirmed that there are over “two million people across the country now cycle at least once a week, an all-time high.” 

In March 2015, an increase in bicycle sales for up to 11% was reported by Halfords, the company which is responsible for one-third of the bicycles sold in the entire United Kingdom.

Statistics state that most customers who purchase bicycles are “Mamils” or middle-aged men in Lycra. However, younger men are also becoming customers as well as a reported rapid increase in women customers. 

Architecture writer and cycle campaigner Peter Murray shared that a lot of business relationships were built and nurtured during longer rides. With this, the BBC touts cycling as “the new golf.”

The 2010s was still great for the bicycle world, it was also the rise of the bicycle-sharing system, public bike share (PBS), or public bicycle scheme. Basically, this kind of service is made available to individuals who would like to rent or share a bike for a short term, usually for a price or free.

How Bicycle Riding Impacts You Now

Looking back at Karl von Drais “two-wheeled contraption” that has no pedal, the modern bicycle has now come a long way.

From being used as a means of transportation, to delivering things or letters during the old times, the bicycle has come as far as being a part of a leisurely lifestyle.

In these modern times where commuting is such a pain in the butt, young professionals have been romanticizing biking to work. Bicycle merchandise and apparel have been a booming business. Bicycle parts are everywhere, and it is a totally lucrative business too. 

Thanks to the fathers of the bicycle, we are now enjoying the pros that having a bike has given us. For people living in the modern world as well as people from the old times, owning a bicycle is immensely important, especially physically and financially.

You see, riding a bike not only aids you through your optimal health condition, but it also aids your finances and minimizes your usage of gas.

It also improves your mental health and helps you attain a positive outlook. Cycling releases adrenaline and endorphins and promotes healthy competition among your co-cyclists.

Aside from physical exercise, riding a bike outdoors will let you explore new views. When you are stressed, riding your bike will definitely help you feel lighter.

With all these benefits in mind, obviously, we can’t thank those who’ve conceived of the bicycle enough.

Get Ready to Take Your Ride

Now that’s everything been said about the bicycle’s rich history and the supreme benefits it gives even from then, it’s probably high time to get that long-overdue ride going.

Hop on your bicycle’s saddle now, and pedal on to your heart’s desire.

And just like history and time, you just keep yourself rolling and cycling on!

Photo of author
Hello, my names Perry and I've been a freelance writer for the past 5 years and a cycling enthusiastic since I can remember. I love the road, but my main passion is mountain biking.

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