By Brett Weiss
Riding a bicycle is one of the most iconic of childhood rituals. In addition to the benefits of recreation and exercise, kids like the freedom of transportation that bicycles give them – in many cases as much as a decade or more before they get their driver’s license.
Of course, adults enjoy bicycles as well, riding them to soak in the great outdoors, take off a few pounds and/or as an environmentally friendly way to get to work or the store.
With bicycles of many sizes, shapes and colors available everywhere from Walmart and Academy Sports & Outdoors to specialized high-end bicycle shops, many of us take bicycles for granted, whether we view them as a toy, a piece of athletic equipment or simply as a utilitarian means of getting from point A to point B.
Most people, for whatever reason they ride them, don’t think too much about the history of the bicycle, beyond their own personal history – the bike with the banana seat you got for Christmas when you were in elementary school, the cool motocross bike you saved your lawn-mowing money to purchase when you were in junior high, the 10-speed you rode to school in 10th grade because you hadn’t turned 16 yet.
The bicycle is turning 200 this year (several museums are hosting 200th anniversary exhibits, including the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago), so let’s consider the history of that most popular of human-propelled vehicles. Like many inventions, the bicycle was the product of necessity.
Variously called the Draisine (Draisienne in French), Laufmaschine (German for “running machine”), hobbyhorse and dandy horse, the primary forerunner of the bicycle was created by German inventor Karl Drais, who also invented the first meat grinder and the first typewriter with a keyboard.
Drais devised the Draisine in response to problems caused by the April 5, 1815, eruption of Mount Tambora (on an island in Indonesia), an environmental disaster that created the so-called Year Without Summer in 1816. The ash and sulfur dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by the massive eruption blocked the sun, destroyed crops, froze rivers and created worldwide famine. Part of the fallout was that horses were slaughtered because there was no food for them.
According to www.treehugger.com, “Baron Karl von Drais needed a means of inspecting his tree stands that did not rely on horses … Drais discovered that by placing wheels in a line on a frame one could balance through dynamic steering. Thus a narrow vehicle capable of maneuvering on his lands – the Laufsmaschine became the immediate precursor of the bicycle.”
Fashioned primarily from wood and weighing around 50 pounds, the Draisine lacked pedals, but the steering assembly, which maneuvered the wagon-type front wheel, vaguely resembled the modern handlebar. Riders, sitting on an upholstered leather saddle nailed to the frame, propelled themselves forward with their feet.
With a crowd gathered along the roadside, Drais made the first documented ride on his invention in the city of Mannheim on July 12, 1817, riding approximately 13 kilometers in one hour. A few months later, he made news when he rode 60 kilometers in four hours.
Initially, the Draisine was a success, quickly spreading to France, Britain and the United States, but the fad was short-lived. The primitive vehicle was heavy and hard to ride (especially uphill), and it presented safety hazards as riders would abandon the rough road conditions for smooth sidewalks, resulting in “frequent collisions with unsuspecting pedestrians,” according to www.crazyguyonabike.com. “After a few years, Drais’ invention was banned in many European and American cities.”
In 1858 (some sources say as late as 1863), pedals were added to the front wheel of a two-wheeled, human-propelled vehicle. With its wooden wheels and frame (the all-metal design came about during the 1870s), construction of this “velocipede” (a term that came into common usage around this time) was similar to the Draisine, but some of them had tires made of wrought iron.
Unfortunately, despite a shock-absorbing spring supporting the saddle, velocipedes offered a rough ride, especially on cobblestone roads. As such, the velocipede became known colloquially as the “boneshaker.” Despite the jarring nature of the boneshaker, the vehicle remained popular through the late 1860s. In fact, they became a fad for a time, with indoor riding facilities (similar to roller rinks) appearing in various large cities.
The late 1860s saw the birth of the “high-wheeler.” The first machine to actually be referred to as a “bicycle,” the high-wheeler, a.k.a. the “penny-farthing” in England, had rubber tires, a huge front wheel with long spokes and a small rear wheel. This design, which made for a faster, smoother ride, supplanted the boneshaker as the two-wheeled transportation mode of choice. Although the penny-farthing remained popular for only a dozen years or so, it became a symbol of the Victorian age. A popular make of the high-wheeler was the Ariel, introduced by James Starley of Coventry, England, in 1871.
The high-wheeler was also called the “ordinary,” a word used to separate it from the “safety” bicycle. The safety bike was a redesign with two smaller wheels of equal size and a chain drive and gears, a setup similar to today’s bicycles. The chain drive improved the performance of the bicycle as the drive was transferred to the non-steering rear wheel. Not only was the safety bike, which was invented by John Kemp Starely (James’ nephew) in 1885, easier to ride and faster than the high-wheeler, it was, like its name implies, safer.
All too often, people riding high-wheelers were thrown over the front wheel and seriously injured, an occurrence known as a “header.” There were also high-wheel safety bicycles, where the seat was placed over the large wheel and the smaller wheel was in front.
Shortly after the advent of the safety bicycle, John Boyd Dunlop patented a pneumatic (air-filled) tire for a smoother, more comfortable ride.
These and other innovations, including mass production and increased acceptance by women, led to the “bicycle craze” of the 1890s.
The bicycle has varied in popularity ever since.
During the early 1900s, while it remained popular in Europe, cycling took a downward turn in the United States as the automobile rose in popularity. From the 1920s to the 1940s, bicycles were largely seen in America as children’s toys, though they were used extensively in both World Wars as quiet, highly maneuverable vehicles on the battleground.
A new bicycle boom began in the early 1960s, thanks in part to a nationwide fitness initiative pushed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Racing bikes became popular during the 1960s as well. In 1972, bicycles outsold cars in the United States 13 million to 11 million.
Other events and phenomena followed to increase the popularity of the sport/activity, including the first BMX world championships in 1982, the introduction of mountain biking to the Olympics in 1996 and increased interest in the Tour De France during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Climate change concerns have played a role in the popularity of cycling as well.
As with many other retro hobbies these days, more and more people are taking interest in the collecting and preservation of bicycles. One such proponent is Scott Wilke, co-owner of South Shore Cyclery in Milwaukee, Wis. In addition to selling and servicing, new, used and vintage bicycles, South Shore Cyclery features a museum where visitors can view around 200 bicycles, including some true rarities.