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History Magazine cover
The 1650s
Victoria L. King examines a decade of civil unrest and enlightenment in Europe.

Birth of the Boardwalk: A Sandy History
Russell Roberts looks at the illustrious beginning of the "walk of boards".

David A. Norris looks at the plastic of the Victorian Age.

The Battle of Cannae
Nicky Nielsen tells the story of the ancient battle between Hannibal Barcas and his sworn enemy, Rome..

Barter and Trade in Colonial America
Joanne Liu looks at the early history of Colonial America where currency as we know it was scarce.

Chroniclers & Scribes — Medieval Historical Writers
William Stroock chronicles some of the great medieval documents that have survived.

The Pedigree of Platinum
Steve Voynick relates the fascinating history of the "other" precious metal.

Pyramids and the Occult — Fact or Fiction?
Pamela D. Toller chronicles the search for the magical meaningn of the pyramids.

The Early Days of Radio
From the book With Amusement For All: A History Of American Popular Culture Since 1930, author LeRoy Ashby looks at the early programs that made radio so popular.

"The Storm": Killer Hurricane Devastates Galveston, Texas
Joanna Bostwick Backman tells the story of a killer hurricane.

Fire Below! The Devastating Reality of Coal Bunker Fires
Patrick McSherry chronicles the dirty and dangerous history of coal bunker fires and the men that fought them.

The Timeless Appeal of Clocks
Phill Jones chronicles the history of timekeeping and its impact on history.

Lizzie Borden and the Fall River Axe Murders
Daniel M. Hoenig describes the enduring interest in this case of murder most foul.


Will and Terra Hangen take a tour through the history of two-wheeled transportation.

The pennyfarthing or Ordinary bicycle was one of the two main contenders to supplant the Draisienne. Albert Pope's Columbia was the first bicycle built in the US.

THE STORY OF THE CREATION of the bicycle is a wonderful reflection of human creativity and folly.

Opinions about bicycles have ranged from a Baltimore minister's 1896 ravings describing the bicycle as "a diabolical device of the demon of darkness... imbued with a wild and Satanic nature", to the claims of health-cultists in the 1800s that the bicycle was the cure-all for the human race. Regardless of diverse opinion, the bicycle has persevered to become a part of the lives and hearts of countless millions of people world wide, not to mention a huge thriving industry.

Historians will never be able to pinpoint the exact moment the bicycle was created. Tomb paintings from ancient Egypt suggest a distant ancestor of the bicycle. Some researchers maintain that sketches of bicycles can be seen among the frescoes of Pompeii. A drawing purportedly by Leonardo da Vinci shows a remarkably modern bicycle, but is believed by many experts to be a hoax.

The French count Mede de Sivrac designed a vehicle in 1790 known as the celerifere or velocifere. The roots of his creation are found in a toy called a hobby horse, consisting of a stick with a horse's head on one end and sometimes a wheel on the other. De Sivrac's version for adult riders consisted of two equal-sized wheels joined by a wooden beam decorated to resemble a horse or a lion. This machine was pushed in a manner sure to provoke giggles since the rider moved the pedal-less celerifere forward by essentially running along the ground. The celerifere had serious design flaws, most notably the lack of a steering mechanism and brakes. Dashing young men gathered in French parks, including Versailles, to race these whimsical creations.

Meanwhile, Baron Karl von Drais of Karlsruhe, Germany, was at work improving the design of the velocifere for use as transportation on his employer's country estate. His version became known as the Draisienne, and featured a brilliantly designed front wheel that pivoted on the frame, thus enabling the machine to turn corners. He also eliminated the decorative prow-like representation of an animal head, which greatly reduced the weight factor. In 1818, he took his Draisienne to Paris and actually sold quite a few.

His sales pitch emphasized that on good roads his Draisiennes traveled as fast as eight to nine miles an hour, the same speed as a trotting horse. As early as 1818, the desire for good paths and roads had emerged among cyclists, though riders were still running along the ground pushing their bikes while seated.

Over time these early bicycles became known as "hobby horses" or "dandy horses" in reference to their high prices. Even King George IV of England and his royal court discovered that hobby horses were great entertainment on a sunny afternoon. Denis Johnson, a coachmaker in Covent Garden, England, patented his own version of the hobby horse in 1818, undoubtedly inspired by the Draisienne. Johnson proceeded to open a riding school in London, where gentlemen of breeding were instructed in the fine art of riding these new contraptions.

London quickly banned Johnson's hobby horses because cyclists traveled so quickly that they were disruptive and dangerous among the horse traffic of city streets. Outside the city, clergymen used the new machines to visit their parishioners and postmen delivered mail on Johnson's hobby horse.

The period from about 1820 to 1865 was full of experimentation aimed at improving the machine. Pierre Michaux and his son Ernest are credited with inventing key components of the modern bicycle in 1861; they attached pedals directly to the front axle thereby necessitating a large front wheel for ease of pedaling. By 1868 the Michaux factory in France had 30 employees working at a furious pace to produce five pedal-style machines a day. A reporter for Orchestra magazine praised the quality of these machines, and wrote that Michaux's machines were "models of perfection, but they cost as much as a horse."

Some of the inventions of the period certainly look ridiculous to our modern eyes. One bizarre 1839 vehicle was called "Mr. Baddeley's Manumotive Exercising Carriage". The rider sat between two six-foot-tall wheels, with a smaller wheel out front. It was pedaled and steered with hand cranks, an early experiment that reflected the controversy of whether hand or foot power was more efficient.

Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a blacksmith from Scotland, developed a bicycle in 1839 with a decidedly modern look to it. In fact, his was arguably the first modern bicycle, since it is the first surviving two-wheeled machine that a rider could power without having to touch the ground. MacMillan combined three modern design elements: two smallish wheels with the rider seated between them, a back wheel driven by cranks and a front wheel that was used to steer the bicycle. Still, the drawbacks remained; these machines all bounced, rattled, broke and were hard to steer and stop. Without an efficient pedaling system, bad roads, steep hills and nasty weather put a real damper on the widespread acceptance of this blossoming form of transportation.

In the 1890s, two main types of cycles were being produced, each with its die-hard adherents. The first and older vehicles were originally called bicycles. The front tire stood head-tall to a man, followed by a small rear tire. The seat was mounted chest-high, and required athletic ability and a certain air of derring-do to mount and dismount. These gained the nickname of penny-farthing, from the tire sizes' resemblance to the largest and smallest English copper coins of the time.

The second type of vehicle vying for the allegiance of riders was a newer invention with two equal-sized wheels. As these new cycles grew in popularity, they eventually commandeered the name bicycle, and the penny-farthing became known as 'the Ordinary'. Races were often held between bicycles and Ordinaries and all accounts report that the competitions were fierce.

At first, the bicycle was limited to the upper classes, as a new bicycle cost as much as a horse.

In the 1870s, James Starley became known in England as the father of the bicycle industry. In 1870 he began manufacturing penny-farthing bicycles. In 1885, at the Coventry Machinist's Company in England, James Starley's nephew John Kemp Starley built his famous Rover, which had all the major features of today's bikes. The 50-pound Rover had two wheels of medium size, with the rear wheel pedal-powered by chains and sprockets. The wheels were connected by a triangular frame that became known as the diamond frame. This machine's superior safety and speed spearheaded the defeat of the Ordinary. Eventually the high wheel was abandoned completely and the modern bike triumphed.

While visiting the 1876 US Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, a man named Albert Pope joined huge joyous crowds gathered there for the first time to eat ice cream and see a new cannon invented by Krups. As fate would have it, he also saw the first Ordinary ever to be displayed in the US. Pope was so energized that he immediately toured various English bicycle factories and, in 1877, rushed to convert Pope Manufacturing Company from a factory making shoes and small mechanical parts into an import house for bicycles. Soon a plethora of bicycle firms like Pope, Overman and Spaulding were booming all over the US.

Pope's next visionary step was to commission a mechanic named Atwell to create Pope's own vision of a bicycle. Christened in 1878, the Columbia was a 70-pound Ordinary, costing $313 (a small fortune at that time). Most experts now view the Columbia as the first modern-type bicycle built in the US and it certainly solidified Pope's reputation as the father of the bicycle industry.

Though strikingly modern in design, these bicycles still deserved their nickname of "boneshakers". A gigantic advance for the comfort of the rider was the invention of pneumatic tires. Originally patented in 1845 in England by R.W. Thompson, pneumatic tires were first applied to a bicycle in 1888. John Boyd Dunlop, practicing as a veterinary surgeon in Belfast, fitted a rubber hose to his son's tricycle, and filled this tire with compressed air. Dunlop patented the pneumatic tire on 23 July 1888 and began limited production. Two years later solid rubber bicycle tires had disappeared from use, and by 1892 Dunlop was a millionaire.

The coaster brake was an essential safety development and was available on most bikes being built around 1898. This new brake easily slowed down the bicycle - no longer did the cyclist have to leap off of a moving bicycle merely to stop. Lights and bells were additional safety accessories that quickly gained wide use. Training wheels, rearview mirrors and a lock patented by Yale and Towne Manufacturing were also widely available. In the 1890s, 500 factories were dedicated to making bicycle accessories and by 1896 it is estimated that Americans spent over $200 million on bicycle accessories and $300 million for bicycles.

The 1890s are correctly called the "Golden Age of the Bicycle" and bicycle racing was now being taken seriously. The first American international superstar of bicycle racing was a black man named Marshall Walter "Major" Taylor. Taylor worked in a small bike shop until former bicycle racer Louis "Birdie" Munger coached him to his first professional racing successes in 1896. Munger became Taylor's mentor, and supported him in the face of racism in the sport. The first team he raced on was the black See-Saw Cycling Club, formed in response to the white Zig-Zag Cycling Club, in his hometown of Indianapolis.

At first denied pro status because of his race, Taylor was eventually registered as a pro racer by the League of American Wheelmen in New York. Billed as the "Worcester whirlwind", he was the biggest draw at the capacity-crowd bicycle races in Madison Square Garden. Taylor won his first national championship in 1898, and became world champion in Montreal in 1899. In 1901 he signed a contract to race in Europe, where he was greeted with a hero's welcome and went on to beat every European racing champion. In 1948, 16 years after his death, a group of pro bike racers commissioned a bronze plaque for his grave, which reads: "World's champion bicycle racer who came up the hard way without hatred in his heart, an honest, courageous, God-fearing, clean-living, gentlemanly athlete. A credit to his race who always gave out his best. Gone but not forgotten."

Bicycles were tested as military vehicles during the 1890s. In 1896-97, an all-black volunteer corps tested the military utility of the bike. The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps was stationed at Fort Missoula, Montana. Each volunteer rode a bicycle that weighed 70 pounds fully loaded, carrying weapons, food, and camping gear. As they went on three arduous test rides, they gained the respect of all who encountered them. The Bicycle Corps riders were recognized as being goodwill ambassadors for their race and for the army. Duly noting their race, their leader, Lt. Moss, described the corps as "about as fine looking and well disciplined a lot as could be found anywhere in the United States Army."

The final test ride was from the fort to St. Louis, Missouri, a distance of 1,900 miles. Their schedule required them to bicycle 50 miles each day. Upon reaching St. Louis, they were greeted by a cheering crowd of 10,000. The St. Louis Star reported that this was "the most marvelous cycling trip in the history of the wheel and the most rapid military march on record." Although their tests were deemed successes, the bike has not yet gained wide use in the US military.

Bicycling also had a permanent and beneficial effect on the struggle of women for equal opportunity. In 1896, Susan B. Anthony said that "the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world." As bicycles surged in popularity, women naturally began to ride them. While many argued that cycling wasn't ladylike, in Northern Wheeler of 22 February 1893, a supporter wrote, "Woman has taken her stand, and her seat in the saddle. I am tolerably certain that the net result will be that woman will take her true position as man's equal."

The Tour de France is the world's most prestigious and difficult bicycle race. The race has taken place over three weeks each July since its establishment in 1903, except during the world wars.

The popularity of bicycling in the 1890s meant that the time was ripe for a group of enthusiasts to formally band together to promote riding. The League of American Wheelmen was formed in 1880, as a powerful voice for bicycling. The League was successful in lobbying to improve and pave roads to make them passable and smooth in all weather. They scheduled races, published a magazine and set suggested standards for dress and conduct. By the 1890s the League had more than 100,000 members. With the exception of two dormant periods in the 1930s and 1950s, the League has been a bicycle advocate for 121 years. The League of American Wheelmen exists today, now called The League of American Bicyclists. Currently the League has 28,000 members and 475 affiliated bicycle clubs. By working with affiliated organizations the League represents more than 150,000 bicyclists in the US.

Bicycling gained respectability as society people began riding. Members of European royal circles took up bicycling early on. Members of the international monied set like the Vanderbilts and Goulds bought bicycles. Justice (later Chief Justice) Edward D. White of the US Supreme Court was a notable rider. Cycling clubs were formed across the US. Some clubs staged night rides carrying Japanese lanterns. Other cycling clubs in their enthusiasm developed chants that they yelled while riding together.

Bicycling became the rage in Europe and in the US in the 1890s. There are estimates of 10 million bicycles in use in the US by the 1890s, this in a population of 75 million. The prospective expansion seemed limitless. but a dark speck was advancing on the horizon. A new vehicle known as the horseless carriage began appearing on the paved roads that bicyclists had lobbied to create. In another twist of fate, bicycle mechanics J. Frank and Charles E. Duryea of Springfield, Massachusetts, had designed the first successful American gasoline automobile in 1893. They went on to make the first sale of an American-made gasoline car in 1896. The car really emerged as America's vehicle of choice when Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908.

By the 1950s, bicycle riding was largely confined to children and teenagers. However, in the 1970s the birth of the mountain bike revived cycling as a leisure activity for adults, allowing off-road riding in wilder areas. Road racing, represented by the famous Tour de France, is a major organized sport characterized by the stunning performance and courage of recent three-time winner Lance Armstrong.

In the words of Ron Ige, editor of Bike Magazine, "Like all aspects of life today, technology has advanced the bicycle far beyond the high wheelers of the past. This amazing growth curve has sparked renewed interest in all forms of cycling." The future for the bicycle looks unlimited as inventors continue to tinker with and improve these beloved machines.

This article originally appeared in our October/November 2001 issue.