Will and Terra Hangen take a tour through the history of
THE STORY OF THE CREATION
of the bicycle is a wonderful reflection of human creativity
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.
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
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.
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
first, the bicycle was limited to the upper classes,
as a new bicycle cost as much as a horse.
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
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."
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.
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.
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