Thursday, September 6, 2012

History of Bicycles

History of Bicycles-

Every morning I hop on my vintage Huffy bicycle and pedal to the fitness center in town. It’s a pretty ride with lots of farm fields and cows along the way. 

In the back story for my novella, An Ordinary Angel, the heroine Julianne, rode an early model bicycle through town, which caused her previous suitor to cease his courtship.

I did a bit of research to get a feel for the early history of the bicycle, which was called a velocipede at the time Julianne took her ride on the machine.

Some of the first sketches of a bicycle were made by the Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. Crude two-wheeled vehicles propelled by the feet were popular as early as the second half of the 17th century.  In 1690 a Frenchman invented the célérifere, which consisted of a wooden beam to which the wheels were affixed. The vehicle had no handlebar; the rider sat on a cushion on the beam and propelled and steered the machine by pushing his or her feet along the ground.

The first working bicycle with a handlebar that pivoted on the frame, and enabled the front wheel to be turned, was designed by Baron Karl von Drais of Germany, in 1818. It had no pedals. He pushed himself along with his feet. Similar machines were soon developed with various improvements by inventors in France, Germany and Britain. These early versions came to be called velocipedes, from the Latin words for speed and walking.

In 1839, Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a Scottish blacksmith, added foot cranks, connected by rods to the rear wheels which allowed the rider to propel the machine with his feet off the ground.

 Later, in 1855, Ernest Michaux, of France, put rotating pedals on the front wheel of the velocipede.  The frame and wheels were made of wood. The tires were iron and the pedals were attached to the hub of the front, or driver wheel, which was slightly higher than the rear wheel.

This version was known as a boneshaker, because of its affect on the rider pedaling over rough roads or cobblestoned streets.  In 1869 solid rubber tires were mounted on steel rims and this new machine was the first to be patented under the modern name, bicycle.

In 1873, an English inventor, James Starley produced the first machine incorporating most of the features of the so-called ordinary, or high wheel bicycle. The front wheel of Starley’s bicycle was as much as three times larger in diameter than the rear wheel.

The first United States bicycles were produced after 1876 by Colonel Albert Pope of Massachusetts. They were ordinaries, with the high front wheel and a tiny rear wheel.  Few women rode due to the difficulty in mounting and riding them. They cost more than $300.00. Finally in 1885 the British introduced a bike which had equally sized tires and was driven by a chain. It was called the safety and soon replaced the ordinary, allowing women and children to take up riding in droves.

Twenty thousand people owned bicycles in 1882. That number expanded to over one million in 1893 as the entire nation fell in love with the sport.




The writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800’s, by Marc McCutcheon, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH, 1993

The New Book of Knowledge, 1990 by Grolier Incorporated.

Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia


  1. Good Morning All,
    I just got back from the fitness center, on my bike as I dodged a few early rain drops. Thanks for having me here today.

  2. Kathy, how intereting. I had no idea bicycles had been around so long. I saw posters for early bicylcess as we know them when a man brought some to "Antiques Road Show." They were 1880's and I had guesses, wrongly, that's when the bicycle was invented and first manufactured. Thanks for an educational post.

  3. Hi Caroline,
    I love Antiques Roadshow! I didn't know much about bicycles either and thought the first one was the one with the giant front wheel.

  4. I was also surprised how early bicycles were around. I can't imagine how they rode those first ones. Great post.

  5. Very informative. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Hi Paisley,
    I can't imagine riding those early bikes either. They didn't even have pedals, you had to use your feet, kind of like Fred Flintstone. Down hill might have been fun, except there was no way to steer. LOL!

  7. Hi Lisa,
    Thanks for stopping and taking the time to leave a comment. :)

  8. Fascinating post, Kathy. Definitely a keeper for my research notebooks. :) I am wondering, however, if there was any kind of shield or cover on the spokes to help prevent a ladies' skirts from getting caught in them. Just looking at the photo in your post, I can well imagine many women might have gotten hurt with skirts and petticoats, perhaps lifted by the wind and then caught in the moving spokes of the wheels. Have you come across any such device in your research? Or, were the bicyles primarily advertised just for men? Just curious.

  9. Hi Ashley,
    All the pictures I've seen showed exposed spokes and wheels. The risk of tangled skirts may have been the reason men mostly took up the sport. It may have also been a reason for the creation of bloomers for women, though I am not postive about that.


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