Associated Press

The Invention of the Bicycle: Two Wheels, Occasionally Brakes

November 15, 2010
by Lindsey Chapman
The development of the modern-day bicycle required centuries of creative thinking and the skills of several different inventors. Years ago, bicycles were not quite so easy or comfortable to ride. FindingDulcinea takes a look back at the evolution of this handy machine, from its clunky beginnings to the sleek models of today.

The First Bicycles

It’s not entirely clear when the first bicycle was built. Frescoes in Pompeii contain images of machines that look much like bicycles, and a stained-glass window in seventeenth century chapel in England has a figure that resembles a bicycle as well.

There’s a disputed story that the first bicycle was invented by Comte de Sivrac in 1690; more people acknowledge Baron Karl von Drais as the original inventor in the early 1800s. Known variously as a draisine, draisienne or hobby horse, Drais’ creation was basically two wheels connected by a bar, with handlebars for steering and no pedals. Spectators said the contraption looked rather silly because riders it had to push themselves along with their feet, like a skateboard or scooter, but it was faster than walking.

Making Improvements

Velocipedes added pedals to the front wheel. These devices were made entirely of wood at first, and then came with metal wheels. The uncomfortable experience of riding a velocipede down rough cobblestone streets explains why many people called these vehicles “boneshakers.”

High-wheeled or “penny-farthing” bicycles, were the first machines to actually be called “bicycles.” The pedals were attached to a very large front wheel, which allowed riders to cover more distance per turn of the pedal. Rubber tires helped make the devices more comfortable for riders, and spokes in the wheels also smoothed out the experience.

However, the machines were still dangerous. People often found themselves tipping headfirst over the front wheel if they encountered a road hazard. (Incidentally, the phrase “taking a header” was popularized when this version of the bicycle was in style.)
In 1885, John Kemp Starley added a chain drive and gearing to help move the rear wheel of the bicycle. Wheels were made equal sized in 1890, and the basic diamond design of the bicycle frame has pretty much been the same ever since.

Tire magnate André Michelin and his brother also helped to further revolutionize bicycle technology. One afternoon, a bicyclist rode into the Michelins’ rubber and farm equipment factory with a deflated pneumatic tire. Inflatable tires were a recent development, and at the time, they required extensive labor to fix and reinflate, as they were glued to the wheel rims. The Michelin brothers created a process by which the tires could be removed, repaired and reattached with ease.

Fashion Controversy

As the bicycle rose in popularity during the end of the 19th century, people hotly debated what clothing was appropriate for women to wear when riding bicycles. Petticoats and corsets were traded for divided skirts, and “bloomers” appeared in the United States. Britain called the clothing “Rational Dress,” but long skirts remained most popular until after World War I.

A Flurry of Patents

According to an article on the Franklin Institute Web site, at least one-third of the patents filed at the U.S. Patent Office during the 1890s were related to bicycles. Inventors targeted one or more of four qualities that they thought customers wanted in a bicycle: “speed, safety, comfort, and endurance.” For example, hand brakes made bicycles safer, while cushioned seats added comfort. When speed became especially desirable, lighter, more durable materials, such as aluminum piping, were used for the bicycle frames.

Bicycles Through the Years

The Smithsonian Institution’s “America on the Move” exhibit chronicles the evolution of the bicycle, featuring such variations as the Anderson “military bicycle,” the Columbia light roadster and the hobby horse.

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