The bicycle: A very brief history

Dandy horse

Bikes seem just about ubiquitous today. Some in the industry estimate that there are between 500 million and 1 billion functional bikes in the world, and you'll see people riding everywhere from Bangkok to Botswana to New York City.

At this point, the bicycle is nearly 200 years old, making it one of oldest mechanical creations still in widespread use. But over that time, it has changed greatly. Some of the earliest cycles are only distant cousins of the modern bike. In this blog post, we will share with you some of the history of the bicycle.

The earliest 'bicycles'

The bicycle has a long and storied history that stretches back to the early 1800's -- 1817 to be exact. That's when a German baron named Karl von Drais (the same fellow who created the first typewriter with a keyboard) invented the Draisienne, also called the velocipede or dandy horse -- a two-wheeled contraption that was essentially the same as modern push bikes used by small children. No gears, no pedals -- just a wooden frame, two wheels, a steering mechanism and a (rather uncomfortable looking) seat.

Mechanical drives

First pedal bike

The first bicycle that was propelled via pedals may have taken another twenty years to come around. It wasn't until 1839 that Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a blacksmith and tinkerer from Scotland, created a mechanically-driven bicycle. This claim to being the first bike is contested, however; there isn't much hard evidence that MacMillan actually created such a device beyond a police record of a velocipede "of ingenious design" knocking over a small girl in the city of Glasgow.

The first reliable mechanically driven bicycles in the historical record came about in the early 1860's from two eccentric Frenchmen: Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement. Their design was radically different than anything that had preceded it and used pedals and cranks directly mounted to an enlarged front wheel for a drive system.

Rear-wheel drive

First rear-wheel-drive bike

The next innovation came from another Scotsman, a cartwright (a person who makes and repairs carts). In 1869, Thomas McCall built what might be the first rear-wheel-drive bicycle, and this a precursor to modern designs. McCall's design, rather than using a chain and cogs like modern cycles, instead used iron levers and rods to link pedals at the front of the bicycle to a crank on the rear wheel.

This was a period of great innovation in bicycles. Metal-spoked wheels became popular, and while the rear-wheel drive design wouldn't become popular for decades, the first penny-farthings - cycles with small rear wheels and large front wheels with direct-drive pedals mounted on them - were introduced and became increasingly popular (despite the danger, difficulty, and discomfort of riding them).

Safety bicycles: The first modern bikes

Rover Safety Bicycle

Penny farthing designs were improved upon continually over the course of the 1870's and 80's, but the design featured a number of inherent drawbacks. Chief among those was the difficulty in using the front wheel for both power and steering, which was both awkward and inefficient.

This problem was finally solved in the 1880's when John Kemp Starley, an English inventor, along with several others, released the Rover Safety Bicycle -- the first bike that looks somewhat modern. This was the first bike with a chain-drive, and the first to use a rear-wheel drive system.

The Rover was also much safer than the Penny Farthings, which perched riders high up atop an unsteady wheel. This is the origin of the term "safety bicycle." Within five years, the Penny Farthing -- once called the "ordinary bicycle" due to its ubiquity -- was an antique.

Continual refinements

The design of the modern bicycle has changed remarkably little since 1885. A modern cyclist, looking at a bike from that era, can easily recognize the diamond-shaped frame, the chain-drive system, the steering and seatpost mechanisms.

One thing missing from the first few years of safety bicycles was pneumatic tires, which were invented in 1888 by another Scot (they seem to be showing up a great deal here), John Boyd Dunlop. Before that time, cycles used wooden wheels fitted with metal bands to provide durability, or solid rubber tires (which, as you can imagine, provided a bumpy ride).

Pneumatic tires became extremely popular on bicycles within a few years, since solid tires tended to give riders a headache anytime they rode on a bumpy or hard surface.

The next innovation was the freewheel, which unlinks the drive system from the hub of the rear wheel, allowing the rider to coast. The freewheel led directly to the invention of the first brakes, known as coaster brakes. This ingenuous model used a sort of drum brake that was built into freewheel hubs. When coasting, the wheel would move smoothly, but by pedaling backwards for a partial revolution, the rider could engage the brake.

Modern bicycles

Early Thirties Derailleur

The list of cycling inventions since the 1890's pales in comparison to this "golden age" and is, perhaps, topped by the derailleur. The first derailleurs allowed only two speeds, and were invented in 1905. Derailleurs were refined for many years, and didn't become popular until the late 1930's, when wire-shifting systems made their use easier than ever.

Another major invention was the bowden cable -- the plastic-coated cables that first allowed brakes to be controlled via handlebar-mounted levers.

Since then, the bicycle has stayed just about the same. Sure, there have been developments -- folding bikes, tandems, recumbents, suspension, electronic components, materials advances and more. But when you hop on your bike for a ride, you're basically riding a machine from the 1800's.

Pretty cool, eh?