A simple and brief early history of bicycles

Last Updated on May 21, 2021 by FAB Jim The Cyclist

The history of the bicycle is traced back to 1817 when German Baron Karl von Drais invented the running machine called the Draisine, or velocipede.  This was a steerable, human propelled machine nicknamed the hobby-horse or dandy horse.  It didn’t have a chain or pedals you sort of sat on it and walked or ran.  I guess it would hold some of your weight for you, here is an image:

Dandy Horse Bicycle

It wasn’t until 1853 that the bicycle got pedals when German Philipp Moritz Fischer built the very first bike with pedals. This was a great innovation for the bike.

Around 1863 the first commercially successful bicycle was developed in France.  This bike had a simpler design and used rotary cranks and pedals mounted to the front wheel hub.  In England these bikes earned the name of bone-shaker because the rigid frame and iron-banded wheels made for a bone-shaking ride. 

Bone-Shaker Bicycle

In the 1870s the high-wheel bicycles many of us associate with vintage bikes were developed. The large wheel in the front allowed for faster speeds, but the size of the wheel was limited by leg length. These bicycles were known as “penny-farthings”. James Starley is considered the father of the British cycling industry. His famous bicycle was called the Ariel. These bikes used solid rubber tires and ball bearings making the ride smoother. High-wheel bikes never gained mass appeal as the rider sat so high they were not viewed as “safe”.

In 1885 the safety bicycle was developed by John Kemp Starley, the nephew of James Starley. These were the first bikes to have a chain drive for the rear wheel. They also had two equally sized wheels.

In 1888 John Dunlop’s pneumatic bicycle tire made bikes a much more comfortable ride.  The bikes we have now gradually developed from these early models. Much has changed, but the base remains the same.

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