The History of Bicycles

In the modern world, with so many motorized options for getting around, it’s easy to take the human-powered bicycle for granted. However, for as quickly as the bicycle has been replaced by faster, fuel-powered vehicles, it’s easy to think it’s an ancient invention that has finally been phased out. But this two-wheeled vehicle has only been around a short time, yet during its brief history, people have come up with many different designs and uses for the bicycle. Because of this, the history of the bicycle is rich and is quite significant to the rest of human history.

Geared Vehicles are Born

The first version of the two-wheeled vehicle that would eventually become known as the bicycle date from the 15th century. The most similar was a four-wheeled human-powered vehicle with a rope to connect gears to the wheels that was developed by Italy’s Giovanni Fontana. Leonardo da Vinci, too, is credited with some drawings of a two-wheel vehicle that closely resembles modern bicycles around the same period, although the authenticity of these drawings remains in question.

The First Bicycle

The first bicycle did not appear until nearly 400 years later, when a two-wheeled device known as the velocipede first appeared in Europe. The velocipede was invented by the German Baron von Drais in 1817 to enable people to replace draft horses for plowing fields – a necessary invention after a crop failure the previous year had led to the widespread slaughter of horses. This contraption was constructed entirely from wood and lacked pedals, instead requiring users to push off the ground with their feet to move forward.

Progress towards a modern bicycle proceeded piecemeal over the following decades. The first pedals appeared on a velocipede in 1839 in Scotland, although the pedals were connected directly to the rear wheel rather than to a chain-driven drivetrain. Pneumatic tires were added to the wheels in 1845 in England, although inflated tires took another several decades to become mainstream. 

These incremental advances culminated in 1864 in the “Boneshaker” bicycle – so named for the horrendous vibrations that riding the stiff frame on the bumpy roads of the time produced. This French bicycle resembled the frame of the velocipede but added the first mass-produced front wheels and pedals in a fixed-gear, one-speed configuration – similar to today’s fixies.

England at the Helm

Thanks to increasing social mobility and wealth from its global empire, Britain took the lead of bicycle development in the late 19th century. The famous Penny Farthing, with its five-foot diameter front wheel and minuscule rear wheel, appeared in England in 1870. The Penny Farthing drastically improved on the vibrations that characterized the Boneshaker bicycle, but it required a feat of acrobatics to climb onto and balance on while riding. In addition, although the Penny Farthing was the first machine to be called a “bicycle,” it was far from the ubiquitous ride we know today – purchasing one cost six months’ salary for the average worker.

It was after the introduction of the Penny Farthing that many modern bike features first appeared. Adopting some of the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, radial spokes were added to wheels in 1870, ball-bearings were introduced in 1872, caliper brakes made a first appearance in 1876, and designs for differential gearing mechanisms and shifters were patented in 1877. All of these components relied on the ability of steel mills to produce increasingly complex designs for a mass market. The first folding bicycle – a foldable Penny Farthing – was even mass-marketed in England during this period.

With all of these mechanical advances, bicycles became easier to ride and control – and thus increasingly popular both in England and across continental Europe. Adult tricycles became widespread as a more comfortable and rideable alternative to the Penny Farthing. At the same time, societies of bicyclists and tricyclists began to lobby governments to install smooth, paved roads as opposed to the standard dirt roads that crossed the continent for centuries. This was an important shift that ultimately paved the way for the domination of the car, but at the same time led to further adoption of the bicycle, as it could increasingly be used on roads all over Europe.

In the 1890s, bicycles even began to play a role in social norms as women increasingly switched from tricycles to bicycles – and from corsets to more comfortable and flexible bloomers. Susan B. Anthony commented in 1896 that bicycling had done more for the emancipation of women than any specific event in recent history as a result of the freedom and self-reliance it provided. It is no coincidence that many of the women’s emancipation movements and efforts to give women voting power began to gain momentum during this period.

Across the pond in the US, Thomas Stevens completed the first trans-North American bike ride between Boston and San Francisco in 1887 – a trip that took more than three months on the wagon roads available at the time.  Stevens eventually went on to be the first person to ride around the planet. Several years later, in 1894, the first bicycle messenger system was launched in California, to relay mail between Fresno and San Francisco, after a railroad strike brought postal delivery to a halt. This demonstrated the utility of the bicycle as a transportation system, rather than simply as a recreational item for the upper- and middle-classes. Around the same time, Bicycle Playing Cards capitalized on the burgeoning bicycle craze with their namesake card deck – the deck remains the number one selling brand of playing cards even today.

The Push Towards Modern Bicycles

From the 1880s onward, manufacturing technology improved even further and allowed factories to mass-produce bicycles at lower costs. At the same time, wages across Europe and the US were increasing rapidly. The result was that bicycles enjoyed increasing popularity, especially among lower-middle-class people.

In addition, new bicycle models increasingly resembled the bikes we use today with several important new innovations. The first rear-wheel-drive bicycle, featuring a chain connecting the pedals to the rear wheel, was mass-produced in 1880 in England. This design truly took off five years later when John Kemp Starley introduced the “Rover” bicycle – a surprisingly modern bicycle that closely resembles today’s comfort bikes, with two equally-sized spoked wheels and a chain-driven drivetrain. However, the Rover bicycle was still missing several important features of modern bikes – namely, pneumatic wheels and a derailleur.

Pneumatic wheels re-emerged into the bicycle scene in 1888 when their mass production was initiated in England by Dr. John Boyd Dunlop. Dunlop had originally rediscovered pneumatic tires while looking for a way to reduce the jarring vibrations of bicycling for his ill and delicate son, and the added comfort of riding on air-inflated tires quickly caught on with bicyclists everywhere. 

Several years later, E. H. Hodgkison introduced the first three-speed shifter. Although the ability to change gears using this shifter was limited and finicky, this was essentially the predecessor to the modern derailleur and enabled cyclists to begin tackling Europe’s many hills.

During this period, manufacturers also began to experiment with new frame materials. For example, Cycles Aluminum became one of the first commercial-scale manufacturers of bicycle frames in France. Around the same time, seamless steel tubing was invented in Germany. This material would soon became indispensable in manufacturing bike frames as it enabled frames with curved designs as opposed to the largely angular designs that had dominated bicycles to this point. The first bamboo bicycle was manufactured in 1894 and the first butted steel bicycle tube in 1897, although neither design attained the popularity and scale of mass production of seamless steel tubing.

Proliferation

Many of the different types of bikes that we now know and use date to the early 20th century as the pace of technological and design improvements quickened. The first recumbent bicycle – one that allows you to sit down while you pedal – appeared in France in 1914 thanks to Peugeot, a company now known more for its cars than its bikes. A recumbent bicycle was even used to set the world speed record for a human-powered vehicle in 1933, but because of its incredible speed, recumbent bicycles were banned from organized races the following year. This was ultimately a huge blow to recumbent bicycles, as this style of bicycle fell out of favor for the next 50 years after the ban.

Bianchi produced a portable folding bicycle for the Italian Army during World War I that historians point to as the origin of the mountain bike – the bicycle had pneumatic tires, a leaf spring on the bottom bracket, a suspended front fork, and a telescoping seat stay. The design was modified and improved upon in the US by Schwinn in the 1930s as the company sought to produce a durable bike that could withstand the abuse of bicycle-riding teenagers. The Excelsior frame by Schwinn was crafted from heavy-duty steel and paired with oversized wide tires, a cantilevered fame, an early version of a disc brake, and a spring-loaded fork. This, in turn, was the bicycle that early mountain bikers in California would look to for inspiration 40 years later.

Meanwhile, smaller but no less important advances in bike technology proliferated during this time. Quick release wheel hubs appeared on the market in 1930 thanks to Italian bicycle manufacturer Campagnolo. While an incremental advance, this made it significantly easier to switch between wheels and thus spurred increased development in bike wheel technology – especially in the racing sphere.

In 1938, Simplex introduced a shifting derailleur that uses cables much like modern bicycles. This represented a major improvement over preexisting shifters and began a push towards advanced shifting mechanisms. Indexed shifting on the handlebars was introduced 10 years later and remains ubiquitous on bicycles today.

In the 1950s, Campagnolo introduced the cable-operated parallelogram derailleur, a design that quickly replaced all earlier iterations of derailleurs and became the de facto standard for racing bikes until the development of the slant parallelogram derailleur in 1964 by Japanese manufacturer SunTour. The slant parallelogram derailleur is still in use on modern bicycles.

Racing into the Modern Era

After the 1950s, much of the history of bicycling revolves around racing, with highly publicized and marketed bicycle races driving a significant amount of the public market for bicycles. The Bicycling World Championships included women for the first time in 1958, and regularly included American women after American Audrey McElmury’s World Championship victory in 1969. McElmury’s win also propelled a resurgence in interest in bicycling, especially among women, in the US.

Schwinn’s Sting-Ray bike, released in 1963, provided the foundation for BMX racing, and the roots of mountain biking began to take shape just 10 years later. The first prototypes of the modern mountain bike were also developed in 1977 by a group of California bicyclists. In 1981, the iconic Stumpjumper mountain bike was launched by Specialized to market the growing popularity of mountain biking. The first full-suspension mountain bike was introduced by American Paul Turner in 1987. Turner went on to found Rock Shox, one of the most central companies in the development of mountain bikes over the past 30 years.

The 1970s also saw the introduction of faster and lighter bicycles than ever before. Teledyne first began producing titanium bicycle frames on a consumer scale in the US in 1974, while Litespeed took up the mantel and further marketed titanium frames throughout the 1980s. While titanium bicycles were popular on the racing circuit, they remained out of the price range of most recreational cyclists – and often still do today. The first carbon bike frame appeared in 1975, although early models suffered from frequent frame failures because of the lugged carbon manufacturing. The first non-lugged carbon frame was marketed by Kestrel in 1986, which marked a major turning point in the market for carbon bikes as professional cyclists could now rely on the frames to hold up during races.

With these advances, there are only a handful of small technological developments separating the bikes of the early 1980s from the bikes of today. Shimano introduced the first integrated brake and gear levers in 1990, setting the stage for modern road bike handlebars. Shimano and competitor SRAM still largely dominate the market for these components. Scott introduced the first mass-produced aero bars after a custom design had seen success in the 1984 Race Across America. Aero bar technology has continued to improve and the bars are now ubiquitous on time trial and triathlon-specific bicycles. Electronic shifting was introduced by Mavic in 1993, but the company’s electric derailleur ceased production in 2001. Shimano re-introduced electronic shifting in 2008, although this remains a component found mostly on high-end racing bikes. Disc brakes were introduced by SRAM in 1994 and have since become a standard component of mountain bikes.

Conclusion

Although we may take bikes as a given, their technological evolution is far from over. Manufacturers are constantly competing to make lighter, more aerodynamic, and stiffer frames for racing, pushing the boundaries of current manufacturing technology to further improve the speed and efficiency of bicycles. Bikes are used around the world for commuting and are currently gaining in popularity across the US and other parts of the world as people seek out greener alternatives to cars, buses, and trains. In addition, the recent rise of electric bicycles has resulted in an entirely new world of bicycling in which bicycles need not be human powered at all.

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