Bicycle history is fascinating. As a cycling fan, you may know about modern bikes, but have you ever asked yourself: how did bikes come about and how did we get to be where we are today?
If you look at renderings of the first bicycles and compare them with what we have today you will see that we have come a long way. Through the centuries everything about the bicycle has evolved, including its component parts, speed and looks.
Why is bicycle evolution important for the bike enthusiast?
So that every time you get on your bike, you can appreciate just what you are riding. You are using a machine that has been refined by some of the most brilliant minds over the centuries. Were it not for them, maybe we wouldn’t have bikes.
Where do we start?
The first drawing of anything close to a bicycle was done by one of the greatest minds of all time, Leonardo Da Vinci in the late 15th century. He came up with a design of a two-wheeled, single-person vehicle that he called the velocipede (another word for early bicycle). His design could be accomplished using locally sourced materials but for some reason, it was never to be, and it seems that the idea of a bicycle was shelved for centuries after that.
For your own edification, the next time you want to impress your friends you can tell them about the following inventions, all credited to Leonardo Da Vinci: anemometer (used to measure wind speed), flying machine (a crude version of the modern airplane), a helicopter (he sketched aerial screws that look very much like modern helicopters), the parachute, the multi-barreled weapon, the armored car, the clock, animated robot, scuba gear and revolving bridge.
All these inventions were to become part of daily life centuries later. At the time when Da Vinci dreamed them up and sketched them, they were only crude ideas. Just like the bike, it has taken a lot of refinement over time to make these inventions what they are today.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the idea of the bike came up again, and this part of the history of the bicycle is easy to follow because, by this time, scientists were keen to document and carefully store their inventions, prototypes and thoughts.
1790 – French gentleman, Comte Mede de Sivrac invented what he called celerifere. It had 2 wheels and a wooden seat but didn’t have pedals or steering. This wasn’t a very good bike. In order to move it along the rider had to scoot his feet on the ground. As soon as his feet were off the ground he would lose balance and risk tipping over. Since the bike had no steering the rider had to lift the front of the bike every time he wanted to change direction.
1817 – Baron Karl Drais, a German decided to make alterations to the velocipede/celerifere and make it a more utilitarian vehicle. It wasn’t by chance; he was forced to do this because of prevailing circumstances. The volcanic eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 left most of Europe covered in ash which caused severe drought in most countries. As a result, many animals, including horses which were the primary means of transportation, died and people had a hard time getting around.
Baron Karl Drais invented what he called a hobby horse or Draisene. He added joints to the existing velocipede so that it could be steered. He also installed a backrest to make the rider more comfortable. His invention could travel at 15 km/h.
1839 – A Scottish blacksmith, Kirkpatrick McMillan figured out that if he attached a series of levers and treadles the Draisene would be easier to ride and could go faster without tiring the rider as much. He is credited with the invention of modern bicycles. His invention was a non-starter because the location of the treadles made it very difficult to ride. True, it was easier than earlier inventions, but still so cumbersome that not a single bike was sold.
1858 – Father and son Pierre and Earnest Michaux invented bicycle pedals which they attached to the front wheel of the bike. While this was quite a leap for the bike, the wheels were made of wood which made riding quite jarring. So much so that it was called the “bone-shaker”.
1866 – Enter Englishman, James Starley, who was able to solve the problem of both speed and ease. He introduced chains and sprockets and played around with tire sizes. In his initial design the front tire was bigger than the back, but over time and with experimentation he was able to make both tires equal and introduce other important changes: tangential spokes which made the bike more stable, bells and pneumatic tires all made for a much more stable machine which he called the bicyclette, and later on the safety bicycle.
1878 – George William Dennistoun Scott and George Henry Phillott patented the first gear-shifting mechanism for a bike.
1878 – William Grout invented the first portable bike.
1880s – The first tricycle was invented, although it is not clear by whom. It had one large front tire and two small back ones. It was designed for adults and it offered more balance and allowed people to learn to ride faster. It is around this time that tricycles for kids started coming into the market.
1888 – John Boyd Dunlop, a Scott inventor and veterinarian, invented pneumatic tires that were better at absorbing shock than existing models.
1889 – The tandem bike was born, thanks to William Starley and Herbert Owen.
1894 – The first patent for a folding bicycle was issued to Michael B. Ryan.
1896 – 1940 – as so often happens with inventions, things go slowly at first but soon there is an avalanche of ideas that improve the invention in infinite ways. During this 55 year stretch, the bicycle saw a lot of changes. They included the introduction of coaster brakes, duck brakes, the mid-drive electric bike was invented, a battery-powered rear wheel motor was invented, the velocar and cruiser bike came into being and the electric hub motor was born.
1978 – John Breeze designed and patented the mountain bike. It was a huge success and remains one of the most popular types of bikes.
1984 – Bike manufacturers introduce cogs in order to increase the speed of ordinary bikes.
1989 – The first real electric bike is invented with a battery to power the pedals and assist the rider.
2000s – Manufacturers start using lithium batteries which have a longer life.
2009 – Electronic gears for faster shifting are invented and widely marketed.
2012 – Things are looking better and better for bikes as new technology now allows riders to instantly inflate or deflate their bikes as they ride.
There are different types of bicycles and each is designed for a specific type of cyclist. Whether you want a bike to help conquer rough terrain, snow, sand, tarmac, potholes or busy city streets you will easily find it.
Bike numbers around the world are a testament to just how popular this mode of transportation has become.
- More than half of all the people on planet earth know how to ride a bike.
- Denmark is the most bike-friendly bike country in the word; 9 out of every 10 people own a bicycle and use it regularly.
- There are more than 1 billion bikes in the world.
- Most of them are in China, which is home to 450 million bicycles.
- There are more than 100 million bikes in the US.
- Europe is the most bike-friendly continent, and in some countries, many people cycle rather than drive.
From the invention of the first bicycle, bikes have come a very long way. Almost everything about them has evolved over the years. The first bikes didn’t have pedals or even treadles, which were introduced much later. They didn’t have a steering mechanism and the only way to get them to turn was to lift them.
Over time, bikes gained essential components that made them easier to ride. Today, there are bikes that do all the cycling for you (e-bikes). There are bikes that are great for use on sand while others are best used in snow. Some bikes are designed to tackle potholes while others can handle trails quite well. There are bikes for smooth city riding, bikes for kids, bikes for speed demons, bikes for busting cool tricks – you name it, it exists.
Bicycle history and bicycle evolution have allowed us to enjoy the widest array of bikes the world has ever seen.
Whatever your riding preferences or terrain, you will find a bicycle that suits your needs perfectly.