Bicycle History – The 19th Century

I’m a history buff, so it was only natural for me to eventually get around to learning a bit about the history of cycling.   I have quickly discovered that much of cycling’s earliest history is hopelessly mired in unprovable theories involving Leonardo di Vinci and other lesser-known characters of the Middle Ages.  It’s all interesting stuff, but difficult to summarize in a blog post.  I shall therefore pick up the story in the 19th Century, where things crystallize a bit.

The first verifiable two-wheeled vehicle powered by a person who was required to use his balance and own muscles to power it was known as the Draisine.  It was built in 1817 by Baron Karl von Drais of Germany.  The bike weighed about 48 pounds, was made entirely of wood, and could travel about eight miles an hour.  It was a somewhat useful alternative to the horse, which was a good thing as much of the horse population of Europe had just starved to death due to a crop failure.

Little changed in the next few decades.  Some Scots fiddled with the design in somewhat murky circumstances, but nothing really caught on until the 1860s when the velocipede (or Boneshaker, as it was known in England) was introduced.  This bike featured pedals attached directly to the front wheel and thus was a major improvement over the Draisine, which required the operator to propel it by pushing off the ground.

The major problem with the Boneshaker was that pedals attached directly to the wheel meant the top speed was limited by the size of that wheel.  Enter the Penny Farthing and its massive front wheel.  This bike featured a lighter frame and was built for speed.  Its popularity spread from England throughout the empire and made inroads into Europe.  In America, the most popular areas were Boston and New York City.  Due to its geometry, it was prone to any number of mishaps and was therefore used primarily by young men interested in racing and willing to take a risk.

15 years later in the awkwardly nicknamed “Gay 90s,” cycling became mainstream with the invention of the Safety Bicycle.  This machine featured a chain-drive system attached to the rear wheel and thus took the shape of today’s modern bicycle.  The large front wheel was no longer needed to achieve high speeds and thus this bike could be operated by people of all ages and genders.  This was cycling’s Golden Age.  Millions of these machines were produced, leading to large bicycle companies, bicycle magazines, and bicycle clubs.  Racing events were extremely popular, with events ranging from short sprints to marathons on oval tracks lasting several days.  Over 100,000 people joined the League of American Wheelmen.  Clubs such as these were responsible for greatly increasing the amount of paved roads for bicycle use.  In so doing, they helped create the conditions which would usher in the automobile just a few years later.

There are several interesting characters during the turn of the century, which I hope to get into in future posts.  In America, the post-WWI era began a Dark Age for cycling which did not fundamentally change until the 1970s.  But that’s a story for another post!

Bicycle Demo!  Check out this video to see the Boneshaker, Penny Farthing, and Safety Bicycle, including a demonstration of how to mount and dismount the Penny Farthing.  I might try this on one of my bikes – not!


13 thoughts on “Bicycle History – The 19th Century

  1. Pingback: A Little Bicycle History « Rev Rider

  2. Great piece, my town of Birmingham has a history replete of old cycle manufacturers. All gone now unfortunatley. I actually work just around the corner from the still in business Brooks Saddle factory.

    • I’ve heard great things about Brooks saddles, just like what Ponderingpaster reports. I’ve never actually used or seen one and I’ve always been very happy with the stock saddles on both of my bikes. I realize this makes me very unusual and I sometimes wonder what I’m missing out on.

  3. We used to have a guy in our area who rode a penny farthing in a lot of the local charity rides. Watching him ride, two things came to mind: 1) That thing was a lot of work! Without a freewheel or brakes, it was basically like riding an out of control fixie all the time. 2) He could get on and start pretty easily, but stopping and dismounting was always kind of scary to watch.

    I never had a desire to give it a try!

  4. It’s so fun to get your blog entries each time you post. The video is great. The links to other blogs of interest keep me occupied sometimes too.

  5. Do you recall the source of your photo of the safety bicycle? I’m looking for an image like this to use with a blog post about cycling history. Thank you.

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