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The short history of bicycles (part 1)

Draisine: the invention of bicycle

Bicycles turn 200 this year. In this post I attempt to recite the whole history of bicycles. It has been a long, bumpy road from the first wooden bike to nowadays super-optimized carbonfiber frame monsters.

Bikes were invented in the early 19th century. We are not quite sure about the origins, but the first verified and documented prototype was built by Charles, Baron von Drais, of Sauerbrun in Mannheim, Germany. The first bicycle was similar to what we call running bike today. It had no drivetrain of any sort, no proper handlebars and it was carved out of wood. First they called it draisine, later on velocipede, drasienne and then it arrived to Britain and got nicknamed dandy horse. The word draisine is still in use for railbikes.

Draisine - ancient bicycle made from wood
Draisine - the first bike model. Illustration sourced from wikipedia.

Bicycles quickly gained popularity as they were much faster than anything but horses. Sadly, roads back in that time were used by horses and carriages, making roads pretty much untrespassable for bikes - the ruts carved by carriage wheels made it too hard or impossible to navigate a bike. Riders soon started to use sidewalks, which soon led to the complete ban of bicycles in many first world countries. These bans have almost completely removed bikes from the streets - and also from history.

But later on during the second industrial revolution, the idea of bikes had been revisited by several people. Pierre Michaux's bike workshop was the first to add pedals to a bike in 1863. There was still no drivetrain, pedals were directly attached to the front wheel. Enthusiasm for bikes started to pick up shortly after this in the USA. It became a new sport. In about one year, the bipedal sport fad started dying because bikes were too heavy and uncomfortable.

The ordinary - also known as penny-farthing

These huge front-wheeled vintage bikes are well known all over the world. The iconic design was invented by a frenchman Eugène Meyer in 1869, soon improved upon by James Starley by making the front wheel even larger.

Vintage bike penny-farthing mounted by men
Men riding penny-farthings. Source: wikipedia

Due to direct drive (no transfers, no gears) these huge wheels were the only solution to make bikes much faster. The downside - as you might think - is safety. It is really easy to fall over the wheel to the front, performing a so called header.

The safety bike and pneumatic tyres

Things sped up after penny-farthings gained popularity. Chains have first been used in tricycles. In 1879 Thomas Humber has developed the first chain driven bicycle. The advantages over the huge-wheeled predecessor were clear. Legs within reach of ground, no serious risk of header, lower center of gravity. There were numerous iteration of chain drives, some even tried front-wheel drive with chains. Chains were definitely a turning point. Now that bicycling became much safer, the men-dominated sport started to open for women as well.

Rover safety bike. First chain driven mass produced model.
Rover safety bike. Image from wikipedia.

A few years after chain drive technology started its domination, John Boyd Dunlop created the first pneumatic bike tyre in 1887 to provide a much smoother riding experience. Édouard Michelin improved the idea by making the tyres fastened by clamps instead of glue and made maintenance even easier. I'm sure you know the name of these guys. Their efforts to make biking better sprouted world famous tyre companies.

Bikes become main commuting vehicles, to be taken over by cars

Around 1900, bikes were so accessible, well designed and cheap that most people started using them for everyday commuting. Business deliveries, recreational riding and bike sports were on the rise. The unparallelled march of bikes in this golden era was suddenly thwarted by automobiles. Ignition engines started taking over the streets, leaving no room for bikes. Biking became a pastime for children and was mostly forgotten.

Bikes found their niche uses in the World Wars as well. British paratroopers used folding bikes to quickly maneuver after landing in enemy territory.

Folding bike paratrooper in WW2
Paratroopers in WW2 with folding bikes

Besides wars, no revolutions happened in the bike industry. We had to wait until the 1960s and 70s for the revival. Preserving the environment and preventing the congestion of roads were the main motives for this glorios return in the flower-power era.

Bike tech improvements started to speed up so much and branched off into so many small niches it's impossible to follow. But we will try - keep coming back for more articles on bike history. This does not conclude the story of bicycles. Tune back in for part 2.