A Condensed History of the Bicycle - Part One-the 1800's

Jerry Skurla


Birthed by a Big Bang In April 1815 Mount Tambora in modern-day Indonesia erupted so powerfully that it became the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. Its enormous ash cloud joined residual ash in the atmosphere from 5 other volcano eruptions from 1808 through 1814, and tipped the world’s climate into a “volcanic winter.”
This caused “The Year Without a Summer” in 1816, which was an agricultural disaster worldwide. In Europe the food riots of 1816 and 1817 were the highest levels of social violence seen since the French Revolution. Animals were impacted as well, with horses starving and dying in huge numbers for lack of feed.
Invention in Germany
This lack of horses spurred German civil servant Karl Drais to develop a human powered form of transportation - the Laufmachine - which Drais took on its first run on June 12, 1817. He covered eight miles in less than one hour. His wooden, 48 pound machine combined the three main principles of the bicycle - methods of propulsion, steering, and balance. The rider progressed by pushing with their feet while steering with the handlebar for balance.
Also know as a draisine, it had two wooden wheels with radial spokes connected to curved sections called “fellows,” which were butted together and secured with a thin iron “tire.” These old tech wheels were first seen on Egyptian chariots almost 4,000 years earlier, and were still going strong through the late 1800s.
Pedal power from France While draisines provide work for Europe’s cobblers, riders were eager to go faster. In 1839 a Scottish blacksmith devised a rear-wheel-driven machine powered by hanging cranks linked to pedals via connecting rods, but it was too complex and unreliable.
Inventors focusing on simply attaching cranks and pedals to front wheels were more successful, and in 1867 French blacksmith Pierre Michaux began production of his front-wheel drive pedal velocipedes on an industrial scale. It featured a curvy, cast-iron frame with a leather saddle, mounted via an elongated spring to provide suspension to offset the jolts of the road. The front wheel was slightly larger - around 36 inches in diameter - than the rear. Braking occurred by twisting the handlebars to active a leather strap, which pushed a brake block against the rear wheel.
 Demand for these “boneshakers” took off in Europe, and adventurous cyclists soon pedaled the 300 miles from Paris to Lyon and competed in the first velocipede races.
Metal makes “ordinary” bicycles possible.
To go faster velocipedes needed larger diameter drive wheels, so more ground could be covered with each spin of the pedals and the ride could be smoother. In the late 1800s advances in metallurgy provided new technologies like hollow frame tubes and wire-spoked wheels. In 1869 Paris-based mechanic Eugene Meyer patented the all metal suspension wheel, which used the new wire spokes in a traditional radial design, and is considered the creator of the first commercially successful high wheel bicycle.
Know as ordinaries or penny-farthings, these were simpler, lighter, faster, and more durable than velocipedes. Solid rubber tires were fitted to help with traction, and ordinaries became extremely popular with athletes, adventurers and risk-takers. However ordinary riders were quite high above the ground and falls and “headers” were frequent and painful, discouraging many potential cyclists from trying them.
Da Vinci’s sketch and chain drive

Leonardo Da Vinci sketched in detail what appears to be the first steel chain and roller bearing circa 1490.  However it took until the 19th century and new metal technologies before steel chain and bearings became a reality.

Inventors saw that two toothed cogs linked together with a chain could provide propulsion. And if a larger diameter cog had cranks and pedals attached, and a smaller diameter cog was mounted on a wheel, one pedal rotation would yield more than one rotation of the wheel.


This multiplier effect meant that with proper gearing a rear-wheel drive bike could cover the same distance per pedal stroke as a high wheeler without a dangerously large front wheel.  In 1880 Swiss engineer Hans Renold invented the efficient and durable bush roller chain, making rear-wheel drive bicycles both possible and practical. 

England and Scotland provide the first modern bicycle

In 1874 UK inventor James Starley was the first to patent the tangent-spoke designed wheel, where the spokes run as a tangent to the hub, cross each other, and then are laced to improve strength. This design makes bicycle wheels lighter, and stronger to withstand bumps and potholes, and is still used today.


In 1885, John Kemp Starley - nephew of James Starley - made history when he introduced the Rover Safety Bicycle. The Rover was a rear-wheel-drive, chain-driven cycle with two similar-sized wheels, so it was stabler than high wheeler designs but still as fast or faster.  Real comfort was provided by Scotsman John Boyd Dunlop’s pneumatic tires - created in 1887, race proven in 1889 and commercially available in 1889.  See Dunlop on his smooth-riding "safety" below.

So by the turn of the century the foundation of the modern bicycle was laid.  This design proved its speed, efficiency and durability in 1898 at the first ever one-day classic - Paris-Roubaix.  The 174 mile race was won by Josef Fischer of Germany in 9 hours and 17 minutes at an average speed of 18.7 mph.
Coming in April: Part Two - the 1900's