A Short History of the Birth of Bicycling - Doug Barnes

Friday, November 30, 2018

A Short History of the Birth of Bicycling

Cartoon of Velocipede Cycling Class, NYC 1869
Figure 1. Cartoon of a Velocipede Riding School in New York, 1869
(Source: Harpers Weekly 1869)

The adults in the bicycle riding class wobbled, crashed and generally felt out of control. Due to a new-fangled invention called the velocipede, in the late 1860s a host of new classes sprang up to teach adults how to ride a bicycle (figure 1). Mastering the awkward, heavy riding machines required the novel ability to balance on two wheels. It was a new experience for those who generally walked, rode horses or moved about in carriages.

Today most adults know how to ride a bicycle, having learned to balance at an early age. One way to ease the out-of-control feeling for children new to bicycling is to use training wheels. Unfortunately, this delays the learning of balance, a skill critical for riding a bike. A better way is to take off the pedals, put down the seat and let the kids scoot. Once they get up to speed, they can lift their legs and coast. During this coasting phase, all the principles of balancing a bicycle come into play. The bicycle eventually wants to turn. Young kids quickly learn to compensate by slightly steering and leaning in the opposite direction to stay in a straight line. Before long they’re riding like pros.

This scooting of bicycles by kids without pedals precisely mimics the history of the bicycle. In 1817, the velocipede was invented. Riding the velocipede involved straddling two wheels, putting your feet on the ground and then pushing the machine forward in a walking or running motion. It would take 50 years for inventors to attach cranks and pedals to the front wheel. It was not until the 1860s that riders were finally able to ride their bikes with their feet off the ground, and the resulting rising popularity of the new velocipede spurred a host of new adult bicycle classes.

The Draisine: No Pedals, No gears

Karl von Drais was a prolific inventor. Before building the first bike he invented a device for recording music, a stenograph and a four-wheel human-powered cart (Herlihy 2004). He was born into an aristocratic family in Karlsruhe, Germany. He couldn't protect most of his inventions during most of his life because patents applied only to small regions. Always fascinated with human-powered travel, in 1813 he modified a four-wheel cart to be driven by twisting a crank. The cart required several people to operate and was unwieldy. It along with similar inventions during the early 1800s never became popular. For a while, Drais was discouraged and gave up on the concept of achieving a popular human-powered vehicle.

That would soon change. Through trial and error, he stumbled across an idea that would make him known as the first inventor of two-wheel travel. His new invention was based on a radical new idea. He discovered that once up to speed, a machine with two wheels in line could achieve balance (Penn 2010). After this discovery, in 1817 Karl von Drais publicized his new invention and called it a laufsmaschine or the running machine (Herlihy 2004). During this time the new two-wheeled human-powered machine was not called a bicycle. Gaining popularity among elites in Parise, in 1818 Drais called the machine a velocipede, which loosely translated from French means “swift of foot.” (Guroff 2016 p. 7; Herlihy 2004 p. 23).

The two-wheeled machine that he invented came with a seat, a steering mechanism and a crude brake (figure 2). Riders would sit in the seat and run along the ground and propel the machine with two small wagon wheels forward. This first popular human-powered vehicle was made almost entirely of wood, with the exception of the two miniature wagon wheels. The idea was the rider would use each leg to alternatively propel the machine forward by simulating a running or walking motion. This had an advantage over walking and running because in between strokes the rider could coast on two wheels.

Figure 2. 1817 Draisine and Karl von Drais publicizing the Velocipede, 1830.
(Photos: Deutsches Museum; Wikipedia Commons)
This innovative machine also could drift downhill, saving riders from having to use their feet for propulsion. Sometimes pegs were fitted to the front so the riders could rest their feet during coasting. At the bottom of the hill, the rider would resume the running or walking cadence. Of course, at over 40 to 50 pounds there was no energy savings pulling all this weight uphill.

It was given the name Draisine after its owner. To prove the usefulness of the new bicycle, Drais showed off its capability to the public. In 1817 Drais covered 9 miles in less than an hour. This was followed by a 50-mile trip the next year. Local writers at the time stated, “Next comes the Velocipede, a substitute for the horse. By the slightest pressure of his foot upon the ground, the machine is propelled and bears the rider…at the rate of seven or eight miles an hour” (quoted in Herlihy 2004). Comments like this and the dapper look of many riders was the source for an alternative name for the new invention. It was called a dandy or hobby horse.

In 1818 Drais patented the machine in both Germany and France. Despite the regional patents, the drawings of the machine became widely reproduced. The invention quickly migrated as the plans spread from mainland Europe to England and also to the United States. A prominent artist Charles Peale in Philadelphia had a velocipede made in a local blacksmith shop from plans obtained from an English publication. He and his sons created a spectacle in local parks.

A local journalist who happened to be in the vicinity of Washington Square saw one of the Peale’s velocipedes and gave chase. He called it a “curious machine” and then wrote, “before I had time to look round it passed like lightning” and “the rider seemed to sit with as much ease as if in an elbow chair. (quoted in Herlihy 2004, p. 40-41)”

In nearby Yale the entrepreneur John Mix for a short while had a business to rent out velocipedes. In his advertisement, he states, “The machines move at the rate of 6 to 10 or 12 miles an hour, according to the peculiarities of the road traveled, and the dexterity of the rider. The agreeable and moderate exercise they afford helps promote digestion, invigorate the corporeal system, ensure health to those who are indisposed: and thus save the doctor’s, druggist’s and horsekeeper’s bills. (quoted in Herlihy 2004 p. 41)”

The novelty of the velocipede eventually wore off. The machine never was used as practical transportation. Instead, it was relegated to riding in parks for exercise and on tracks for racing. Enthusiasm for the machine eventually faded. A series of other two-, three- and four-wheeled human-power vehicles were invented during the early 1800s, but nothing came of those inventions. It was not until 50 years later that a new more viable form of two-wheeled transportation began to appear on public streets.

The Bone Shaker: Pedals Attached to Front Wheels

After almost exactly 50 years, the scooting of bicycles was dealt a death blow by a new innovation. The breakthrough was the attachment of a pedal and crank to the front wheel. Several inventors came up with this idea at approximately the same time and there is a controversy over who became the first inventor of the bicycle. In 1865 in Paris, Pierre and son Ernst Michaux, the Oliver brothers, and Pierre Lallement all claimed to be inventors of the bicycle. Lallement even may have been employed in the workshop of Michaux. Around the time when the front-wheel crank bicycle was invented, they all knew one another quite well . As a result, it has been hard for historians to sort out who among them actually invented the bicycle.

Lallement migrated to the United States in 1856 and carried with him the new designs of the velocipede. He was the first person to apply for a patent for the new machine. However, the title assigned to the patent is “Improvement to Velocipedes,” calling into question whether this qualified as the original patent for the bicycle. Several other later US Patents exist for modifying the velocipede. In his application for US patent No. 59,915 (figure 3), Lallement describes the bicycle in terms that are very understandable even today:
My invention consists in the arrangement of two wheels, the one directly in front of the other, combined with a mechanism for driving the wheels, and an arrangement for guiding; which arrangement also enables the rider to balance himself upon the two wheels. The rider, first setting the carriage upright…seats himself upon the saddle...giving a forward movement to·the.carriage...by his feet in contact with the earth...If the carriage is inclined to lean to the right, turn the wheel…which throws the carriage over to the left...Thus, the carriage is maintained in an upright position, and driven with great velocity by means of the cranks in the.forward wheel...By this construction of a velocipede, after a little practice the rider is enabled to drive the same at an incredible velocity, with the greatest ease. (US Patent Office 1866)
Figure 3. US Patent of Bicycle, 1866:P. Lallement riding Velocipede in Paris, 1870
(Photo: US Patent Office 1866 [Modified]; Public Domain)
The nickname of the new invention was “the boneshaker.” Given the state of roads and lack of suspension, the ride was jarring. With the exception of the seat, the bicycle has nothing to absorb the shocks of the poor roads. The wheels were a derivation of wagon wheels. They had wooden spokes and rims. A metal strip was stretched around the rim to prevent wear of the wagon wheel and also to hold the wheel together. The frame was rigid and transmitted shocks directly to the rider.

On the earlier Draisines, the riders briefly would have their weight on their feet. With the new bicycle, the feet were of the ground and all the way forward pedaling the front wheel. As a consequence, the rough roads transmitted shocks directly to the bottom of the rider with only the intervention of the seat.

Meanwhile, in France, the Oliver brothers and Pierre Michaux set up shop and became business partners. The Oliver brothers provided the capital for producing bikes. Michaux and his son Ernst provided most of the technical expertise for modifying the velocipedes and made them suitable for mass production. Pierre Michaux oversaw all technical aspects of the bicycle’s development and also publicized them as well (figure 4). The Oliver brothers were responsible for ramping up production of these machines which contributed to their popularity. Eventually, Michaux and the Oliver brothers squabbled over the invention.

The intrigue over who invented the bicycle is probably a moot point as Michaux, Lallement and the Oliver brothers all worked together for a short period before the production and patenting of the bicycle. In one way or another, they all probably contributed to the invention of the bicycle.

Two Pictures of Pierre Michaux's Velociped Invention, 1867
Figure 4. Pierre Michaux and his new Velocipede Invention, 1867 and 1870
(Photos: Smithsonian Museum; Public Domain)
The first models of the new Velocipede were made out of cast iron were prone to failure. The cast iron no doubt provided a rigid frame, but it was prone to cracking. As a consequence, within a few years, the bicycles were being produced out of wrought iron. This material bends and is less prone to failure in an accident.

The newly designed bicycle was instantly popular. According to Harper’s Weekly (1868 p. 571):
Young Paris is now carried away by the rage for velocipedes; and these machines are now the crowning nuisance of the grand, new avenues of the great City…Sometimes an enthusiast may be seen flashing through the streets… puffing and rushing like a railway trail…The Parisians scarcely know whether to laugh or scowl at this new rage.
The attachment of the pedal and cranks to the front wheel transformed the velocipede popularized by Drais and turned it into a true bicycle. The advantage of the bicycle over the Draisine was pretty obvious. According to an article in the New York Times, the new 1860s version of the bicycle could go as fast as 12 miles per hour, giving the rider the appearance of “flying through the air" (Herlihy 2004 p. 78). According to Scientific American (1869, p. 282), the new bicycle spurred new industries, economic benefits and improved health. In 1869 they published that:
Every manufacturer--manufacturers have sprung up like mushrooms--has his hands full. Any man whose productions are trustworthy has to enter his orders and demand a month or six weeks' delay an elastic convention stretching indefinitely. Velocipedes have become a rage. Everybody talks of them. Athletes and gymnasts led the way, and now you see them in the hands of old, young, serious, and gay. Employees of commerce ride down to business on them in the morning, and home at night. They stable them during the day in obscure nooks of warehouses, in yards, or cupboards. They fly over the ground at race-horse speed, and their hobby horse takes no more expensive feed than the occasional goutte in the patent greaser. Thus, they economize time and omnibus fares. The faculty have pronounced it a sanitary exercise...The house of Michaux...already have 150 workman going as hard as they can.
The new bicycle spurred a flurry of new inventions. The serpentine velocipede gave way to a straighter frame. The reason was that the serpentine frames were not as strong. The bikes also took on the nickname “Bone Shaker,” because of their rigid carriage wheels and lack of suspension.

John Shire of Detroit tried to fix this problem with the design of a new hammock style seat along with several other adjustments to the velocipede frame. He lists himself as a carriage maker until 1877. But in 1878 he became a bicycle manufacturer and in 1879 received a US Patent for an “Improvement in Velocipedes.”

In the patent application he states, “The invention consists, first, in the peculiar construction and application of the spring; second, in the construction and adaptation of the seat, so that it is brought into close proximity to the driving-wheel, thus allowing a wheel of greater diameter to be used than when constructed in the ordinary manner.” The sloping front fork on this bicycle probably also improved its riding stability. This bike and seat are on display at Bicycle Heaven Museum in Pittsburgh, Pa. (figure 5).
Bicycle Patent and picture of Original Biycle by John Shire
John Shire's Bicycle US Patent and Boneshaker Bicycle, 1879
(Photo: US Patent office 1879 [modified] and Doug Barnes Image from Bicycle Heaven Museum)

The late 1800s and the Bicycle Tinkerers

The basic shape and concept of the bicycle had been firmly established as a means for recreation, exercise and transportation. After its invention in the 1860s, the velocipede continued to be improved over the coming decades. At first, the bicycle became a popular racing machine and the need for speed issued in the era of the high wheeler. The large wheels effectively increased the gear ratio and allowed for greater speeds.

This trend towards larger wheels continued until they became so big that the bicycle was impossible to mount. In the late 1800s came innovations such as the use of gears and chains, the incorporation of brakes in hubs, the invention of the rubber tire and the safety bicycle utilizing a diamond frame (Berto 2017).

The Draisine or laufsmachine and the pedal velocipede were the first machines to have riders balancing on two wheels in line. These heavy, unwieldy machines nicknamed as The Mechanical Horse (Guroff 2016) ushered in a new era of mobility that was a precursor to the decline of the horse and buggy. The bicycle eventually would be overshadowed by steam engines, cars and trucks, but the invention of two-wheelers predates them by 50 years.

The problems with the design of the Draisine and the pedal velocipede eventually meant new designs would replace them. From the 1870s to the late 1890s there was extensive innovation in bicycle design. The bicycle was transformed through the addition of chains, gears, rubber tires, adjustable spoke wheels and coaster brakes. An example of all these innovations coming together was the Wright Brothers bicycles built just before they became obsessed with building the first flying machine. All the new designs of the latter 1800s would be built on the foundation provided by the inventors of the Draisine and the pedal velocipede.

The industrial revolution transformed the world from an agrarian to a mechanized society with more diverse means of production. The mechanical innovation that produced the bicycle was a part and parcel of the dramatic social and cultural changes taking place due to the industrial revolution. The bicycle along with the steam locomotive were among the first products of the new age to transform transportation.


Berto, Frank. 2017. The Dancing Chain: History and Development of the Derailleur Bicycle. 5th edition. San Francisco: Cycle/Van de Plas.

Brown, Sheldon. 2018. “Derailer, Not Derailleur” Sheldon Brown’s Bicycle Technical Information Website. www.SheldonBrown.com. Accessed 2018.

Guroff, Margaret. 2016. The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Harper’s Weekly. 1868. “Paris on Velocipedes.” New York: Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 5, p. 571.

Harper’s Weekly. 1869. “Scene in a Velociped Riding School, New York City.” New York: Harper’s Weekly, February 18, p. 189.

Herlihy, David. 2004. Bicycle: The History. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Penn, Robert. 2010. It's All about the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels. New York: Bloomsbury.

Scientific American. 1869. "Velocipede Notes." Scientific American, Vol. 20, May 1, p. 282.

Smithsonian Museum Bicycle Collection. 2018. “The Development of the Velocipede.” National Museum of American History, Washington, DC. Accessed 2018.

United States Patent Office. 1866. “Improvement in Velocipedes.” Letters Patent No. 59,915 by Pierre Lallemont, US Patent Office, Washington, DC.

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