Skip to main content

The History of Bicycles

Today, bicycles are a fairly common, even unremarkable sight. What’s more, the design of bicycles has remained relatively fixed over the last hundred-plus years. Notwithstanding minor differences between different types of bicycles (for example, a racing bike versus a mountain bike), almost all bicycles have the same basic anatomy. 

This wasn’t always the case, though. When bicycles were first invented, they marked a radical change in personal transportation, which up until that point had been cumbersome and costly. However, the first bicycles looked much different than they do today, and even went by different (and highly entertaining) names. Here, we’ll steer you through a brief but fascinating history of the bicycle, one that’s sure to leave your brain’s gears spinning. 

The First Non-Bicycle

Opinions vary as to when the first true bicycle made its debut in the world; however, we would be remiss if we didn’t credit the proto-bicycle from which modern bikes evolved. In the 15th century, an Italian engineer named Giovanni Fontana created what is believed to be “the first human powered land vehicle.” Although Fontana’s invention had four wheels and no pedals, it remains significant because it operated on the same basic mechanical principle as modern bikes, with a rope connecting its gears to wheels. 

The Rise of the Velocipede

True bicycle history began with Karl von Drais’s invention in 1817. Von Drais was a German baron, and sources differ as to the ostensible purpose of his laufmaschine (or running machine). Some say it was intended to speed the baron’s progress as he patrolled the nearby forest belonging to the Duke of Baden, while others claim that he was trying to give farmers an alternate means of plowing their fields without having to rely on horses. (The previous year had seen widespread crop failure, and many horses had died or been killed as a result of the subsequent food shortage.)

Von Drais’s running machine was also known by a number of other names, including the swiftwalker, velocipede, hobby-horse, and draisine. In design, it was remarkably similar to modern balance bikes. It had no pedals or gears, and riders propelled themselves by walking or running while straddling the bike’s seat. Notably, the bike was made of iron and wood (making it remarkably heavy), and although it did have handlebars for the rider to hold on to, they didn’t turn and thus weren’t capable of steering. 

Beware the Boneshaker

The mid-1800s saw an explosion of different types of bicycles, the most notable of which was the development of the first two-wheeled bicycle with pedals in the early 1860s. It’s unclear who exactly is to be credited for this invention, but historians tend to believe it was either French inventor Pierre Lallement or blacksmith Pierre Michaux and his brother Ernest. 

This iteration of the bicycle was nicknamed the boneshaker for the rough, bumpy ride that users were bound to have. The boneshaker was also made predominantly of wood and iron, with the result that it did a poor job of cushioning jolts or bumps in the road. Unlike modern bicycles, the pedals on the boneshaker were attached to the front wheel, rather than attached to the frame in between the two wheels. 

Penny Farthing for Your Thoughts?

It would be with the penny farthing, the next model in the evolutionary lineage of bicycles, that bicycling as a sport and pastime skyrocketed in popularity, with bicycle clubs and races springing up in many places. The penny farthing was notable in that by 1870, when it was invented, metallurgy had advanced enough to make bicycle frames out of lighter metals, making it much less heavy than its predecessors. 

The penny farthing’s distinguishing characteristic was its extremely large front wheel, which was intended to help give the bike more stability. However, to accommodate the size of the front wheel, the seats of penny farthings were extremely high—around four feet off the ground. This made it extremely difficult to mount, and meant that riders had a long way to fall if they lost their balance. 

Safety (Bicycle) First

In 1885, Englishman John Kemp Starley created the Rover safety bicycle. In design, the Rover bicycle has most of the defining qualities of modern bicycles, including front wheel steering, a chain drive to the rear wheel, and wheels that were equal in size. Several years later, pneumatic wheels (also known as tires) would enter the scene. It was the Rover that made bicycles more accessible to the general public, including women, and usage of bicycles exploded following its introduction. 

Bicycles: A Transportation Revolution

In discussing the history of bicycles, it’s important to note that the bicycle’s true significance was as much about the potential for independent travel it offered as the technological innovations by which it was shaped. Until the bicycle was widely available, transportation was difficult, cumbersome, expensive, or all three. The increasing popularity of bicycles also led to improvements in road infrastructure and conditions and, eventually, the invention of the car. 

All Kids Bike is a national movement dedicated to bringing the mental and physical benefits of bike riding to every kid in America. Led by the Strider Education Foundation, our mission is to make bicycling skills an integral part of kids’ elementary school education. Our Kindergarten PE Program provides the curriculum, bikes, and safety equipment needed to teach every kindergartner how to ride at no cost to the school itself.

All Kids Bike and the Strider Education Foundation depend on generous contributions from the community to do the important work that we do. Consider donating to a school in your area to support our vision of making this milestone skill accessible to children across the country. Contact us to learn more!