A Brief History of the Bicycle

By, Jo Carol Hebert

Which came first? The bicycle or the wheel?

3500 B.C.E. Those ancient Sumerians of present-day Iraq are credited with devising the first ‘vehicle’ wheel. (This is the same clever civilization that invented ‘writing’ on clay tablets). The wheel developed from the upright ‘potter’s wheel’, a flat, spinning disk. It was used to hand-shape bowls from wet clay that were set out to dry. Gradually, through the centuries, the sculptor’s wheel was positioned to an upright wheel attached to carts for pulling, pushing, and hauling things. 

Timeline of the Development of the Bicycle

“A bicycle is a vehicle consisting of a frame mounted on two wheels, one behind the other, and having a seat, handlebars for steering, brakes, and two pedals by which it is driven”

The discovery of the wheel was necessary before anyone could invent a ‘bicycle’. Through the ages, human-propelled riding machines with wheels were imagined, experimented with, and improved upon. The improvements were innovations of the parts of a bicycle, including: frame, tires, pedals, seats, handlebars, brakes, and wheels.

It took a world of people to develop the modern day bicycle.

15th Century (1400s). Giovanni Fontana. Italy. First human-powered land vehicle. A contraption with 4 wheels and a rope connected to wheels.

18th Century (1700s). Comte de Mede Sivrac. France. The ‘Celerifere’. First realistic bicycle design. Wooden scooter-like device with 2 equal size wheels  and a rider perched on a seat between. No steering or pedals.

19th Century (1800s) The Golden Years of the Bicycle

Baron Karl Friedrich Christian Ludwig Freiherr von Drais de Saverbraun. Germany. This man of many names and talents devised a first bicycle as an alternative to transportation dependent upon horses. He was a German aristocrat and prolific inventor who contrived  a ‘laufmaschine’ (running machine) almost entirely of wood. He attached wheels vertically to a wooden frame with a type of handlebars for steering. With no pedals, the rider sat on a padded seat and used ‘foot power’ to push it along the ground. This crude but basic concept, called the ‘draisine’, has earned him the generally accepted title of being the ‘father of the modern bicycle’. 

Patrick Macmacillan. Scotland. (This ”I invented the pedal first” distinction is challenged today by bicycle historians, who give credit for the first pedal to a series of fellow Scotsmen who pioneered the ‘pedal’: Thomas McCall, Gavin Dalsell and Philipp Moritz Fisher. A ‘blacksmith’ by trade, Macmillan contrived a wood frame velocipede (human-powered) device with an iron-rimmed wooden front wheel and smaller back wheel driven by a system of levers and pedals attached by a rod. Crowds lined up along the road – amazed – as he pedaled 14 miles with his feet ‘off the ground’.

Michaux and Lallement. France. “Carriage-makers” are credited with assembling a similar velocipede with a front wheel pedal added to the ‘laufmaschine’ design. Lallement went to the U.S. and filed the first bicycle patent in 1866. With a stiff iron frame and wooden wheels wrapped in iron rims, and rough roads, this early bicycle was called “The Boneshaker”. 

James Staley. England. Contrived a ‘high wheeler’ design called the ‘Penny Farthing’ with huge front wheels, putting the rider high off the ground. and a very small back wheel. The ‘high wheelers’ were popular, but were very hard to balance. Riders often fell over. The term “‘break neck speed’ came into the language due to the many crashes of this unstable ‘bicycle ‘wannabe’). 

John Kemp Staley. England. James Staley’s Nephew. Devised an improved model called The Rover Safety Bike. Back to the two equal size wheels. Rider perched between two equal size wheels on a seat on a diamond frame. A chain system drive from the back wheel and pedals propelled the bike. Rubber tires made a much more comfortable riding experience. The Rover, with 26” wheels, was the first model to look like today’s ‘real’ bicycle. 

20th Century (1900s) Finally, the Modern Bicycle. “Life is like riding a bike. In order to keep your balance, you have to keep moving.” Albert Einstein, Nobel Prize Winner/Physics

This age of bicycles brought continued innovations for transportation and recreational use, including: marketing bikes for kids, multiple speed gears, rubber tires, invention of the kickstand, pedal-back and coaster brakes. 

21st Century (2000s) Lighter and stronger materials like titanium and carbon fiber replaced heavy metal parts. Improvements include: more gear shifters, road bikes, mountain bikes (Joe Breeze/California), hybrids, tandems (for two or more riders, electric and solar bikes.

Did You Know?

The longest tandem bike seated 35 people and was 65 feet long.

The Wright Brothers (invented first airplane) owned a bicycle shop.

Bike racing becomes a sport in the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.

A famous ‘suffragette’ (advocate of women’s rights) said: “The bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

Types of bikes are: 1-wheel unicycle, 3-wheeled tricycle, 4-wheel quadricycle.

‘Velocipede’ means “fast feet”.

100,000 million bikes are manufactured each year.

The average bike speed is 12 miles per hour. Walking is about 3 miles per hour.

Safety First: Ride Like a Champion

B Safe. Wear a helmet.

B Prepared. Check your bike equipment, tires, and brakes.

B Seen.  Wear white or bright colors when riding. Add reflectors on your bike.

B Alert. Your bike is a vehicle, not a toy. Follow the road rules and ride defensively.

B Courteous. Respect other orders and pedestrians.   HAVE FUN!

Books About Bicycles:

Bicycles (Board Book). 2000. Gail Gibbons. History and pictures for the very young.

Franklin Rides a Bike (Franklin the Turtle Series). 1999. Paulette Bourgeois.  3-5 years.

The Red Bike: An Extraordinary Story About an Ordinary Bike. 2015. Jude Isabella and Simone Shin. 8-12 years. Cultural awareness.

Now that you know all about bicycles, why not take a “ride” over and check out our fun bicycle pdf?

Categories: History

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