It is strange to think that the bicycle appeared in our lives only 200 years ago. It is even stranger when we look at one of the reasons behind this invention.In 1817 Baron Karl von Drais produced his Laufmaschine (running machine), also called the Draisienne or the mechanical horse. Oddly enough, this invention was in response to a need to find a replacement for the horse. On 10th April 1815 Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, erupted and, over the next two years, there was a slight lowering of global temperatures, causing crops to fail worldwide and, animals, such as the horse to die of starvation. In the northern hemisphere, the summer of 1816 has been called The Year Without Summer. Throughout the world there were food shortages but in Germany, in particular, food shortages, famine and riots were the order of the day.Drais’ answer to the shortage of horses was the world’s first two wheeled vehicle to be taken seriously by the public. It was made from wood, had a padded saddle and was steerable and powered by the rider’s feet pushing it along the ground. Here's a visual timeline on the evolution of bicycles from the time it first went out of the market up to 1898. In 1818 an English coach maker, Dennis Johnson, improved on Drais’ model, calling it the velocipede, the hobby horse or the swift walker. Johnson also produced a model for the ladies but it was still made from wood and powered by the rider’s feet propelling it forward. Johnson patented his invention and marketed it well and by 1819, the hobby horse, as people preferred to call Johnson’s contraption, was the all craze in London. The fashion was short lived and slowly died a death with the introduction of a £2 fine for riding on the pavement, coupled with the high cost a continuously replacing boots which powered the vehicle along the pavement. It was exceptionally difficult to ride the hobby horse on the roads, with their uneven surfaces made by the horse drawn carriages of the day.
1839 – TRUE OR FALSE?
Many history books tell us that 1839 was the next significant date in the development of today’s bicycle but there is some doubt as to the veracity of the story. Scotsman, Kirkpatrick MacMillan, is supposed to have invented a machine which was powered by a foot treadle which meant that, for the first time, feet were off the ground. However, no patent was ever registered for this machine and historians are now of the opinion that writers invented the stories in a bid to outdo the French inventions that were to follow.
There is some debate as to who invented the velocipede or bone-shaker, as it was affectionately called. In 1862 German, Karl Kech, claimed he was the first person to attach pedals to the hobby horse. However, the first patent was given to Frenchman Pierre Lallement in 1866. The steel wheels and the rigid design made it extremely uncomfortable to ride on the cobbled streets of the day, hence the name – bone-shaker. Indoor riding schools were set up in many big cities, so that people could ride on a smooth surface. It is uncertain whether Pierre Michaux saw Lallement’s bone-shaker when Lallement exhibited it in 1864 or whether Lallement worked for Pierre Michaux. Whichever way it went, Michaux appears to have started manufacturing these machines. Rich students, Aimé and René Olivier fell in love with the velocipede and in 1865 went from Paris to Avignon in just eight days. They immediately knew they needed to invest in this invention and went into silent partnership with Michaux. These were the first mass produced ‘bicycles’ ever seen in the world. The first cycle race was held in Paris in 1868 and was won by Englishman James Moore In 1869, in an attempt to soften the ride, rubber was glued to the wheels and the saddle was moved so the rider sat over the pedals. Another attempt to make riding a more comfortable occupation included making the handlebars wider and higher. To top it all, a side saddle velocipede was made for the ladies of the day. The velocipede became exceptionally popular both sides of the Atlantic, with velocipede rinks opening in up many major cities. The Franco-Prussian war ended its popularity in France and it is thought its demise in the States was due to the awful road surfaces. However, in the UK, the velocipede still continued to be enjoyed.
THE 1870s – THE HIGH WHEELED BIKE, THE PENNY FARTHING OR THE SPIDER
By now, the technology was available for the velocipede to have wire-spoked wheels and in 1871; James Starley of Coventry, England introduced the Aerial. The Aerial, high wheeled bike, the Spider, the Penny Farthing and the Ordinary are all names for the same bike invented by Starley. The exceptionally large front wheel meant an increase in speed and a more comfortable ride but you did need to have acrobatic abilities to mount it in the first place. Once on the Penny Farthing, it took a lot of practise to stay on it. The phrases “taking a header” and “coming a cropper” are said to have been coined by riders of the Penny Farthing. That said, it was exceptionally popular in Europe, the States and Australia for many years. In 1874, Starley built an ordinary for ladies to ride side saddle! However, ladies tended to prefer the tricycle and it is said that Starley presented one to Queen Victoria, whether she ever rode it, is unknown. There is controversy over whether Starley or Frenchman Eugene Meyer actually invented the wire spokes. Mass production of the ordinary was started in the States in 1878 by Albert August Pope when he produced the ‘Columbia’. Interestingly his mass production and mechanisation ideas were later taken up by Henry Ford. Riding on ordinaries was still expensive and cost six months pay for the average worker and was, therefore, only for the rich and then, mostly men.
THE 1880s AND 1890s
The race was on to produce a two wheeled vehicle which was more user friendly. The advent of the safety bicycle shifted the use of the bicycle from the domain of the adventurous young man to that of everyday use and as a means of transport. It was James Starley’s nephew who engineered the ‘Rover’ which had wheels the same size, an easily steerable front wheel and a chain drive which improved by speed and comfort. Ball bearings were introduced by 1880 at the latest and in 1902 three speed gears came into being. By 1890, the ordinary was rarely seen in Europe and the States. James Dunlop’s invention of the pneumatic tyre allowed a much smoother ride on all surfaces and there was a great improvement in the efficacy of brakes. The safety bicycle was taken up by young and old alike. Cycling instructors appeared out of the woodwork, guaranteeing excellence in as little as twelve lessons. The roads, which were previously reserved for the horse and carriage, became busy with the new found love of the bicycle. In 1896, Jerome K. Jerome’s nephew (of Three Men in a Boat fame), Frank Shorland, is purported to be the first person to have ridden a safety bicycle in London according to the book "Bicycle: The History" by David V. Herlihy, made available through Google Books. He also organised the first London to Brighton race and completed it on a Penny Farthing. However, the following year, he decided to race on a safety bicycle against all the other Penny Farthings. He won hands down. It is estimated that in the States, 200,000 bikes were manufactured in 1889 and by 1899 that had risen to 1,000,000.
1884 – AROUND THE WORLD ON A BIKE
On 22nd April 1884, 29 year old English born Thomas Stevens left San Francisco on his black-enamelled Columbia 50 inch Standard Penny Farthing with his mind set on being the first person to circumnavigate the world on a bicycle. His luggage consisted of a spare pair of socks, a shirt, a bedroll, a hand gun and a raincoat which also served as a tent. Stevens’ journey ended in Yokohama on 17th December 1886. Stevens went on to become a well known writer, explorer and London theatre manager. The Pope Company which made Stevens’ bike, kept it until the 1940s, when it was given to the government during a scrap metal drive in support of World War II. He authored the book: "Around the World on a Bicycle".
WOMEN AND CYCLING
The Victorian Lady – “A lady walks quietly through the streets, seeing hearing nothing that she ought not to, recognising acquaintances with a courteous bow and friends with words of greeting. She is always unobtrusive, never talks loudly, or laughs boisterously, or does anything to attract the attention of the passers-by. She walks along in her own quiet, lady-like way, and by her preoccupation is secure from any annoyance. A true lady in the street, as in the parlour, is modest, discreet, kind and obliging.” (Victorian Station. Lady on the Street). Added to this quote really should have been and “she most certainly doesn’t ride a bicycle.” Women’s movements were severely restricted by the heavy skirts and corsets which were the order of the day and definitely weren’t conducive to riding a bike. However, the corset was a sign of breeding and no self respecting lady would be seen without one. Those that did not wear a corset were put into the ‘ladies of disrepute’ category. It was impossible for ladies to ride a bicycle in Victorian clothing and this is where Amelia Bloomer comes into the picture. She was at the forefront of the women’s emancipation movement in the States and was totally against the corset and the heavy skirts women had to wear. The knickerbockers which those brave women wore when cycling soon became known as ‘bloomers’. The Mayor of New York banned bloomers as a “menace to the peace and good morals of the male residents of the city.” In England, the constant haranguing received by female riders, led to invention of the dropped bar and as Jerome K. Jerome tells us, “A Bishop’s wife, clothed in seemly skirts, rode on a bicycle through Leamington.” This was the beginning of a sense of personal freedom for the women of Victorian society. Feminists and suffragists in Europe and in the States embraced the bicycle as a symbol of the modern woman. American social reformer, Susan B. Anthony said, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel....the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood.”
With the advent of the motorcar and extended railways, bicycle manufacture declined and in the five years from 1900 to 1905, the industry in the States shrank from 312 to 101 manufacturers. For over fifty years, the bicycle was generally used by children in the States, although it still retained its popularity in Europe. By the 1960s adults began to use bikes for recreational purposes and by the 1980s it is estimated that there were 82 million bicycles in use in the States alone. Today it is a massive multimillion dollar industry, attracting people from all over the world. To properly close this discussion, here's a video clip showcasing vintage cyclists and cycling: