Brief History of Bicycles
Bicycles have a quite varied history. They've been around for almost two hundred years currently, and they have evolved significantly during that time. The primary bicycles were designed totally different and weren’t nearly as comfortable as now. Within the below timeline, I have picked out what I thought to be the biggest, most interesting aspects of the bicycle's history to give you some idea of what they've been, so you can be properly amazed by what they are now.
1817—Draisienne or the "Running Machine": Invented by Barn Karl von Drais, Germany. In the modern sense of the word, this machine was less like a bicycle. It did have a typical bicycle frame and two wheels, but it was propelled by walking (apparently the bicycle allowed additional of a gliding walk), as opposed to peddling.
1860s—Velocipede or Boneshaker: Two-wheeled bicycle with pedals and cranks on the front wheel. It was known as the bone shaker owing to the combination of a wood frame and metal tires made for an awfully uncomfortable ride over cobblestone streets.
1870s—High-wheeled bicycle: One of the primary models to be known as a "bicycle" (after its two wheels). The high wheel allowed the rider to travel farther with a single rotation of the pedals. Moreover, a metal frame and rubber tires provided a more comfortable ride than the boneshaker.
1885—Rover Safety bicycle: Invented by John Kemp Starely, England; Featured a strong enough metal to make a chain, plus it had two same-sized wheels and a similar frame to today’s bicycles.
1888—Pnuematic tires: Invented by John Boyd Dunlop, Ireland; Develops air-filled tires that provide a smoother ride than the previously used hard-rubber tires.
1920s—Kid's bicycles become popular.
1940s—Built-in kickstands developed.
1960s—Racing bicycles become popular and feature dropped handlebars, narrow tires, numerous speeds and a lighter frame.
1980—Spurred by mountain biking and extreme sports, mountain bicycles become a popular consumer item and feature sturdier frames, larger wheels and flat handlebars.
1996—Mountain bicycles appear in the Olympics.
Brief History of Bicycle Design and Innovation
Bike building history has a fair number of interesting details you might not expect. A gentleman named Baron von Drais crafted a wooden seat between two wheels in 1817 and started pushing himself around his gardens. So it began.
When you think of very old bikes the picture that probably comes to mind is of a very large front wheel with pedals attached. Interestingly, that was already a third or fourth generation of a design that started more like today's bike. The original design was two wheels of the same diameter and a seat in the middle. But that first iteration had no propulsion system beyond the Baron pushing his feet against the ground.
From there, bikes went on to go from a wooden design to metal with pedals attached to the front wheel. The size of the front wheel grew as builders deduced that the larger wheels could propel you further per rotation. The big problem with this tall bike design was that with the rider so high that the center of gravity lent itself to sending the rider head first over the handlebars far too often.
While two wheel bikes were for the men, women were riding the more innovative design of the day. Tricycles were actually the first bikes to have innovative features like hand brakes, rack and pinion steering, and suspension systems to smooth the ride.
As metallurgy afforded builders with the strength to work up chains and sprockets, the innovations from the tricycle made their way into bicycle design and we started to see the bikes that are familiar to us today.
Another interesting fact is that kids’ bikes didn't come into production until after the First World War The department store chains were the big dealers at this point with Sears and Montgomery Ward leading the way. The designs of this early period often had elements to make them look more like the cars and motorcycles of the day to appeal to kids. Those elements added a lot of weight but kids didn't mind as long as they looked cool.
Today, there are bikes for every niche market you can think of and the innovations are still coming. The roundabout history of bike building is still unfolding with innovations that are starting to link the rider to the bike with electronics usually reserved for motor vehicles. In fact, with the world becoming more conscious of the environment, small motors are in fact making their way into bikes.
Tomorrow’s bike won't be untouched by the rise of computers, that much is certain. The science of propulsion and physics are benefiting from that rise as much as every other area of engineering so bikes will no doubt see more change to come.