Evolution of the bicycle

How we learnt to get on our bikes

The name bicycle was coined in 1869 but bicycle-like machines were built much earlier in this century. The walking machine of 1817 didn’t have pedals, but did have a steerable handlebar and was used throughout Europe. In Britain they were known as ‘hobby horses’.

Before pedals and chain drives, Kirkpatrick Macmillan invented a push rod system for propelling his bicycle. You had to push your feet up and downwards to drive the rear wheel. The introduction of pedals on the velocipede kick-started the evolution of today’s bicycle. One turn of the pedals equalled one turn of the bicycle wheel, making the rider pedal furiously to obtain any speed. To overcome this problem the high wheel bicycle had the pedals attached to a large wheel, so that the bicycle covered a far greater distance on one turn of the pedals.

By the end of the 19th Century tricycles and safety bicycles featured many new innovations; lighter steel-tubed frames, brakes, pneumatic tyres, metal-link chains that connected the pedals to a  toothed sprocket on the rear wheel and gearing systems that employed several different sized sprockets to change the ease or difficulty of turning the pedals.

These technological innovations enabled urban dwellers to commute or travel to the countryside more efficiently and quickly. In particular, bicycles gave women far greater independence. In the Thirties, a combination of lower production costs and rising wages made bicycles much more  affordable for the working classes and their recreational use began to increase.

Riding the timeline

1817- Walking machine

Invented by Baron von Drais in 1817. You sit in the middle of two similar sized wheels, and roll along by walking on the ground.

1865- Velocipede

In 1865 crank-driven pedals were fitted on the front wheel of a walking machine-like bicycle. It was very bumpy to ride.

1868- Pedal bicycle

Pierre Michaux formed a company that was the first to produce bicycles with pedals on a large scale.

1870- High wheel

In 1870 came this machine. The rider sat above the large wheel, which had pedals on the front wheel to propel it forwards.

1880- Safety bike

Stronger metal frames and the use of chains and gears made same- sized two wheeled bicycles more viable in the 1880s.

1960- Racing bicycle

For maximum aerodynamic performance they feature lightweight frames, drop handlebars and fine gearing.

1970- Mountain bike

Developed for off-track racing. To cope with rugged terrain they have either front or rear suspension.

(Images credit: AI2)


This article was originally published in How It Works issue 9


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