With the onset of a bicycle that may reach the fabled 100 mph, let’s take a look back on the history of our favorite self propelled transportation. While there is some debate about exact dates and who is credited with what, this the general evolution of the two wheeled cycle.
Way back in 1817 Baron von Drais, a German nobleman, is credited with the earliest ancestor of the current bicycle. His invention was void of pedals and was nicknamed the “walking machine.” It was more like a large sitting scooter, which you would walk up to speed and then coast with it. It was largely a fad, because it was entirely impractical for anything but very well maintained pathways.
By the early 1860’s a French blacksmith, Michaux, attached cranks pedals to the front wheel hub and began the first company to manufacture pedaled “velocipedes” (latin for fast foot) commercially. A humorous nickname for his inventions arose around this time. Because of the cobbled streets of the time, most bicycles were called “boneshakers” and were uncomfortable to ride. Michaux also started attaching springs and leather seats in an effort to improve comfort.
No more than a couple years later, bicycles took an even more sharp turn towards modern rides when Thomas McCall attached the rotary cranks to the rear wheel using rods and levers, the early version of a chain. This innovation allows a bicycle more maneuverability.
While all of the previous models were made almost entirely of wood, the first all metal machine appeared in 1870 with the invention of the iconic “High Wheel.” With one small rear wheel and a giant front wheel, these were the first version to be called bicycles, meaning 2 wheels. The large front tire and solid rubber wheels allowed for a more comfortable ride. While popular, these rides were very unsafe due to a high center of gravity. A small rut or dog would make the rider pivot over the wheel and “take a header” as it came to be known.
After a few more large wheeled variations, metallurgy finally advanced enough to build chains and gears small and light enough for a human to power. The Safety Bike emerged as a much more practical mode of transportation. Gear ratios allowed this bike to achieve the same speeds as the big wheels. A few enduring changes were made in coming years such as the pneumatic tire and dual suspension. These changes are what made the current design of the bicycle both comfortable and practical, and very few major modifications have been made since.
Technology has progressed and allowed bicycles to become much more specialized, durable, and light. Carbon fiber, aluminum, and other materials allow for bikes that weight next to nothing. The world’s lightest bicycle just weighed in at exactly 6 lbs, a whole 2 lbs lighter than a gallon of milk. Racing, mountain, bmx, and track bicycles are just some of the types that exist now and are for entertainment as well as travel.
As we highlighted in the beginning, the science of bicycles is always improving, and is currently culminating in a bike that combines high tech materials, physics, and aerodynamic efficiency. We’ve come a long way from a wooden two wheeler that was used to get between buildings in a garden for a lazy baron.
Image courtesy of flickr.com