Bikes - An Illustrated History

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The Earliest Bicycle - 1790

The celerifere - one of the earliest bike prototypes - had no pedals or steering.
The celerifere - one of the earliest bike prototypes - had no pedals or steering. Library of Congress

The first contraption that can realistically be said resembles a bicycle was constructed around 1790 by Comte Mede de Sivrac of France. Called a celerifere, it was a wooden scooter-like device with no pedals or steering. A similar model, improved with a steering mechanism attached to the front wheel, was created in 1816 by German Baron Karl von Drais de Sauerbrun. He called it a Draisienne, after himself, though popular parlance also dubbed it the hobby horse.

When using either of these devices, the rider perched on a seat between two wheels similarly sized wheels, and using the feet, propelled the bicycle a bit like a the "balance bikes" kids ride today, Drais exhibited his bicycle in Paris in 1818, and while popularly received, its design limited its use to really just flat, well-groomed paths through gardens and parks, which were off-limits to a good portion of the population in those days.

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When Pedals Were Added - A Big Improvement

First pedal bike, invented by Kirkpatrick MacMillan.
First pedal bike, invented by Kirkpatrick MacMillan. Dumfries and Galloway

Some historians credit the invention of the pedal bicycle to Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a Scottish blacksmith who lived from 1812-1878. One day back in 1839, MacMillan was out watching people riding bikes, which at that time were driven by kicking the ground with your feet. Thrilling, eh? Seemed to him that there must be a better way. . .

According to later research done by family members, after musing on the matter a bit MacMillan came up with an idea for the first pedal set-up that could more effectively drive the bike. Using his blacksmith tools, he put his idea into place, and voila! bicycling suddenly took a giant leap forward.

Macmillan's contraption had a wood frame and iron-rimmed wooden wheels. The front wheel, which provided limited steering measured 30 inches (760 mm) in diameter, while the back had a 40 inch (1016 mm) wheel and was attached to pedals via connecting rods. In total, Macmillan's bike weighed 57 lb (26 kg). His creation gathered a lot of attention, and Macmillan helped generate additional publicity when he rode the bike 68 miles to visit his brothers in Glasgow. Copies of his invention produced by other firms soon appeared on the market, and Macmillan saw little profit from his innovation.

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The Boneshaker - Invented by Michaux and Lallement

Pierre Lallement's 1866 patent for an early boneshaker bike.
Pierre Lallement's 1866 patent for an early boneshaker bike. United States Patent Office

Many historians credit Pierre and Ernest Michaux as being the true inventors of the modern bicycle. This father and son duo operated a company that made carriages in Paris when they first assembled a two-wheeled vélocipède around 1867. This bike was was propelled like a tricycle, with its cranks and pedals connected to the front wheel.

The design soon came to the U.S. when a Michaux employee named Pierre Lallement who also claimed credit for the idea, saying he developed the prototype in 1863, set out for America. He filed for the first bicycle patent with the U.S. patent office in 1866.

The vélocipède ("fast foot") was also known as the "boneshaker" thanks to its rough ride, caused by its stiff iron frame and wooden wheels wrapped in an iron rim.

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The High Wheeler Bike - Penny Farthing

The High Wheeler, or "Penny Farthing" Bike.
The High Wheeler, or "Penny Farthing" Bike. Getty Images/Photobyte

By 1870, metalworking had improved to the point that bicycle frames began to be constructed entirely of metal, an improvement in both performance and material strength over the earlier wood frames, and bike design began to change accordingly. The pedals were still attached directly to the front wheel but solid rubber tires and long spokes on a much large front wheel provided a greatly improved ride. Also, the bigger the wheels, the faster you could go, and the Penny Farthing as they were called enjoyed a great popularity in the Europe and the United States in the 1870s and 1880s.

The main hazard to this design was its (un)safety factor, as the riders (usually young men) sat so high up that they were very vulnerable to road hazards. The braking mechanism was almost more symbolic than functional, and there was really no way to slow the bike. And, if something were to stop the front wheel suddenly, such as a rut or object stuck in the spokes, the rider was immediately bucked forward as he rotated up over the front wheel to land squarely on his head. Hence the origin of the term “breakneck speed,” since a crash often produced truly devastating results.

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Safety Bicycle - A Major Advancement in Design

The Rover Safety Bicycle, as created by J.K. Starley, circa 1885.
The Rover Safety Bicycle, as created by J.K. Starley, circa 1885. U.S. Library of Congress.

The next stage of bicycle development came with the creation of the safety bicycle (so-called because of its difference from the hazardous high-wheeler), which transformed the bicycle from a dangerous contraption limited to the realm of reckless young men to a reliable and comfortable device that could be safely used by people of all ages for everyday transportation.

Recognizing the design limitations of the high-wheeler bicycles, tinkerers continually looked for ways to improve the bike's basic form. A major breakthrough came in 1885 with John Kemp Starley's the creation of (or maybe "return to" is more accurate) a bike design that featured a rider perched much lower between two wheels of the same size, coupled with a sprocket and chain system that drove the bike from the rear wheel. This was the same basic "diamond frame" design still in use in today's bikes.

When Starley's new design was coupled with inflated rubber tires that ended the jolting and painful ride inflicted on cyclists when hard rubber tires were the norm, suddenly cycling was safe and fun again. Plus, the price of bicycles were dropping continually as manufacturing methods improved.

All these factors combined to create the golden age of cycling. People rode them for practical means and for leisure. It was transportation and recreation all wrapped up in one package. The number and influence of cycling grew so rapidly in the 1880s and 1890s that they formed groups like the League of American Wheelman (now called the League of American Bicyclists), to lobby for better roads in the days before automobiles were common.

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History of Bicycle Racing

Cyrille Van Hauwaert
Cyrille Van Hauwaert was a dominant early rider in the Paris-Roubaix Classic from 1908-1911. During that time he won the race twice and took either second or third place in the others. Note how similar his bike appears to bikes of today. Image - public domain

Of course, once people started building bikes, it didn't take long for them to want to race each other.

History holds the first recorded bicycle race to have taken place May 31, 1868 at the Parc de Saint-Cloud, Paris. The 1.2 km jaunt was won by Englishman James Moore on a wooden bike with iron tires inlaid with ball-bearings that helped speed him past the competition.

Interest in bicycle racing grew in proportion to its great rise in general popularity, and so it was only natural that bike racing was included as one of the events in the first modern Olympic games held in Athens, Greece in 1896.

During this period track cycling became immensely popular both in the United States and Europe. Multi-day cycling competitions drawing massive crowds were held in venues such as Madison Square Garden, which was built specifically for bike racing, and press coverage provided up-to-the-minute details for radio audiences nationwide.

In Europe particularly, road racing captured the attention of cyclists and sports enthusiasts alike, and it was around this time that epic city-to-city races such as Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege were started.

The first Tour de France was held in 1903 as a promotional event for L'Auto, a French newspaper. The yellow jersey worn by the lead rider in the Tour de France is a tie to the yellow paper that the newspaper was printed on.

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Bicycles in Commerce and War

© / Getty Images

As the number of bicycle riders increased among the general population in Europe and North America, so did its application in commercial and military ways.

During WWI and WWII, armies from many nations fielded bicycle-mounted troops, and a passage from Ernest Hemingway's Farewell to Arms describes the main character's encounter with a unit of Germany Army soldiers on bikes:

"Look, look!" Aymo said and pointed toward the road.
Along the top of the stone bridge we could see German helmets moving. They were bent forward and moved smoothly, almost supernaturally.
As they came off the bridge, we saw them. They were bicycle troops . . . Their carbines were clipped to the frame of the bicycles."

Over the 20th century, bicycles have been adapted to haul heavy loads over long distances, particularly in third-world countries, and even today in the world's crowded cities, bike messagers and pedicabs play a valuable role in moving people and packages in the most efficient means devised to date.

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Technological Innovations in Bikes in the 20th Century

Trek 5900 Superlight
Lance Armstrong rode this Trek 5900 Superlight in the Tour de France when he was with the U.S. Postal Service. Made from composite carbon fiber, the entire bike weighs in around 16 pounds. Trek Bicycle Corporation

Over the years, bicycle design, materials, components and manufacturing processes have improved to create bikes of today, increasingly sophisticated and efficient machines.

And while the basic frame design has stayed the same for over a hundred years, the use of space age material like titanium and carbon fiber have created bikes far lighter and stronger than creators of the early iron and wooden models could ever have imagined.

Other innovations like shifters and derailleurs allow riders to work themselves through a range of gears that allow bikes to go far faster as well as to climb much steeper hills than a single speed bike would ever have allowed.

Bike styles have morphed too, to allow the incorporation of design features that specifically enhance and embrace one particular style of riding to the exclusion of others. This specialization means that you can go into any given bike shop and select from mountain bikes, road bikes, hybrids, cruisers, tandems, recumbents, and more, all based on where and how you plan to ride.