Evolution of the Bicycle (1817-1899)

2017 is right around the corner – but do you know what that means? Well, if you read the title you’ve probably figured it out, but in case you’re still wondering: it’s The Bicentennial of the Bicycle! And it has come a long way from its original design in 1817. From Draisine to Penny Farthing to the Safety Bike, the creation of the modern bicycle has been mostly for the need of convenience and for the thirst for innovation. We have put together a timeline for you about the evolution of the bicycle up until 1899, the end of the golden age for the bicycle. Each of these mile markers were an integral part in creating the bike as we know it today.



Karl Drais, a German inventor, creates the “Draisine” (fr: Draisienne, gm: Laufmaschine) to provide faster transportation to people without a horse. It was made of wood, had a steerable wheel and a rear brake made of a pivoting shoe, could go up to 8mph, and did not have pedals. It resembled today’s balance bikes, as it worked off of wide walking strides. It was often called a “Hobby Horse” or “Dandy Horse”.


michaudine-velocipede-1818Denis Johnson, an Englishman, patents improvements to the Draisine, including a “serpent-shaped” frame, which allows for larger wheels without raising the seat. This version was named the “Pedestrian Curricle”, but most referred to it as the “Velocipede”. It was made of wood and iron, and did not have pedals. For stopping power, it used a spoon brake.



These new machines were not fit to glide on the cobble roads of the 19th century, so riders chose to use the sidewalks instead. However, the sidewalks were for pedestrians, and a machine going 8mph on them would often times cause serious accidents. Velocipedes and Draisines were quickly phased out, as many countries began to fine the riders 2 pounds for riding them on the sidewalks.



This time period was primarily dominated by tricycles and quadricycles, which ultimately gave way to the creation of the automobile. These 3 and 4 wheeled cycles were most commonly used by women and the elderly. Queen Victoria was quite entranced by tricycles, after seeing one fly by her carriage one afternoon. Without delay, she ordered 2 directly from James Starley, who would later become the Father of the Bicycling Industry. From this event, the tricycle eventually grew in to a must-have item among European royalty.



It is said that Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a Scottish blacksmith, added mid-mounted pedals to a bicycle, which connected to the rear-wheel with treadles. It was called the “MacMillan Velocipede”, but was never patented or reproduced. (photo by Pete Edgeler)



Pierre and Ernest Michaux, French father and son blacksmiths and inventors, patent the first mass-produced bicycle, named the “Michaudine” and often called the “Bone Shaker” by its critics. The frame and wheels were made entirely of wood, it used a crankdrive system, had flanged wheels for riding along the railroad tracks, and was terribly unstable when riding on cobbled streets.



Jules Suriray, a Parisian bicycle mechanic, patents radial ball bearings to be used specifically in bicycles. The ball bearings gave bicycles a smoother and easier wheel rotation. They became a must-have bicycle part when James Moore used them on his bicycle to win the world’s first bicycle road race, the Paris-Rouen, in November 1869.


Many patents were filed during this time, which lead the creation of the bicycle as we know it today.



Eugene Meyer, a French mechanic, creates the “Highwheel”, also known as the “Ordinary” and the “Penny-Farthing”. These high society bikes featured a large wheel in the front and a much smaller wheel in the back. Often over 4 feet tall, they were made of steel, were much faster than previous bicycles, and had to be ridden on smooth ground due to a reoccurring issue with the back wheel and seat being thrown over the large front wheel if it hit a bump in the road. This mostly limited them to private tracks and racing, instead of commuting.



James Starley and William Hillman, English inventors, patent wire-spoke wheels, which permitted Penny-Farthings to be manufactured lighter and cheaper, and to be faster. Their first Penny-Farthing was called the “Ariel” – The spirit of the air. James Starley is often referred to as the “Father of the Bicycling Industry”. He also invented the differential gear and perfected the bicycle chain drive.



[1] Thomas Browett and W. H. Harrison, English inventors, patent the caliper brakes. During this time, most cycles were using spoon brakes, which were easier to manufacture than caliper brakes, but were far less effective.Their design didn’t become standard until the 1890’s, when bicycles were at their peak of popularity.



Scott and Phillott, English inventors, patent the first practicable epicyclic change-speed gear fitted into the hub of a front-driving bicycle. This invention was huge for the advancements surrounding gear-changing technology.



Henry J. Lawson, a British Engineer, patents a rear-wheel chain driven bicycle, called the “Bicyclette”. It had two wheels of a more similar size than the Penny-Farthing, and better resembled the bicycles we know today. It is best known as the first “safety bicycle”, but its design didn’t catch on for another decade, due to its far push from the well-known Penny-Farthing that everyone was most familiar with.



Thomas Humber, a British engineer and cycle manufacturer, adapts the blockchain to be used with bicycles and was involved with the development of the pneumatic tire.



John Kemp Starley, nephew of James Starley and English inventor, creates the first “Safety Bicycle” called the “Rover”. The term “safety bicycle” came about to separate these bikes from the Penny-Farthing, as they had 2 wheels of the same size and were much less likely to flip and injure riders. The “Rover” had rear-wheel drive, two similar sized wheels, and was chain driven.



Dr. John Dunlop, an Irish veterinarian, patents pneumatic tires, which instantly became a staple in bike designs. These allowed bicycles to travel further and on different terrains.



This decade was the Golden Age for bicycles. By 1890, nearly all of the parts needed to create what we consider a “Fixie” bicycle, have been invented and patented. Now, it was up to bicycle manufacturing companies, such as Raleigh and Schwinn, to put these patents together and bring to the masses bicycles that they would enjoy. The 1890’s bicycle boom was also responsible for kick-starting the feminist movement regarding sportswear, freedom of mobility, and personal independence, but that is a blog for another time.

Check back soon for Part II of The Evolution of the Bicycle for A Race Around France, Quick Releases, Derailleur Controversies, and more!


[1] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9d/Bicycle_centre_pull_brakes.jpg

5 thoughts on “Evolution of the Bicycle (1817-1899)

  1. I didn’t realize bikes didn’t have tires at first. Rolling on just rims for so long, it’s surprising b bike survived to see the pneumatic tire

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