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Although bicycles are popular in the United States, most people think of them as children’s toys instead of transportation for adults. However, in the rest of the world, they are the primary way to get from your home to work or the market.
Are you curious about the inventor of the bicycle? Finding out who invented the bicycle has been difficult because there are conflicting stories about its invention and how the inventor came up with it. Some bicycle history experts give credit to Frenchmen Pierre Lallement and Pierre Michaux, who were carriage makers, for inventing it.
Other historians claim that the most important bicycle in modern history was an invention by John Kemp Starley from the United Kingdom. The story of the invention of the bicycle may be confusing, but its invention is an essential piece of history because it’s still in use today.
Who Gets the Credit for the Bicycle?
Many people have some claim to fame when it comes to inventing the bicycle, including famed artist, inventor, and architect Leonardo Da Vinci. He is given credit for the 1493 sketch of what we know today as a bicycle.
While the sketch is also controversial, some history experts claim it’s fake, and others say his student drew it, many others give him credit for the modern bicycle’s invention. However, the first bicycle didn’t come into being until the 18th century.
BARON KARL VON DRAIS
The first man that has credit for inventing the precursor of the modern bike is a German, Baron Karl von Drais. His velocipede, the “Laufmaschine,” was a bicycle with two wheels with a center bar between them, connecting them. The definition of a velocipede is a land vehicle that has two or more wheels with pedals or cranks to power it, which includes bicycles and tricycles.
This 1817 invention was also known as the hobby horse or dandy horse. The Baron, who was a forest official and inventor, displayed his creation by riding it from Mannheim to an inn in “Rheinau,” a district in Mannheim, which was about seven kilometers or 4.3 miles away. His machine didn’t have pedals, so to propel it, the rider pushed his feet along the ground, then lifted his feet to let it coast.
This mode of personal transportation didn’t last long because most roads had too many ruts from carriages and other types of wagons in them. When riders took to the sidewalks, accidents occurred that hurt many people because the riders were going too fast to stop in time. Due to safety concerns, some countries, including the US and India, ban this model’s use.
FRENCH BICYCLE MAKERS
The next rendition of the bicycle would revolutionize the design because two carriage makers from France, Pierre Michaux, and Pierre Lallement, put pedals on the front wheel of their velocipede in 1864, making it easier to propel and ride. Along with the pedals, they put the saddle on a support beam to ride it.
These bicycles frames were wood, but they would soon have iron frames. Since the Frenchmen had the idea to mass produce their product, they thought of new ways to change the design, which included the iron frame, adding rubber tires to it and ball bearings to the wheels. Working with their ideas in 1868, they were able to mass produce their bicycle, known as the “Boneshaker.”
At about the same time, in 1869, another Frenchman, Eugene Meyer, put a larger front tire on his bicycle design. This design caught the eye of many daredevils, and soon bicycle clubs opened across Europe, which held races using these penny-farthings.
However, it was an Englishman who would further improve the Boneshaker, and is given partial credit as someone who invented the bicycle, at least the modern version, a man by the name of John Kemp Starley.
JOHN KEMP STARLEY
Starley’s inspiration to change the current bicycle was the accidents for which the penny-farthing was known. It was a dangerous bicycle for most riders because it would suddenly stop and throw the rider over the handlebars. This accident coined the term “taking a header.”
Starley’s changes made this bicycle safer, so it was known as a safety bicycle. After making the changes to Meyer’s design in 1885, he put it into mass production. He already had experience with selling and designing velocipedes, because his uncle, James Starley, was famous for the Ariel penny-farthing bicycles in Coventry, England.
The elder Starley also had his mark on the penny-farthing, because he added solid rubber tires and a hollow steel frame to it. John Starley called his redesign of the penny-farthing the Rover Safety Bicycle, and bicycle historians regard it as the most significant moment in bicycle history.
Some of the changes to the penny-farthing that are significant was adding a chain to connect the pedals to the rear wheel and a front wheel the rider could steer. Modern bicycles have many of the same features as the Rover, such as wheels that match in size (Starley’s were 26-inches), a diamond frame, and the pedal changes.
This bicycle is the inspiration for many other designs and helped to usher in the “Golden Age of Bicycles.” Even though Starley suddenly passed away in 1901, the Rover Bicycle Company continued manufacturing bicycles and later, motorcycles and cars.
One of the other changes significant to bicycles is the remaking of the pneumatic tire by John Dunlop in 1888. Due to the redesign and its predecessors, riding on paved roads is smoother.
OTHER BICYCLE MODELS
The popularity of the bicycle skyrocketed after the introduction of the Rover. In 1889, about 200,000 bicycles were on the streets in Europe and America. However, bicycle designs still evolved and new inventions like the folding bicycle, whose 1869 design was by an African American inventor Isaac R. Johnson, grew.
Ladies bicycles, known as roadsters, also came into being with their step-through frames, instead of the more common diamond frames. This design allowed women to mount bicycles as they wore dresses and skirts.
The guard on some modern bicycles that hides the chain and part of the spokes is like the one on ladies’ roadsters that prevented skirts and dresses from tangling in the rear wheel and spokes. The handlebars on roadsters, for both men and women, were also a redesign and sat riders more comfortable, upright position.
Some of the other lasting improvements of the roadster models are coaster brakes and drum- and rod-actuated rim brakes. While the popularity of the bicycle increased in Europe, the dawn of the 20th saw its decline in the US.
DECLINE OF POPULARITY
Most of the bicycles in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century were products of Great Britain, and the popularity of bicycles only grew as more countries made their versions. However, in the US, there was a significant decline in the popularity of bicycles between the years of 1900 and 1910.
By 1895 there were over 300 bicycle manufacturers in the US, as well as assembly shops, including one whose operators were Wilbur and Orville Wright. The bicycle craze of the “Gay Nineties” was at its peak in 1896 and was declining five years later.
The main reason for the decline of bicycling in America was a new invention known as the automobile. While Germans were the first to invent the car, but Henry Ford’s reinvention of 1903, was on the assembly line in 1913. Since the price for the Ford cars was reasonable, they soon became the most popular mode of transportation in Amerca.
Public transportation was also more prevalent as public buses evolved from horse-drawn carriages to internal combustion engines. The faster speeds, protection from the elements, and proliferation in large cities drew more people to them.
A New Bike Craze
The rediscovery of the bicycle began about 1965 and lasted for nearly a decade due to the environmental movement. The kick-off to this new bicycle craze was Schwinn’s introduction of their String-Ray model.
The kids’ bicycle featured a long saddle, known as a banana seat, that allowed kids to have a friend ride on the back of the seat. It was adjustable, and older kids began tricking out their bikes with higher seat supports for passengers, readjustments of the handlebars to make them like “monkey” bars on motorcycles, and adding more aftermarket parts, like pedals, to them.
However, besides parents buying the Sting-Ray, and other similar bikes, for their children, they also bought bicycles for themselves. At the peak of the boom, in about 1973, American adults bought about 15 million bicycles.
Even though the popularity of the bicycle began declining again, the introduction of the first mountain bike in 1977 allowed Americans to discover another type of sport other than road races. Road bicycle racing also grew in popularity about that time and continues to be a sport many keep track of today.
While there are not teems of bicycles in the US like there are in Europe or Asia, they remain popular for recreational uses, especially among kids and teenagers. It provides them the freedom to get where they are going faster, and they are better for the environment. Even though the answer to who invented the bicycle is convoluted, their invention was significant to world history.