The early bicycle years: 1817-1900


The bicycle has had thousands of inventors; together they developed the bicycle into the current models. Sometimes there are no real improvements for years and sometimes one step is the start of a whole series of developments. It is also important that an invention can become fashionable, and thus receive a strong "tailwind". The bicycle has known a number of those moments (the balance bike, the pedal drive, the safety).

Many descriptions of the development of the bicycle have appeared over the years; unfortunately a lot of nonsense has been told. Often people have attributed inventions to fellow countrymen out of nationalist conviction. According to the British, the first cyclable bicycle was made by a Scot, according to the Germans by a German and according to the Italians by an Italian. The claim that Leonardo Da Vinci would have already designed a bicycle has in any case been exposed as fraud. The claim that Macmillan would have built a riding bicycle in 1839 is actually not based on anything, but there are certainly British people who believe in that. The Germans claim that one Philip Moritz Fischer already mounted pedals on his "balance bike" in 1853. All pictures of this machine date from many years later and there is no known newspaper from that time that paid attention to it. There are also no known followers and that is an important indication against the claim, because everyone did copy. Serious 1990s research by Lessing, Herlihy and others shows that books like "The Story of the Bicycle" by John Woodforde (1970) are actually falsifying history. The prestigious "Bicycling Sience" also admits in its third edition (2004) that even at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, little factual research had been done into the history of the bicycle.


Freiherr Carl Drais von Sauerbronn invented the "balance" bike in 1817. There are of course still French, who claim that there were rocking horses on wheelbarrow wheels in Paris before. But von Drais' walking machine was not designed as a toy, but as a serious means of transport. We do see reports of this in the local newspaper and, when he goes to Paris in 1818 to show his invention, he is very successful. Unfortunately for him there are dozens of copies on the market, including in England and the United States. It is really a fashion, for the people who can afford it, because until 1900, cycling was certainly not for the common man. Fashions fade again after a few years; the only development of the design, the hand and foot powered Gompertz, was little successful. However, there was a market for large tricycles and quadricycles created among the very prosperous part of the society. These machines were propelled by manpower (usually a servant). They were heavy mechanical constructions, suitable at best for a tour in the park on a summer day.

It may have been Pierre Lallement, an employee of the cartwright Michaux, who fitted the first pedals to the front hub. The man left for the USA shortly after; Michaux saw the market and showed the bike in 1865 at a show in Paris: the orders started coming in. The hard iron rims and the heavy frame passed on all the bumps and vibrations; They were called "bone shakers". Lallement got a patent on pedal drive in New York and started a factory in New Haven; but he soon sold his share to his American partner and went back to France. In 1868, several other manufacturers were already active in addition to Michaux and Lallement, and thousands of bicycles are sold every year. Competition is fierce and developments are rapid. In a few years, there will be lighter constructions, the front wheel grows to gain a higher gear, and a rear brake appears.

In January 1869, R. Turner, the Parisian agent of the Coventry Sewingmachine Company, took such a new bicycle to his boss, and persuaded him to make 400 machines for the French market. After a month, the firm's name was changed to the Coventry Machinist Company and all of England could be supplied with bicycles. This factory sailed on the waves of the Industrial Revolution and had intelligent employees. After a while many started their own bicycle factory (J. Starley, G. Singer, W. Hillman). In 1870 the Franco-Prussian war broke out, and the French bicycle factories had to make cannon frames. This meant that the leading role of the French bicycle industry was temporarily over; the English gladly took over that role. Developments go fast, within five years the Michaux boneshaker is a beginner's bike, "to learn".

The American contribution to the bicycle in that period is limited to the rubber (invented by Goodyear)  mounted on the iron rims.

The boneshaker wheels were wagon wheels with wooden spokes and rims, reinforced with an iron tire. The iron band was heated while the wheel was being built and shrunk around the wooden structure. The wooden rim and spokes are therefore under pressure. When the wooden spokes were replaced by steels, they applied pulling force to the spokes; this also put the rim under pressure. The spoke pattern remained radial i.e. the spokes ran straight from hub shell to rim. Such a pattern is unsuitable for absorbing the forces of riding and braking. The hub will first "wind" the spokes before the force is passed on. Spoke breakage was a major problem. In Starley's Ariel a first attempt had been made to absorb these driving forces with a lever construction. Four years later, Starley patented the cross-spoked wheel.

   By mounting the spokes crosswise, a wheel was created that could absorb these forces. Many manufacturers did not understand this at all and simply installed more spokes, sometimes more than a hundred. The "high bi" or "highwheeler" began to develop; thin steel spokes and light frame tubes reduced weight. In the late 1870s, sports versions of the highwheeler weighed less than 13kg. Still, because of the risk of falling, riding these bicycles was reserved for young men. The center of gravity of the highwheeler was too far forward. Of course the problem was all too known and there were designs that were more secure. To move the rider further back, levers were used instead of pedals, like we see on the Singer Xtraordinary and the American Star. In the latter, the rear wheel was driven and the front wheel only served to steer. This was also the case with the Lawson Safety from 1878, which even had a chain drive. With the development of the chain drive on the rear wheel, the rider sits lower (between the wheels). This model is known as the "safety bicycle". The wheels are the same size on the Starley Rover2 (FIG. 11).

Developments continued to move rapidly; after twenty years the ordinary was just as outdated as the boneshaker.

Almost all manufacturers included safety's in their product range from 1885; the final shape is becoming increasingly clear; see the Humbers below. The diamond frame appears; the bar construction is replaced by tubes and look at the wheels: we see a valve! Pneumatic tires! Mr Dunlop's invention is the death blow for the highwheeler. Safety now wins in every aspect: faster, safer and more comfortable. In addition, less athletic and scared types can also use the bicycle. The market suddenly becomes many times larger; there will be special ladies models with step through frames; another market for selling. Tricycles, tandems, transport bicycles and path racers, everyone can ride a bicycle.


GOOGLE BOOKS, Openlibrary - project etc., free to download.... 

1869: Velocipedes, bicycles and tricycles, how to make them and how to use them - Velox, London, 137 pages

1879/80 , 1881 , 1884 , 1885 Bicycles and tricycles of the year - H.H. Griffin , The Bazaar Office, London , 814 pages

1879: American bicycler, a manual for the observer, the learner and the expert- C. Pratt ,   Boston , 236 pages

1881: The Indispensable , bicyclists handbook, a complete cyclopaedia on the subject - H. Sturmey , Coventry , 352 pages 

1886: No1 Prix Courant des bicycles Francais , les fils de Peugeot Frères , Paris , 14 pages

1887: The Indispensable , bicyclists handbook, a complete cyclopaedia upon the subject of bicycle and safetybicycle and their construction - H. Sturmey , London , 409 pages 

1890: Cycling  With a chapter for ladies- H.H. Griffin , F.A. Stokes Company New York, 133 pages.

1892: Wheels and Wheeling, an indispensable handbook,  Profusely illustrated  Porter, Boston , 428 pages 

1896: Bicycles & Tricycles, an elementary treatise on their design and construction - A. Sharp , London ,  559 pages

1896: Bicycle Repairing , A Manual Compiled from Articles in The Iron Age - S.Burr , New York , 182 pages

1898: Adler Farräder Interims-Katalog pro 1898 , Frankfurt am Main , 38 pages

1898: The Modern Bicycle and its accessoiries, a complete reference book for rider dealer and maker   A. Schwalbach , New York , 170 pages


1869 Velocipedes
PDF – 2,1 MB 9 downloads
1879 1885 HH Griffin
PDF – 22,0 MB 17 downloads
1879 C Pratt Americanbicycler
PDF – 6,3 MB 13 downloads
1881 H Sturmey Indispensable
PDF – 34,4 MB 11 downloads
1886 Peugeot Catalogue No 1
PDF – 3,9 MB 9 downloads
1887 H Sturmey The Indispensable
PDF – 17,8 MB 14 downloads
1890 H H Griffin Cycling
PDF – 10,8 MB 11 downloads
1892 Wheels Wheeling
PDF – 35,3 MB 12 downloads
1896 A Sharp Bicycles Tricycles
PDF – 11,5 MB 13 downloads
1896 Bicycle Repairing
PDF – 13,2 MB 14 downloads
1898 Adler Fahrraeder Frankfurt Am Main
PDF – 6,6 MB 13 downloads
1898 A Schwalbach The Modern Bicycle
PDF – 22,0 MB 15 downloads