The fascinating history of the bicycle spans almost exactly 200 years, in the course of which many different models have seen the light of day.
- Bicycle history
Draisine or velocipede
The first practically used bicycle dates back to 1817. Its inventor, Baron Karl von Drais, wanted to enable people to get around faster without relying on draught animals and powered engines. Named after him, the human-propelled two-wheel Draisine was the inspiration behind today’s children’s walking bike. Karl Drais completed his first ride from Mannheim to Schwetzingen and back in just one hour, making him four times faster than a horse-drawn carriage. His invention was revolutionary, but it was ahead of its time.
It wasn’t until half a century later that using a treadle mounted on the front wheel hub – which meant the rider no longer had to push off from the ground – and substituting metal frames for wood made the high-wheeler really popular and commercially successful.
In 1863, the blacksmith and carriage builder Pierre Michaux was the first to produce the new treadle velocipede on a marketable scale. The treadle bicycles earned the name of “boneshaker” because of the iron-banded wheels and poor road conditions.
The high-bicycle, or “penny farthing”, remains the archetype historical bicycle. New improvements, such as lighter, more stable steel rims with tensile wire spokes made it possible to construct such large wheels. The lighter frame, the ball-bearing spindle wheels and solid rubber tyres made the ride faster and smoother, allowing the rider to reach greater speeds and sit more comfortably. However, the unsafe nature of these bicycles made cycling the preserve of adventurous young men.
It wasn’t until the introduction of a chain drive that transmitted the power to the rear wheel that the large front wheel became redundant and the safety bicycle completely replaced the high-wheeler. Fitted with pneumatic tyres invented by John Dunlop in 1888, it became a comfortable and popular everyday means of transportation. Whether labourer, craftsman, public official or businessman – the bicycle had become affordable and ubiquitous in people’s everyday lives. Drais’ vision had become reality.