The Birth of the Modern Bicycle‏

It’s easy to take the modern bicycle for granted. It’s simple, relatively cheap, and has been around from childhood on. Despite that, the modern bike has only been around for about 120 years. Before that, things were very different.

How was the modern bicycle born? And what happened to old-fashioned bikes with large wheels? The birth of the modern bicycle actually says a lot about how technology can drive huge changes in our lives.

Bicycles Have Been Around For A While

Though we can trace the modern bicycle to the 1890s, bikes have been around for a while. Surprisingly, the older they are, the more familiar they appear.

BoneshakerCommonly known as velocipedes or bone-shakers, bikes have been documented from the 1820s on. They looked similar to normal modern bikes, but with hard metal or wooden wheels and, typically, wooden frames. That was the problem. The form of the bicycle was safe and well-calibrated, but inflexible frames and tough wheels made riding them extremely painful. If you’ve ever ridden on two flat tires, you’ll know the feeling. The problems were only exacerbated by poor infrastructure, unlike the silky smooth concrete we ride on today. Like anything, mainstream adoption depended on ease and comfort. Old bikes had neither, but that was about to change.

The Old-Fashion Bike Changes The Rules

High-wheeled bikeFor sore bike-riders, the high-wheeled bike was a profound innovation. In the 1870s, an all-metal bike with solid tires appeared. Spokes were added to the mix, too. The ride was smoother than the bone-shaker (though still not perfect). But one crucial innovation was missing, and that drove the front wheels to grow bigger and bigger.

Bike makers hadn’t started using gears yet. Pedals were affixed directly to the front wheel, so the bigger the wheel, the faster and more powerful the bike. It helped that big wheels made quick work of bumps in the road. That led the 1880s to be a boom time for big bikes (except for women, who weren’t able to mount the bikes in long skirts. They usually rode tricycles.).

There was a problem, however, and it was a big one—high-wheel bikes were dangerous. It was common to take a “header” and flip over the front of the bike. Big wheels made bikes only more dangerous. Fortunately, that motivated inventors to come up with a solution.

A New Bike Emerges

Bike raceThe bikes we know today were originally called “safety bikes” (while the old-time bikes were called “ordinaries”). They were modeled after the old bone shakers, but with a couple of key innovations. First, frames continued to improve and get lighter. Second, hard rubber tires were replaced by Dunlop’s pneumatic tires. Finally, the safety bike was comfortable to ride.

(Pictured: start of a high-wheeled bike race, c1890).

The development was only aided by the invention and manufacture of gears. Metallurgical processes and innovation finally fixed the bike and gave us the vehicle we know today. During the 1890s, riders switched from “ordinary” bikes to the vastly safer “safety bikes,” and bicycling became a mainstream past time, both for transportation and recreation.

More importantly, bicycles show how something as important as transportation necessarily followed technology’s lead. Without pneumatic tires, improved metal manufacture, and safer roads, we might still be riding “ordinary” bikes today. Though it might be amusing to see the old-fashioned high-wheel bikes on the road, it’s a lot safer that we don’t have to.

Phil Edwards

Phil writes history trivia at Trivia Happy.