While a bike rider of the 1800’s would still recognize the machines of today, bicycles have changed and improved as our technology and materials have allowed innovation and experimentation.
Predecessors to the bicycle were called “velocipedes”, which comes from the Latin words for “fast foot”.
Early velocipedes, which first appeared in 1817, looked like wooden bicycles – but without pedals! The rider used their feet to push the machine along the ground! By 1863 pedals were added – but directly to the front wheel - and the bicycle was born.
Early bicycles were made of wood and had wheels similar to wagon wheels, while others were made of cast iron at the local blacksmith’s shop.
As bicycles grew in popularity they helped to shape our culture and society. Cycling groups were the first to lobby and pay for the paved roads that are used by automobiles today. The popularity of bicycles with women changed the style of their clothing from stiff and complex Victorian dresses to more practical attire. Even products like ladders and playing cards have been named after the bicycle!
Velocipede comes from the Latin words for “fast foot.” Velocipedes were the forerunners of modern bicycles and share many characteristics: two wheels, handlebars, and many had brakes – but not all of them had pedals! Early velocipedes and bicycles were often crafted of wrought iron by village blacksmiths.
In geometry, three points define a plane - the simplest stable surface. Tricycles - once common for adults! - are still popular for children because of the stability provided by having three points of contact with the ground. This child’s tricycle was built in 1875 by George Marble in Chicago, who had a patent for improvements to the axle and pedals.
Tricycles were a popular option for women of the day to break into the bicycling world. This 1891 Singer, made by Singer & Co. in Coventry, England, is a typical example of one such tricycle. Today, adult rickshaw tricycles are in common use in many cities (including Pittsburgh!) as ‘green’ alternatives to urban taxis.
The ‘Penny-Farthing’ (Adult)
Columbia Expert – 1885
Early bicycles had pedals attached to the front wheels, rather than attached to the back with a chain. The large front wheel allowed riders to go faster – but they were notoriously dangerous. If you hit a bump or pothole you would be catapulted over the front wheel! Thomas Stevens rode a Columbia Expert like this 13,500 miles around the world in 1886.
The ‘Penny-Farthing’ (Child)
Child’s Highwheel Bicycle – 1890
Many bicycles were custom-made to fit each rider, including special sizes for children. The highwheel bicycle was often called the ‘penny-farthing’ because the large and small wheels reminded English users of the difference between their large and small coins.
Rover Safety Bicycle – 1886
The Rover incorporated many of the things we associate with modern bicycles: direct steering, two wheels of equal size, chain drive to the rear wheel, and the diamond shaped frame for rigidity. This machine embodied all the basic features that form the pattern of all contemporary bicycles.
American Safety Bicycle – 1887
The rider sat farther back from the front wheel, which provided the leverage needed to keep the rear wheel on the ground and prevent the rider from taking a header when hitting a bump in the road. Even this advancement was soon made obsolete by the advances in the Rover safety bicycle.
Bronco Safety Bicycle - 1890
This c. 1890 Bronco was a traditional safety bicycle, but did not represent an ideal design. The cranks were too far back and it was geared too high, but it represented many of the steps (and missteps) toward the elegantly simple diamond frame that would become standard within a few years.
Pierce Chainless Bicycle – c. 1900
While the roller chain developed in the 1880’s has remained the primary mechanism to move bicycle wheels, engineers have tried other methods. This rare piece uses a drive shaft to turn the rear wheel, much like an automobile.
Commercial Bicycle – 1915 (BMA)
Built by the Commercial Cycle Manufacturing Company in 1915, this bicycle with a basket was designed for delivery services. Models like this moved the bicycle from a novelty and hobby to an important business tool.
Dayton Men’s Safety – 1922
Manufactured by Davis Sewing Machine Company in Dayton, OH, which would later become the Huffy Bicycle Corporation – one of the largest bicycle companies in the world and still in business today. Many companies, such as Davis Sewing Machine, took up the secondary business of bike-building. At the same time, some bike makers expanded into other areas - Orville and Wilbur Wright, the inventors of the first successful airplane, were bike builders by profession.