“I could never resist the call of the trail.”
In 1418, Giovanni Fontana, a Venetian physician and engineer, built the first human-powered land vehicle. It had four wheels and used an endless rope connected via gears to the wheels.
In 1493, sketches showing a primitive version of a bicycle, purported drawn by Leonardo da Vinci, surfaced in 1974. After an age test and some pondering, experts considered the sketches a hoax.
“Gliding down the bike path on a Saturday morning, you whip by somebody peddling in the opposite direction and give each other a nod. For a moment it’s like “Hey, we’re both doing the same thing. Let’s be friends for a second.”
In 1817, Baron Karl von Drais of Germany invented the Draisienne, a two-wheeled running machine. Also called a Laufmaschine, these two-wheelers were propelled by pushing off with the feet. They were made of stiff materials, straight angles, and steel wheels, and had to be balanced by directing or steering the front wheel. Baron von Drais created the Draisienne after a crop failure resulted in the widespread starvation and slaughtering of horses a year later.
In 1858, in Paris, pedals were added to the front axle of the two-wheeler, giving it the name of velocipede or “bone shaker.” The latter name of bone shaker was given to this bicycle due to the material make-up and cobblestone streets of the day. These machines were popular first in France, then in England, before migrating to the U.S. They enjoyed short stints as a riding fad between 1817 and the early 1820’s, then again from 1863 to 1869, during which time riding academies (similar to roller rinks) and schools were in full swing.
“It’s the way you ride the trail that counts.”
In 1866, James Stanley creates the Penny Farthing. In 1872, the first Penny Farthing is manufactured in Britain. The name Penny Farthing comes from the British penny and farthing coins, one much larger than the other, so that the side view resembles a penny leading a farthing. These light-weight and fast bicycles, also known as “Ordinary” and “High Wheelers,” could be dangerous as the rider’s center of gravity was slightly behind the large front wheel. This made the rider susceptible to what is known as a “header.”
Due to the potentially hazardous situation with the Ordinary, there were efforts to modify and redesign this bike to make it safer. With redesign, Safety Bicycles became more popular than the original design of the Penny Farthing. Safety Bicycles had two small wheels of equal size, a chain driver and gears. In the 1890’s, brakes were improved and a pneumatic tire was patented.
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
~Susan B. Anthony~
The 1890’s saw the peak of the bicycle craze in America. In 1897, more than two million bicycles were sold in the United States, one for every 30 inhabitants. Production rose from about 200,000 bicycles in 1889 to 1,000,000 in 1899. Hundreds of manufacturers were profiting from increased sales and a good bike could be had for under $100. About 3,000 businesses were involved in one way or another, including a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, owned by Wilbur and Orville Wright. The Wright Brothers used bicycle technology on another small project that would eventually take flight and make them famous.
Bicycles were everywhere in the late 1890’s, as well as “wheelmen clubs,” that had organized meetings and outings. Bicycle paths were filled on the weekends and newspapers of the day were filled with cycling news. In 1896 “The Great Bicycle Exhibition” was held in Madison Square Garden. Cycling in the 1890’s was nothing less than “a general intoxication, an eruption of exuberance like a seismic tremor that shook the economic and social foundations of society and rattled the windows of its moral outlook.” At this time, the role of the bicycle played a great part in the lives of American women, intertwining with the women’s movement of the 1890’s. It was the evolution of bicycle technology that opened the sport to women and paved the way for free-thinkers and entrepreneurs like Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky, to use the bicycle as a tool of personal and political power.
“If I didn’t have my bicycle, summer would be boring. Life would be boring. In giving up the motorcycle, I have replaced it with a new love that still allows me to feel the wind on my face and the occasional misplaced bug. It allows freedom from the drudgery of walking and the enclosure of a motor vehicle. The bicycle allows sanity, it provides emotional therapy, it soothes the soul. I don’t think I could ever live again without it or the many trails that take me to where I want to be.”
If you would like to know more about the history of bicycles, check out 58 Milestones from Bicycle History. If you’re growing tired of the two-wheeled posts, hang in there. June will be over with in about two weeks.
Sources for this post:
BrainyQuote and Goodreads