The Early Trail of Bicycle History

“I could never resist the call of the trail.”

~Buffalo Bill~


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.”  

~Neil Pasrica~


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.”

~Dale Evans~


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~

Wild Goose Trail 014

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.”

~Mary J~



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:

America on the Move

International Bicycle Fund

BrainyQuote and Goodreads

32 responses to The Early Trail of Bicycle History

  1. joey says:

    I love that quote by Susan B Anthony. What a nice little essay on the joys of cycling — and all the pretty pictures!

    • bikerchick57 says:

      The pretty pictures are from a trail very close to home. It’s not a very long trail, but I love the wooden boardwalk. As you ride a bike down it, many of the wooden boards “klunk.” Klunk, klunk, klunk. It’s from the various of temps and the effects on the boards.

  2. Anyone who enjoyed the history of bicycling above may also enjoy my first mass-published work, “Free Peoples Transit” — a guideline for bicycle activism — published in WIN Magazine in 1976. I’ve posted it in my Quora blog at:

    and any fan of cycling or of nonviolent activism techniques and thinking will enjoy it!

    – MJM, still on two wheels — forty years later!

    • bikerchick57 says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’ll get to your published work a little later, when I have time to read it thoroughly.

  3. Dan Antion says:

    Tired of bicycle posts? That’s crazy talk. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Mary. I love knowing the history and I am envious of the many trails you have easy access to. I am still holding out, in the hopes that my favorite trail will be open before June closes. I like your quote the best. Bicycles figured prominently in the history of Connecticut and western, MA, including plants in Hartford. Thanks for suggesting this topic. I have enjoyed reading about the two wheels in our lives.

    • bikerchick57 says:

      I actually enjoyed doing the research on this post, Dan, and am glad that you appreciate the history lesson. I was concerned about boring people, but I think I came up with a way to make it easy on everyone. Gosh, I hope they open up that trail for you. How long does it take for those babies to hatch and leave home? Don’t they know you have a post to write? 😉

      • Dan Antion says:

        I know! Fly eaglets fly! The official date is mid-July, but they often get out of the next before the end of June. If they don’t, I’ll use pictures from previous years. I’ll get my post in before the end of the month.

        As for boring us with history, I can’t speak for everyone, but I always enjoy history.

  4. Banjo Patterson wrote a famous poem in 1896 about a chap who trades his horse for a bicycle. It’s called Mulga Bill’s Bicycle. I think you’d like it.

    It’s interesting that the bicycle was seen so early as a symbol of independence for women in the US because for some reason now people feel the need to create riding groups just for women because they are under-represented in cycling here and the theory is because they are intimidated by all those MAMILs hooning around our roads. I can’t say I blame them. They certainly frighten me.

    Lovely piece M-J. And educational. I like that.

    • bikerchick57 says:

      I read the poem and liked it! Thanks for that bit.

      Middle Aged Man in Lycra – that’s a hoot! I’ll think of that every time I see one of those creatures. I don’t let the MAMILs around here bother me, probably because the fast-riding, dangerous ones are one the roads where I don’t go. Most of the bike riders on the trails are courteous and ride safely. The danger there is if the trails are shared by horses and their riders…they tend to leave an occasional patch of poo in the middle.

      Anyhow, good for the women’s riding groups in Australia. They don’t need to let the MAMILs scare them away. I say ride free, ride safe, and leave those guys in their dust!

  5. I enjoyed reading this history. Fascinating stuff. 😀
    I never owned a two-wheeler but my friend let me borrow hers a couple times. After I fell into a gravel ditch, that was it for me.

    • bikerchick57 says:

      Ohhhhh, a gravel ditch? That must have hurt! I probably would have reacted the same if I had been in your shoes. Thanks for the comments and visiting MJM.

  6. Good to know more about the history of bicycles. How far do you go on your bicycle? My longest trip is around 18 kms (11 miles) without any breaks. I actually had a plan to pedal all the way to my sister’s around 128 kms (80 miles) but dropped the plan because none of my friends were willing to accompany me for such a long cycle trip.

    • bikerchick57 says:

      The length I travel depends on the day, the friend and time. I plan to ride to work on Friday and that’s 6 miles one way. So, I get a 12 mile ride in with a long break in the middle. Last year, my neighbor and I went 34 miles on one of the hottest days of the year. We took many breaks, but the last four miles was agony. Most the trail rides on a Saturday are around 20-26 miles and that’s plenty for me. I have not attempted a really long bike ride, mostly because I would need to do some training first to build up distance.

  7. Nice to read this. Until I retired a couple of months ago, I used to ride to work at least 2 times a week from March thru October. We have some great bike trails where I live, but part of my 9 mile route to work was on some fairly busy roads, which did make me quite nervous, especially after I had a small accident in 2007. After that I cut down to 2 rides a week from 3 or 4. There’s nothing like a really good bike ride.

    • I was always the big cyclist in the family, with a week-long activist ride around the perimeter of Puerto Rico in the ’70s (about 20 of us, averaging about 50 miles a day) and a one-day trip from Philly to Brooklyn (about 90 miles… which practically left me LAME!) in the early ’80s.

      However… my older niece is now in her mid 20s and has been riding circles around me the last few years. She has been doing a daily commute through most of Philadelphia to and from La Salle University — a round trip total of over 25 miles — winter and summer over the past three years.

      MJM, who’s still cyclin’ in his 60s — but not 20 or 30 miles a day anymore! LOL!

    • bikerchick57 says:

      Thanks Audrey. That was a great workout for you, riding the bike to work. Do you miss that? Or I suppose you can go whenever you want…right?

      • Well yes, I do miss it. At least the good parts. And my intention is to use the bike for errands, but I haven’t really established a routine around that. The commute was a really good workout, especially in 2001, when I rode 4 days a week. Nearly 75 miles!

  8. LB says:

    Excellent post! The history lesson is great, and I love that Susan B Anthony quote! and of course, the Mary J quote, too

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pingbacks & Trackbacks