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Who Invented the Bicycle?

Updated on June 30, 2015
The Earliest Bicycle  1790   The celerifere, one of the earliest bike prototypes, had no pedals or steering.
The Earliest Bicycle 1790 The celerifere, one of the earliest bike prototypes, had no pedals or steering.

Arguments about who invented the bicycle have been a sticky subject for some time. But, after all the hollering and screaming is done, in all likelihood, it was John Kemp Starley of Coventry, England who is credited.

However, he didn’t actually invent the bicycle either. Rather, he brought all the pieces together from parts already in existence. But, their first attempts at a commercial venture were unsuccessful. So, one can make the argument, maybe they didn’t deserve the credit.

Some contend Leonardo da Vinci actually came up with the idea for a bicycle pointing to a sketch discovered among his works. But, this was later proven to be a hoax, as have been many other such claims.

It was contributions from many inventors from various countries which actually ended up in the framework of the first bicycle. They were people such as, Baron von Drais of Germany, Kirkpatrick Macmillan of Scotland, the Michaux family of France and Englishman Henry Lawson.

‘Velocipede’ or ‘bone-shaker’ 1863

1870 The Pennyfarthing

1885 Rover Safety Bicycle

John Pinkerton, an English cycling historian, once said, “Think of a new idea in bicycle design and someone will have already invented it, probably in the nineteenth century.”. In fact, in Washington, D.C., there are two patent buildings. One building is reserved specifically for bicycle patents. The other houses all the rest. That clarifies why it’s so difficult to pinpoint a single individual as its inventor.

The first machine even resembling a bicycle was built around 1790 by Comte Mede de Sivrac of France. It was a wooden scooter-like device with no pedals or steering and called a celerifere.

In 1816 German Baron Karl von Drais de Sauerbrun, improved upon the design by adding a steering mechanism. He called it a Draisienne, but because of its appearance the public called it a “hobby horse.” It was propelled with the feet. However, it was limited in its use as a practical means of transportation since it could only be ridden on flat, well-groomed landscapes.

Later in 1865, pedals were attached to the front wheels of the “hobby horse” and the front wheel was enlarged making the first true “modern” bicycle. However, it was called a “velocipede,” meaning "fast foot.”

Originally the frame and wheels were made of wood, but later the wheels were made of metal. But, the metal tires and cobblestone streets didn’t complement each other. The resulting unbearable bumpy ride earned it the nickname "boneshaker." Needless to say, the velocipede had a short career.

The high-wheel bicycle, made of metal, was introduced in 1870 and it was the first machine to be called a bicycle. The petals were still attached to the front wheel, but solid rubber tires and spokes were used. This made for a much smoother riding experience.

But, since lightweight metals were not known at the time, the contraption was heavy and cumbersome to handle. Also, the large front wheel proved to be a danger due to its low center of gravity. A quick stop or pothole could easily send a rider sailing over the handlebars. The machine was also expensive. Therefore, it was usually purchased only by young wealthy men.

Up until the 1880s bicycles were ridden mostly by men as it was considered indecent for a woman. Enter the High-Wheeled Tricycle. It was designed for dignified ladies wearing long skirts and corsets.

Although the high-wheeled tricycle was safer, it still had the low center of gravity problem. It was determined putting the smaller wheel in front eliminated that problem.

Many of the mechanical devices such as steering and band brakes on tricycles later became standard equipment on automobiles.

Starley introduced his Rover Safety Bicycle in 1885. It had a chain and two same-sized wheels and featured a frame similar to modern bicycles.

It wasn’t until 1888 the pneumatic tire became standard equipment on bicycles and tricycles. The idea was the brainchild of a veterinarian named Dunlop. Dunlop had a sick child who needed a smoother ride on his tricycle.

At the same time it also made bike riding more popular. As new innovations became available and production techniques became more efficient, bicycles became cheaper and the high-wheeled design faded into history.

The bicycle greatly impacted the automobile industry. In fact, many auto builders were first bicycle manufacturers. Wilbur and Orville Wright, for example, were bicycle manufacturers in Dayton, Ohio before they sidetracked into aviation.

But, around the turn of the century, only a few automobiles had been made. Horses and carriages were expensive and public transportation was often slow.The bicycle provided an inexpensive answer.


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    • stevbike profile image

      stevbike 6 years ago from Newbury, Ontario, Canada

      Great hub! It is nice to see people looking at the history of something. A lot of people tend to block it out or can not be bother to look it up. For those that do, they are open minded. I know I am!

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 6 years ago from Upstate New York

      This really was interesting. That first very old bicycle--how in the world did anyone ride it? I can see people falling off it right and left.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thanks car, I try to educate as well as entertain.

    • carcro profile image

      Paul Cronin 6 years ago from Winnipeg

      Real interesting hub, I always thought something as simple as a bike would have been invented hundreds of years ago, around the time of Da Vinci or even earlier, learned something new, again! Thanks for sharing... Voted up and Interesting!

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thank you Thelma,It's nice to know someone appreciates your efforts.

    • ThelmaC profile image

      Thelma Raker Coffone 6 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      I always enjoy your hubs and you can tell how hard you work on them. This one was especially interesting to me.

      I didn't know how bicycles impacted the auto industry. Thanks for sharing this hub with us!

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      nicred, I sure appreciate the comment. I work hard on layouts and stories. Thanks

    • nicred profile image

      nicred 6 years ago from Cape Town South Africa

      Great hub - groovy layout :P