Until the 19th century, horses were the easiest and cheapest way for most people to get around, other than on foot! But in the early decades of the 19th century, strange things began happening. The summer of 1815 never seemed to come. It was cold and rainy in July. Late freezes destroyed crops, which meant food was in short supply. Things were looking bad for people… and their horses. People were desperate for food, so they started eating grain that was normally given to horses and livestock, which led to the animals starving. Few knew it at the time – after all, there was no internet or TV news at the time – but a volcano called Mount Tambora erupted in Indonesia. This eruption spewed so much ash into the air that people around the world felt the effects of an unusually cold and gloomy summer. But even disaster can inspire art and invention.
Karl Drais and Early Bicycles
Enter Karl Drais, an inventor and German civil servant. Drais had invented many other things, like the early typewriter, a meat grinder, and a machine to record piano music on paper. The dire conditions in 1815 made him think that people needed an alternative to horse-powered transportation. He designed a machine with two wheels and a saddle-like seat that he called laufmaschine – or running machine – in German. It looked a bit like a modern bicycle but didn’t have any pedals. Instead, it worked like a balance bike that you might see a toddler zooming along on now. The rider would run the laufmachine forward, raising their feet sometimes to coast for a while. It was also nicknamed the “dandy horse” or “hobby horse,” since it was meant to be a replacement for the real horse.
The laufmachine never caught on in a really big way. It was hard to ride on the dirt roads of the time, where carriages and actual horses made deep ruts and divots in the ground that could be dangerous for riders. In cities. riders took to the smoother sidewalks but went too fast for the pedestrians, and many cities banned the laufmachine. And Drais himself didn’t benefit much from the invention either: he had unpopular political views for the time and lived his old age in poverty. More recently though, Drais has been honored on stamps, coins, and a Google doodle, which is the drawing you see when you open the Google search engine.
Improving the Drais Design
But the idea of two-wheeled, human-powered transportation didn’t die out. By the 1860s, other inventors were hard at work trying to improve on Drais’s design. We’re not really sure who got to it first, but two inventors came up with similar, new bicycle designs around this time: German Karl Kech, and Frenchman Pierre Lallimont. Lallemont was the first to patent his invention, and the French name – velocipede – became the common term for a time. The velocipede looked a lot like the laufmachine, with one important difference: it had pedals that attached to the axle, or center of the front wheel. So instead of running the bike along, now the rider could pedal. A little closer to what you’re familiar with today!
These machines made for a bumpy ride though. In fact, they were nicknamed “Bone-shakers!”
Part of the reason they were so bumpy was that the wheels were made out of wood with a band of steel around the outside. Rubber tires didn’t come along until later. In response to this uncomfortable ride, some people opted to ride a new kind of bike called a “high-wheel,” or penny-farthing. A penny was a large coin in Britain at the time, and the farthing a much smaller coin. Maybe you’ve seen pictures of these old-fashioned bikes, with one giant wheel in front–like a penny– and a tiny wheel–like a farthing– in the back. And if you’ve seen pictures, you’ve probably wondered how on earth anyone managed to ride them!
Penny farthings were hard to get on and off of because the rider sits over the big front wheel, which was often over four feet high. That’s taller than an average 7-year-old! The rider had to put one foot on a small peg lower down on the frame and then get the bicycle moving fast enough that they could hoist a leg over the seat without the whole thing tipping over. Once the rider was off and rolling, larger potholes or bumps in the road could send them toppling head-first over the handlebars.
So why did people ride them??!!
Benefits of Bicycles
First, they were fast. Like with the boneshaker, the pedals on a penny farthing are attached right to the axle, or center of the front wheel. But the bigger front wheel meant you covered a lot more ground with every stroke of the pedals. Think about how long the outside edge of that 4-foot-high wheel would be if you stretched it out flat – over 13 ½ feet! That’s how far the bicycle would go with ONE turn of the pedal! A bigger wheel equals more distance for each turn, and less work for your legs.
Another reason some people liked penny-farthings was that they offered a smoother ride than the aptly-named boneshaker. The giant front wheel absorbed more of the bumps….at least until you hit that bump big enough to throw you overboard!
The age of the penny-farthing marked the start of the bicycle’s meteoric rise in popularity. Thomas Stevens became the first person to complete a cross-continental bike ride–on a penny-farthing no less!–from San Francisco to Boston. And he didn’t stop there: he continued to ride around the entire earth by 1886!
Of course, penny farthings weren’t practical or safe enough for many people to ride. And bikes with a smaller front wheel didn’t go very fast. Different inventors tried all kinds of things during the 1880s and ‘90s to make bicycles both safe and faster. Over the years, many smaller inventions helped pave the way for the machine that would make the bicycle a practical, fast vehicle for almost everyone. The breakthrough came in 1890 with the safety bicycle.
The safety bicycles had a chain and gear system that sat between the wheels and under the seat, just like a modern bicycle! It had breaks that you controlled with your hands, that would squeeze the wheels and allow you to stop safely. And it had rubber tires that were inflated with air, making for a smooth, cushy ride.
Bicycles Around the World
Bicycling exploded in popularity in the 1890s. Madison Square Garden in New York City hosted multi-day indoor track races where riders tried to cycle as much as they could around the clock for 6 days. Cycling events drew thousands.
At the same time, regular people were falling in love with riding. Groups formed to advocate for better streets, which would reduce bike accidents and make riding more comfortable. The better streets would also “pave the way”– literally!– for the success of another transportation innovation: the automobile.
Women wanted in on the craze too. But if you think about what women wore in the 1890s – dresses with long, full skirts and tight bodices – it wasn’t exactly cycling attire. Skirts could get tangled in the wheels and gears, and tight bodices make it hard to do any kind of exercise. Along came bloomers! These loose, billowy pants, which gathered tight under the knee, allowed women to ride safety bicycles, though many people didn’t approve. Some people considered it improper for a woman to wear anything other than a skirt, and some business owners even refused to serve women in bloomers.
In 1894, Annie Londonderry, a Latvian immigrant to the United States and mother of three young children, became the first woman to ride around the world on a bicycle. She had an undeniable knack for getting attention and made a lot of headlines. She wore men’s cycling clothes and sold photographs of herself. She gave talks–charging admission, of course–detailing the fantastic adventures–and harrowing dangers–she faced on her journey. She even sold space for advertising messages on her bike.
Professional cycling organizations cropped up to support riders and organize races. They weren’t always welcoming though. When African American cyclist Major Taylor began winning nearly every race he entered in the 1890s, the League of American Cyclists voted to ban blacks from competing in their races. Many people in the League disagreed with this move and let Taylor race, but the ban wasn’t officially repealed, or taken back, until 1999!
Today, bicycling may not be quite the craze it was in the 1890s, but it still has plenty of devotees. From the Tour de France to mountain biking, to dare-devil BMXers, there are a variety of bike-based sports to choose from. And, bikes are actually still a popular kind of transportation around the world. In many Chinese cities, people make more than half of their trips on a bicycle. In Denmark and the Netherlands, bicycling is hugely popular as everyday transportation. Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, has more bikes than cars on the road at rush hour! Many parents in these countries even have bikes with big boxes on the front for their kids to ride in. Kind of like the family minivan!
But nothing compares to the feeling you get when they tear down the sidewalk on their bikes. You feel the wind whooshing through your helmet, your legs pushing the pedals, houses rushing by….that feeling of freedom as you pedal off into adventure and possibility.