Today on Museum Bites we’re taking a look at one of my favorite contraptions, the bicycle. In this first of a three-part series, we’ll pedal through the bicycle’s early days, when it was a brakeless, pedal-less, teeth-rattling ride. The bicycle has no single inventor, instead, this delightful vehicle came about through a series of clever and sometimes dangerous innovations. Despite eye rolls and outright jeering, these mavericks persevered. Without their hard work and tenacity, we wouldn’t know the bliss of cruising along a scenic path, the agony of pumping up a steep hill, and the thrill of zooming all the way back down. So hop aboard, adjust your helmet, and let’s pedal back to 19th century Germany…
I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride my bike
I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride it where I like
~ Bicycle Race (1978) by Queen, lyrics by Freddie Mercury
Running Machine: In 1817, Baron Karl von Drais (1785-1851) of Germany, created the first vehicle to incorporate balance, propulsion and steering, three essential components of the bicycle. Crafted from dried wood (to keep the weight down), this brakeless, pedal-less contraption weighed 50+ lbs. and was propelled by paddling one’s feet, Freddie Flintstone style. Features included a padded seat, armrest, and front-wheel steering.
Drais debuted his Laufmaschine (aka Running Machine) on a nine-mile run along the Mannheim postal road. He completed the roundtrip trek in less than an hour with an average speed of 5 to 6 mph. Giddy with success, Drais brought his invention to Paris where he delighted crowds with his Laufmaschine demonstrations. Riding rinks popped up and paddling through parks became the ritzy new trend throughout many cities in Europe. Unfortunately, riders found it difficult to maneuver on bumpy roads and pedestrians considered these two-wheeled contraptions a nuisance. Several cities began banning the Laufsmaschine and its popularity waned. The Laufsmaschine however, caught the fancy of many inventors and set in motion more prototypes and clever contraptions.
Fun Bicycle Fact #1: The Laufmaschine and its knockoffs are also referred to as draisienne after its original inventor, Baron Karl von Drais.
Hobby Horse: In 1818, Londoner, Denis Johnson, purchased a Laufsmaschine and proceeded to tweak the design. He replaced wooden parts with metal to reduce weight and added larger wheels lined with iron to improve stability. The finished product was a swift and pricy plaything for the rich. Johnson’s Pedestrian Curricle, could reach speeds of up to 10 mph and set buyers back 8£ to 10£, (approximately US$200+ today). However, riders were routinely heckled and their pricy vehicles mockingly dubbed Hobby Horses or the more pejorative Dandy Horse. And if that weren’t enough, bumpy roads were next to impossible to navigate. Smooth roads were a rare occurrence in 19th century London.
More than 300 hobby horses were manufactured but production ceased after only six months. Inventors subsequently focused on creating three and four-wheeled self-propelled vehicles.
Fun Bicycle Fact #2: The word bicycle made its debut in 1868 replacing vélocipède de pedale.
Bone Shaker: Our next notable addition to our bike history is the Bone Shaker, a pedal-driven bicycle that made its debut in 1869. Tricked out with front-wheel pedals, iron-rimmed wooden wheels, and ball bearings to reduce friction and enhance coasting, the Bone Shaker weighed in at ~60 lbs. and could reach speeds of up to 8 mph. This hefty bike lived up to its name and made for a teeth-rattling ride. Several versions and manufacturers produced the Bone Shaker. To see this historic bike in action, click on this Bone Shaker clip courtesy of Vintage Bike Collection.
Fun Bicycle Fact #3: The bike pedal wasn’t introduced until the 1860s and initially was attached to the front wheel. There is no clear person or manufacturer to be credited with this upgrade.
Big Wheel: In the 1870s, the Ordinary bicycle was all the rage, but there is nothing ordinary about this bike. Its hollow, steel-tubed frame and solid rubber tires were nifty upgrades that offered a much smoother ride, but nothing compared to the Ordinary’s massive front wheel. Spanning anywhere from 3 ½ to 5 feet in diameter, one turn of the pedals (located at the center of the front wheel) equaled one revolution of the wheel, therefore, the bigger the wheel the faster the ride. Unless you were attempting to pedal uphill.
Mounting the Ordinary was a tricky business and required some skill. Furthermore, the seat was perched directly above the front wheel and contributed to many head-over-wheel accidents. The Ordinary typically weighed 40 lbs., but racing versions (yes, they race these monsters!) could be as light as 16 lbs. The Ordinary like its predecessors was a toy for the rich, and today you can find modern versions cruising the streets particularly in the United Kingdom.
Fun Bicycle Fact #4: The Penny-Farthing is a type of Ordinary bike named after the British penny, which is much larger than its counterpart, the ¼ Penny-Farthing. Click on this Penny-Farthing video courtesy of the Great Big Story to witness modern day Penny-Farthing bike races.
That concludes the first half of our ride through the history of the bicycle. Next week, we’ll take a look at notable bikes from the 20th century through today. Until then, have a fantastic week!
Cover photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Deutsches Museum Verkehrszentrum