Pedal Power: Part 2

Happy Friday! We’re picking up speed on Museum Bites as we continue our trip through bicycle history. Last week we hopped aboard heavy wooden prototypes and outrageous, big-wheeled contraptions. Today, we’ll test drive a variety of bikes and learn how the addition of spokes, chains, gears, whacky handlebars and my personal favorite, the banana seat helped morph the bicycle into the vehicle we know and love today. We begin in the 1880s…

Safety Bicycle Advertisement (1887), Photo by H. Clarke, Wikimedia Commons
Safety Bicycle Advertisement (1887), Photo by H. Clarke, Wikimedia Commons

Safe Travels:  In the 1880s, the Safety bicycle made its debut, and as the name so aptly states, this bike put safety first. Prior to the Safety, the Ordinary bicycle was in vogue however, its outrageous design was fraught with tricky mounting and frequent head-over wheel accidents. The Safety addressed many of these design flaws. It was the first bicycle to make use of the chain drive were evenly matched front and rear wheels were turned by a chain via pedaling. Riders could be seated between the wheels, as opposed to the Ordinary’s more dangerous perch atop the front wheel. This design change harkens back to early bicycle prototypes (i.e., Karl von Drais’s Laufmaschine and the Hobby Horse, see Museum Bites: Pedal Power Part 1), and offered better balance and stability as well as easy mounting.

The Safety typically weighed between 25 and 30 lbs. and was also the first bicycle to sport spoked wheels. Its user-friendly design, affordable price, and low maintenance (compared to a horse) had an eager public primed to hop on and pedal. In 1899, 1.1 million Safety bicycles were sold in the United States. As you’ll notice from the photos, the Safety’s design is the precursor of our modern bike.

Woman with Safety Bicycle (1908), State Library of Queensland, Wikimedia Commons
Woman with Safety Bicycle (1908), State Library of Queensland, Wikimedia Commons

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 (1820-1906)

Fun Pedaling Fact #1:  In the 1890s and early 1900s, the independence offered by bicycling was associated with the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Bike riding women no longer had to rely on men for transportation and fashion changed from voluminous dresses with corsets to bloomers and even trousers. Click on this National Women’s History Museum link to learn more.

Gearing Up:  Our next leap forward in bike technology is the multi-speed gear bike. Whether it’s pumping up a steep hill or cruising along a well-heeled path, gears help riders traverse the landscape. Bicycles sport two main types of gear systems, the internal hub, and the derailleur. A two-speed internal gear hub was first added to high-end bikes in 1896, and the first derailleur gears made a splash in the 1920s. For a detailed explanation of how bike gears work, click on this short clip by Cycling Pulse: How Do Bikes Actually Work?

10-Speed Bicycles (c1977), Photo by Out Spokin', Wikimedia
10-Speed Bicycles (c1977), Photo by Out Spokin’, Wikimedia Commons

The quintessential example of a multi-speed gear bike is the 10-speed with its iconic drop handlebars. The 10-speed made its debut in the 1960s but was especially popular during the oil embargo of the 1970s when many adults abandoned their gas-guzzling cars in favor of the more economical bicycle. The internal hub and derailleur gear systems are still used today and like all things bicycle, crafty inventors have introduced a variety of improvements and upgrades. If you’d like to geek out on gears, drive trains and the like, click on this Cycling Weekly link for more information.

Fun Pedaling Fact #2:  The first pneumatic (aka air-filled) tires were created in 1845 by English inventor, Robert William Thomson. Initially, Thomson’s “aerial [carriage] wheels” did not catch on despite a successful 1,200-mile run. In 1888, Irishman and veterinarian, John Boyd Dunlop modified Thomson’s aerial wheel design to fit the bicycle and these light, airy tires took off.

Schwinn Stingray (c1960s), Photo by Andrew Dressel, Wikimedia Commons
Schwinn Stingray (c1960s), Photo by Andrew Dressel, Wikimedia Commons

Hot Rod:  For the most part bicycles have maintained the Safety’s basic design. However, in the 1960s, Southern California kids began modifying their bikes to look more like motorcycles. Al Fritz (1924-2013) of Schwinn Bicycle Company capitalized on this new fad and in 1963 his design team produced the Schwinn Stingray. Features included high handlebars, small, 20-inch tires, and a glittery banana seat. Models came in Flamboyant Lime, Radiant Coppertone, and a lush Violet. Kids across the country clamored for these hot new wheels.

Within five years, two million Stingrays had been sold. In 1968, the Schwinn Krate, a souped-up version of the Stingray, hit the pavement. It included a 16-inch front wheel and 5-speed Stik-Shift and came in several delicious colors including Apple Krate, Lemon Peeler, and Orange Krate. These hot rod bikes paved the way for the BMX bike craze.

Fun Pedaling Fact #3: Al Fritz was also responsible for creating the Airdyne stationary bicycle, noted for its pumping handlebars and large fan wheel.

That wraps up our look at bicycle history. Next week is Spring Break and I’m taking the time to go on an adventure. I’ll be back in two weeks to wrap up our three-part series on bikes with a look at bike art. Yes, that’s a thing! In the meantime, wishing you a fun-filled couple of weeks!

Mountain Biking, Pixabay-100px Cover photo courtesy of Pixabay.


BikeHistory: Schwinn Stingray

Bike History: Schwinn 10-Speed

Britannica: Bicycle

Britannica: Pneumatic Tire

Cycling Pulse: How Do Bike Actually Work?

Cycling Week


Los Angeles Times

Museum Bites: Pedal Power Part 1

National Women’s History Museum



R.E. Olds Museum


Smithsonian Institute: National Museum of American History

Wikimedia Commons

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