bike history, the ordinary

Bike Month: a Quick Spin Through Bike History


Moss loves bikes and biking in all their forms.  To celebrate Bike Month (May), we make a rolling stop tour through the history of the bicycle. 

A Rolling Stop Tour of Bike History

First, some anti-history.  When we set out to research this post, we had that famous bicycle sketch by Da Vinci in mind … but as it turns out, that image was not drawn by Leonardo.  Its not clear whether the hoax was perpetrated by the historian who discovered it or by a much earlier forger but … experts agree that the sketch is NOT proof that the modern bike was envisioned in the fifteenth century.

So we begin bike history just 198 years ago with …

1810’s: The “Swift Walker”

The Eruption of Mt Tambora in 1816 caused dramatic global temperature drops and crop failures.  People went hungry and many horses were killed (to save on feed costs).  The loss of horse transportation led Baron Karl von Drais to innovate a new way to get around – the two wheeled Swift Walker.  It was constructed entirely of wood and had no gears or pedals but the front wheel could be steered … a bit.  It was notoriously hard to balance and couldn’t handle the rutted roadways of the time so it swiftly faded from popularity.  The idea, however, carried on.

bike history: the velocipede

1860’s: the Velocipede

Also known as the “Bone Shaker” the first pedaled bike was gear-less (one speed), HEAVY, and very uncomfortable on the common cobblestone streets.  People sometimes rode them inside, as at a modern roller rink.  The design still needed a lot of work to become viable as transportation.

bike history, monet's son on a hobby horse

The idea was adapted into toys for children – wheeled Hobby Horses were versions of modern trikes.  The image below is a portrait of young Jean Monet by his father Claude in 1872 (from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum).

bike history, the ordinary

1870’s: the Ordinary (High Wheeler)

Attaching the front pedals to a much larger (52″) wheel made them much easier to pedal (each turn of the human foot covered much greater distance over the ground) and simultaneously much harder to ride.  Climbing aboard was a challenge and a high wheeler had an unfortunate tendency to flip the rider forward over the main wheel to land on their head when it ran into a large obstruction.  Nevertheless, people were immediately excited to ride them.  11 Fun Facts by Trivia Happy here.

Thomas Stevens became the first person to bike around the world, and he did it on a “Penny Farthing” high wheeler.

bike history; the safety bike

1890: The Safety Bike

So called because it (mostly) ended the “header” problem, the bike was adapted back to two equal wheels, with a seat suspended between them and a gear system used to adjust the pedal speed vs the wheel speed.  This was the parent of all modern bikes – with a triangulated metal frame, chain driven geared pedal and independent steering front wheel.  All these design improvements made the bike much more ridable for people of all ages and both genders!

“I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

Susan B. Anthony

Women immediately saw the potential of the new bikes.  Wearing gathered “Bloomer” trousers, they could get where they wanted to go (and much farther than on foot) without needing an escort or affording a horse drawn conveyance.  Fashion began to change in general to accommodate a more active lifestyle for women – bustles went out, shorter skirts came in.

Read more on bike history and biking here, here and here. From the initial Safety Bike design, bike design fractured into many typologies.  What kind of bike do you ride?