Cycling in the 19th Century

There were several significant steps in the development of the bicycle during the 19th century. The first of these came with the invention of the Laufmaschine (running machine) by German Baron Karl Drais von Sauerbronn.

Although it did not have pedals, the Laufmaschine did boast two in-line wheels and the rider had to sit astride a frame and steer the front wheel.

These characteristics still exist in modern bicycles. The method of propulsion was very different, however, as the rider had to push the wooden frame along with his feet. This was faster than walking, but at the same time was both inefficient and awkward and made longer journeys extremely punishing.

The Laufmaschine, known as the Draisienne in France, was introduced to the public in Paris in 1818 and became the latest society craze, with upper-class young men seeing it as an amusing pastime.

Mechanics and builders around the world copied the Laufmaschine and London coachbuilder Denis Johnson produced some of the finest examples. His patented vehicle was called a pedestrian curricle or velocipede, but was commonly referred to as a hobbyhorse or dandyhorse.

Hobbyhorse Craze

It was lighter than the Laufmaschine but used the same awkward method of propulsion and so the hobbyhorse craze died out quickly and the world had to wait another four decades for the next big breakthrough in the bicycle’s development.

French father and son Pierre and Ernest Michaux added pedals to the front wheel of a velocipede in the early 1860s and turned it into a huge commercial success. Meanwhile, in the United States in 1866, expatriate Frenchman Pierre Lallement patented a velocipede with pedals design that led to a bicycle industry in North America.

An even more widespread cycle craze spread throughout Europe and the United States thanks to these new vehicles, dubbed boneshakers by the British.

It did not last, however, as the bicycles were heavy and difficult to steer and mount. Speed was limited because there was only one revolution of the front driving wheel for every revolution of the pedals.

Spoked Wheels

A new way of constructing wheels allowed British cycle makers to make the next leap forward. In 1869, wire spoked wheels were first introduced by W.F. Reynolds and J.A. Mays on their Phantom bicycle. This made the wheels lighter and rubber rims made them easier to propel and absorbed more vibration.

James Starley used this technology in his 1870 Ariel bicycle, which had a 50-inch front wheel. The rider sat right over the front hub to reach the pedals and the back wheel was reduced in size to save weight.

This basic design was widely copied and by the late 1870s further weight savings were made by building frames from steel tubing, making bicycles faster and lighter.

This type of bicycle, known as a penny-farthing, high-wheel or ordinary bicycle, still had obvious drawbacks, but in the mid-1880s, British makers Hillman, Herbert and Cooper launched the Kangaroo.

It had a smaller front wheel and compensated by added a gear-and-chain drive mechanism that made the wheel turn faster than the pedals. Riders could now sit further back and still reach the pedals.

Safety Bicycle

The desire to design a safer bicycle that anyone could ride drove development and what is considered the first true safety bicycle arrived in 1885 with Starley and Sutton’s third version of the Rover.

It had chain drive and two wheels the same size, with the rider positioned between them and the pedals directly below.

One of the problems with the safety bicycle was the increased road shock and vibration caused by the large reduction in wheel size.

Some manufacturers incorporated shock-absorbing springs in the frame, but a simpler solution was provided when Scotsman John Boyd Dunlop reinvented the shock- absorbing pneumatic tire, which he patented in 1888.