Bicycles Through the Ages

A generally agreed upon timeline of major bicycle developments

Like most human technological advancements, the exact milestones in the creation and development of the silent steed that is the bicycle is racked by controversy; bits and pieces of new designs are credited to a slew of industrious inventors and problem-solving pedestrians alike. And with a collective interest in making people travel faster and farther with less effort, the public praised, poked and prodded the two-wheeled (sometimes three- and four-wheeled) machine at each level of its improvement, making personal modifications, generally without patents. Lore of uncredited inventors of brakes, pedals and cranks pepper the bicycle timeline, and national bicycle organizations haven’t agreed on a set history, so the provided narrative chronicles what is generally accepted as truth for how humans went from two feet to two wheels.


German Baron Karl von Drais creates the laufmaschine, or the “running machine,” later known as the draisienne (after the inventor) or velocipede (from the Latin for “fast foot”). With a wooden body set between two miniature wooden carriage wheels, riders propel themselves forward by sitting on a cushioned seat attached to a longitudinal wooden bar and pushing off the ground, repeatedly, with their feet. The glorified scooter/running aid was used primarily for recreation on well-tended walkways and garden paths, with riders being able to travel speeds of eight or nine miles per hour.


Londoner Denis Johnson improves on the design of the draisienne by adding larger wheels, an adjustable seat and a dropped horizontal wheel bar on ladies’ versions to make room for female riders’ long skirts. It becomes popular with the wealthy and earns the name “hobby horse” after the children’s toy, or more disdainfully, the “dandy horse” for the gentleman of leisure who could afford it.


Father-and-son carriage builders Pierre and Ernest Michaux are popularly credited with putting pedal cranks on a velocipede to create the first functional bicycle. Weighing in at an average of 150 pounds, their machine is known as the “boneshaker” because the iron frame, tires and ineffective spring mechanism under the seat create a very rough ride.  


Michaux employee Pierre Lallement, who is also sometimes credited with the invention of pedals, brings the “boneshaker” across the sea to Connecticut, patenting the invention. 


The high wheeler (e.g. “ordinary” or “penny-farthing”) comes into existence. With a huge front wheel (up to five feet tall), a tiny back wheel, steel frames and wire-spoke tension technology, the ride becomes smoother and faster — one revolution of the pedals is equal to one revolution of the front wheel — but more dangerous. Riders, seated up very high up, were frequently thrown over front wheel.


Tricycles and sidesaddle bikes are marketed to women, who are unable to ride traditional bikes because of clothing restrictions (can’t fit a hoop skirt or a bustle on a bike seat) and the mentality that exercise is unladylike. In 1877, the Salvo Sociable, a tricycle with two side-by-side seats, is introduced. It becomes popular with couples.


Columbia Bicycle at the Weed Sewing Machine Company in Connecticut begins manufacturing bicycles. Their first bicycles, the 60-inch high-wheelers, sold for $125. By contrast, a sewing machine sold for $13. 


Albert Pope, businessman behind Columbia, begins an earnest marketing campaign for the bicycle, giving away free copies of The American Bicycler, a handbook for cyclists; financing the bicycle magazine The Wheelman, which gave incentives to doctors who wrote articles linking cycling to good health; and lobbying for expanded riding laws and public acceptance of cycling in cities where biking was banned because the machine frightened horses. In 1880, he helps found the League of American Wheelmen, which promoted public cycling, facilitated organized races and lobbied to improve the nation’s road quality and establish bike paths.


Britain’s Royal Mail begins bicycle service to deliver mail.


John Kemp Starley creates the “safety” bike, which allows people of all ages to use the bike as everyday transportation. With two same-sized wheels and a sprocket and chain system driving the bike from the back wheel, it was a safer ride than the high-wheeler; a similar design is still used in today’s models. Prices of bicycles decrease as manufacturing methods improve.


The first tandem bicycle becomes available in England. 


Manufacturers start offering pneumatic tires. Scotsman John Boyd Dunlop invents the new tire in 1888 by wrapping sheets of thin rubber around his son’s tricycle tire and inflating them with a soccer pump. Inflated rubber tires made cycling fun and less dangerous/painful on cobblestone roads.


This time period was considered the golden age of cycling. People used bicycles for transportation and leisure. Groups began forming to push for better road conditions.


The Rational Dress Society, formed in 1881, builds upon Amelia Bloomer’s hotly debated idea that women can’t freely function, especially in sporting activity, in heavy skirts and corsets. Her “bloomer” design, a practical fashion she described in her feminist publication in the 1850s, begins to resonate with the public. The Rational Dress Society promotes the idea of practical dress, protesting against any fashion that “deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health.” Prompted in part by increasing reports of bicycling accidents due to skirts, brave women begin to wear a divided skirt to cycle. A prudish public isn’t as ready to embrace the look, and Lady Harberton, an advocate of rational dress, sues a coffee room after it refuses service based on her cycling costume: knickerbockers, leggings and a long coat.


The annual production of bicycles in the United States reaches one million.

Early 1900s:

Streetcars and automobiles create a hazard for cyclists. Office workers and store clerks are required to dress nicely and riding in inclement weather could ruin an outfit. Bicycle use declines. After World War I, Mead, Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward introduce children’s bikes to a declining market. 


The first Tour de France takes place.


Schwinn introduces the fat tire, spring fork and the streamlined Excelsior model in 1938. This model became the design used for early mountain bikes almost 50 years later.


Tullio Campagnolo develops the Gran Sport derailleur, or gear shift, for the general public. Derailleurs were first allowed at the Tour de France in 1937. Until then, riders had to dismount and change wheels to go from uphill to downhill.


The Schwinn Sting-Ray is introduced and targeted at children. With ape hanger handlebars, a banana seat and 20-inch tires, the model results in an American bike sales boom.


California youths develop the BMX (or Bicycle Motocross) bike by customizing their Sting-Rays. This off-road, single gear cycle was used to tear around rugged outdoor courses, inspired by the motocross craze at the time.


: Bell releases the first commercially available helmet designed for cyclists, the Bell Biker, with a polystyrene-lined hard shell.


The first successful mountain bike is built in Marin County, Calif., by Joe Breeze, who realized there was a need for one after riding rocky trails with his friends. The design offers the ability to change gears and a hand brake. The material used to make the bike was more durable and could handle the rugged trails better.


Women’s individual road racing enters Olympic programming for the first time.


After the leotard and dancewear craze of the ’80s (prompted in part by films such as Flashdance), cycling shorts (sans padding) hit the fashion scene and become a huge trend. Demi Moore even wore a pair of bike shorts to the 1989 Oscars. 


The first Extreme Games (later rebranded as X Games) takes place in Rhode Island with “BMX freestyle dirt” as one of its main events. 


Lance Armstrong wins his first Tour de France.  


The League of American Bicyclists creates the Bicycle Friendly America program to promote communities, universities and businesses that actively support bicycling. The program also annually rates states based on their level of bike-friendliness. (In 2012, Ohio was ranked 37th.)


The United States Census Bureau finds that .6 percent of Americans commute to work by bike, which is about 18 million people.