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Pedalling Through Time

Chronicles
Writer
Jamal Raslan
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Looking back at the unassuming bicycle and how it has shaped history.

You might find this hard to believe, but approximately 100 million bicycles are manufactured every year, with over 1 billion being used around the world today. Some might find this figure to be quite astounding, considering how dependent we are on automobiles and public transportation these days. Highways and freeways also make it unsafe for bicycles to be our main mode of transport. However, despite the challenges posed by the ugly urban beast that is traffic, cycling remains popular and relevant. Here’s a look at how it all started and how bicycles have evolved over the years.

A bumpy beginning
Karl von Drais on his original Laufmaschine, the earliest two-wheeler, in 1817
Karl von Drais on his original Laufmaschine, the earliest two-wheeler, in 1817

Bicycles as we know today evolved in the 19th century. Its predecessor, the Laufmaschine (meaning ‘running machine’), was invented by German aristocrat Baron Karl von Drais in 1817. The Laufmaschine had a wooden frame holding together two iron wheels with a seat in between. Patented in 1818, it was steerable and had rear-wheel brakes but riders needed to use their feet to run and propel it into motion.

The Laufmaschine had many names - velocipede, dandy-horse and draisienne. It was speculated that von Drais developed it in response to the deaths of horses caused by crop failure in 1816. The Laufmaschine enjoyed a brief period of popularity, but it was significant. Its usage had spread throughout Europe and was continually improved upon by many innovators over the next few decades. Nonetheless, his contribution made Drais widely acknowledged as the father of the bicycle industry.

In 1858, pedals were added by the French. This was the first significant improvement since the Laufmaschine appeared. It allowed riders to pedal and propel the velocipede without their feet touching the ground. This was the first iteration of a proper “bicycle”, but was called ‘boneshakers’ for their bumpy rides (due to their iron wheels and dirt roads at the time). The credit for this is contentious - many still argue between Pierre Lallement, Pierre Michaux and Ernest Michaux as the first to do it.

Pierre Lallemant riding his invention (L). His pedal bicycle patent (R).
Pierre Lallemant riding his invention (L). His pedal bicycle patent (R).
Stability and safety
Stevens on his penny-farthing bicycle. Illustration from "Around the World on a Bicycle" book written by Thomas Stevens
Stevens on his penny-farthing bicycle. Illustration from "Around the World on a Bicycle" book written by Thomas Stevens

The pedalled Laufmaschine was neither stable nor a great ride, but it provided plenty of inspiration for improvement. One who was inspired was inventor James Starley. He discovered that an oversized front wheel would provide stability, and proceeded to introduce ‘penny-farthing’ in 1866. These oddly shaped machines became popular to the point that people started forming bicycle clubs and competed in races on them. It was much more comfortable than the ‘boneshakers’ and achieved higher speeds due to its reduced weight.

The ‘penny-farthing’ sparked a flurry of improvements over the next two decades. Clement Ader received a patent for rubberised wheels in 1868. Then, the unicycle was invented in the 1870s. Later, in 1876, Thomas Browett and W.H. Harrison patented an early version of the caliper brake. In 1878, George W.D. Scott and Henry Phillott patented the first change-speed gear before Henry J. Lawson patented the bicyclette. The adult tricycle then came around in the early 1880s. Bicycling eventually reached the mainstream when Thomas Stevens rode a high-wheeler bike on a journey around the globe in 1884.

John Kemp Starley with his ROVER SAFETY bicycle
John Kemp Starley with his ROVER SAFETY bicycle

Despite all these noteworthy developments, the ‘penny- farthing’ still had obvious safety disadvantages - it’s four-foot- high saddle was a hazard, and it could not travel uphill or downhill. That changed in 1885, when Englishman John Kemp Starley - James Starley’s nephew - perfected a “safety bicycle” that featured equal-sized wheels and a chain drive. This bicycle was called ‘Rover’. ‘Rover’ standardised bicycle design for the next 200 years with four basic aspects - safety, speed, control and comfort, ushering in the Golden Age of Bicycles. New developments in pedal-back brakes and pneumatic tyres followed shortly, cementing the bicycle’s place in history as a viable mode of transportation.

John Boyd Dunlop (L). Dunlop tyre and wheel, 1888 (R). (Photo : National Museum Scotland)
John Boyd Dunlop (L). Dunlop tyre and wheel, 1888 (R). (Photo : National Museum Scotland)

By the 1890s, the bike craze was all over the West: John Boyd Dunlop started the famous brand Dunlop as a manufacturer of pneumatic tyres for bicycles in Ireland; the prestigious Tour de France started off in 1903; the bicycle gave women unprecedented mobility and access to personal freedom, coming to symbolize the New Woman of the late 19th century. Even the Wright brothers started off as bicycle manufacturers, with their bicycle business funding and facilitating their flight research.

One of the many bicycles that can be found in the current era.
One of the many bicycles that can be found in the current era.

Meanwhile, bicycles also helped drive the development of roads as more people used them. The mass production of bicycles contributed to industrialisation, providing mechanisation and mass production knowledge that the likes of Ford and General Motors adopted. In fact, research in Uganda, Tanzania and Sri Lanka have shown that a bicycle alleviates poverty by increasing a family’s income by 35%, demonstrating its usefulness in one’s livelihood. Throughout its 200-year history, the bicycle has remained pretty much the same but that remarkable and evergreen simplicity has been the catalyst for some of the greatest engineering feats ever achieved by modern technology.

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