Vintage Bikes: A Brief History of the Bicycle

Written by on October 16, 2012 in Lifestyle - No comments | Print this page


I’m sure all of us can remember our first time riding a bike. The bumps and grazes from the first time falling off, and the excitement of the first time speeding along with ease. Even the first time we had those stabilisers removed.

But way before any of us rode our first tricycle, mountain bike or BMX, there were not a lot of options to choose from in terms of bicycles, and that was if you could afford one.

The invention of the bicycle itself is somewhat evolutionary- even today its progression continues, adapting and evolving to be more suited to our modern lives.

 Nobody ‘Invented’ the Bicycle

The most common question surrounding the birth of the bicycle- who exactly invented it? Well the answer is… officially, nobody. As we can see, the bike is continuously subject to modification, improving it over time to suit different people and lifestyles. But if we want to get technical, the first bicycle ‘prototype’ was designed by Comte Mede De Sivrac, in the 1790’s.

De Sivrac was a French craftsman, and his design was called a Celerifere, or Velocifere. It was literally a plank of wood with two wheels and a little soft cushioning as a make-shift seat. Not very practical, but it seems the concept was born.

The next step came in 1817, an invention by Baron Karl Drais Von Sauerbronn, which he patented as the Draisine (or Draisienne). It again had two wheels and a wooden frame, and though little adaptation was done since De Sivrac’s Velocifere, the main improvement was the addition of a rotating handlebar, which permitted ste­­ering. A little more practical as transportation, but the Baron really only came up with the idea so that he had something to help him get around his large acres of land easier. Therefore on the cobbled streets themselves, the clunky Draisine was not so practical when taken out of the softer grounds of private gardens.

So you may either be Team De Divrac, or Team Drais when it comes to who ‘invented’ the bicycle. But we only have to look at how the bicycle then progressed over time to appreciate that the invention itself is so evolutionary, it is hard to conclude who ‘invented’ what. It is more enjoyable, in fact, to appreciate how far the bicycle has actually come over time, and how it has come to be the world’s favourite and popular form of transportation. Let’s have a quick pedal through time… 


1839– Scottish blacksmith Kirkpatrick MacMillan took the bicycle one step further (or even two), and simply added pedals. Known as the Velocipede, the bicycle was suddenly thrown into the mainstream, triggering a craze for bike riding everywhere. It was also the first time the bicycle was a mass-consumed product.

1863­­- Now came the next big ‘evolution’ of the bicycle. Designed by a man named Pierre Michaux and his son, Ernest, was the Michaux Velocipede. The design of the preceding Velocipede was altered slightly, by attaching the pedals to a cranked arm, which would drive the front wheel to move, and was slightly higher than the back one. However, one needed to be at the somewhat ‘higher end’ of town to be able to afford one of these. Also known as the Boneshaker (wooden wheels encased in iron on a cobbled street.. not for comfortable riding!), this was the first ever mass produced bicycle, and the craze lasted two years, until the next big thing came along.

1869– The High Bicycle  (AKA the Penny Farthing). The one of course we are all familiar with. Invented by Frenchman Eugene Meyer, the Penny Farthing boasted a wire-spoke tension wheel. Funnily enough, it was also known as ‘The Ordinary Bicycle’…what could have been ordinary about this new bike with a giant front wheel? But what the Penny Farthing gained from speed, it lacked hugely in safety, and had a reputation for being very accident-prone.

1885– Enter the Safety Bicycle. Two smaller, even-size wheels, rear-wheel drive and a diamond frame (still used today in many bikes). The pedals were securely attached to a sprocket through gears and a chain. It also benefited from the newly invented pneumatic tyres (air-filled), and was considered a ‘social revolution’. ‘Ordinary’ folk could now get around easier than before. They had the chance to travel further than was ever possible, and it is said that women even gained some empowerment and independence because of this.

The Bicycle Today

Looking through the history of the bike, it is easy to see where it lost its way. With the growth of the automobile and motorcycle zooming its way through, people seemed to lose interest in the simple pleasures such as riding a bike. Things became, faster, easier, and cheaper, and humans became busy. The bicycle seemed to become something you got excited for as a kid and spent a lot of time doing, but only until you grew up and got your driver’s license.

However, it does seem today the bicycle is making a striking comeback. Cities such as Amsterdam, Oregon and Copenhagen already have the bicycle as one of, if not the, main form of transport for their citizens. In fact, if you walk in a bike lane in Amsterdam, your choices are either get out of the way or get knocked down. Bicycles actually have real right-of-way!

Many places are also beginning to realise the benefits of cycling in everyday life. From health, ecological factors and the economy, plus the price, all of these have played a big part in the comeback of the bicycle. Now even more accessible than ever, it seems we are spoilt for choice by the range of bicycles readily available to us.

From Free-Wheelers, the BMX, the Mountain bike, Choppers and Cruisers, tricycles and kids cycles, multi-gears and high-performance designs, there are an endless range of bikes for us to choose from today, whatever our lifestyle may be. And by remembering where it all began with that one simple design concept, we can all enjoy a little bit of history on our ride.

This is a guest post.  Vicky Jones works with, a dedicated provider of cycling holidays in the Cotswolds. She enjoys the health benefits of cycling and learnt to ride (a very pink!) bike when she was 6 years old.


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