A modern bicycle by definition is a rider-powered vehicle with two wheels in tandem, powered by the rider turning pedals connected to the rear wheel by a chain, and having handlebars for steering and a saddle-like seat for the rider. With that definition in mind, let’s look at the history of early bicycles and the developments that led up to the modern bicycle.
Bicycle History in Debate
Up until a few years ago, most historians felt that Pierre and Ernest Michaux, the French father and son team of carriage-makers, invented the first bicycle during the 1860s. Historians now disagree since there is evidence that the bicycle and bicycle like vehicles are older than that. Historians do agree that Ernest Michaux did invent a bicycle with pedal and rotary cranks in 1861. However, they disagree if Michaux made the very first bike with pedals.
Another fallacy in bicycle history is that Leonardo DaVinci sketched a design for a very modern looking bicycle in 1490. This has been proven to be untrue.
The celerifere was an early bicycle precursor invented in 1790 by Frenchmen Comte Mede de Sivrac. It had no steering and no pedals but the celerifere did at least look somewhat like a bicycle. However, it had four wheels instead of two, and a seat. A rider would power forward by using their feet for a walking/running push-off and then glide on the celerifere.
The Steerable Laufmaschine
German Baron Karl Drais von Sauerbronn invented an improved two-wheel version of the celerifere, called the laufmaschine, a German word for “running machine.” The steerable laufmaschine was made entirely of wood and had no pedals. Hence, a rider would need to push his or her feet against the ground to make the machine go forward. Drais’ vehicle was first exhibited in Paris on April 6, 1818.
The laufmaschine was renamed the velocipede (Latin for fast foot) by French photographer and inventor Nicephore Niepce and soon became the popular name for all the bicycle-like inventions of the 1800s. Today, the term is used mainly to describe the various forerunners of the monowheel, the unicycle, the bicycle, the dicycle, the tricycle and the quadracycle developed between 1817 and 1880.
In 1839, Scottish inventor Kirkpatrick Macmillan devised a system of driving levers and pedals for velocipedes that allowed the rider to propel the machine with feet lifted off the ground. However, historians are now debating if Macmillan actually did invent the first pedaled velocipede, or whether it was just propaganda by British writers to discredit the following French version of events.
The first really popular and commercially successful velocipede design was invented by French blacksmith, Ernest Michaux in 1863. A simpler and more elegant solution than the Macmillan bicycle, Michaux’s design included rotary cranks and pedals mounted to the front wheel hub. In 1868, Michaux founded Michaux et Cie (Michaux and company), the first company to manufacture velocipedes with pedals commercially.
The Penny Farthing is also referred to as the “High” or “Ordinary” bicycle. The first one was invented in 1871 by British engineer James Starley. The Penny Farthing came after the development of the French “Velocipede” and other versions of early bikes. However, the Penny Farthing was the first really efficient bicycle, consisting of a small rear wheel and large front wheel pivoting on a simple tubular frame with tires of rubber.
In 1885, British inventor John Kemp Starley designed the first “safety bicycle” with a steerable front wheel, two equally-sized wheels and a chain drive to the rear wheel.