History of Bicycle Invention From Pedal to E-Bike

History of Bicycle Invention From Pedal to E-Bike

Humans unknowingly collaborated to create one of humanity's most-used inventions.

Have you ever wondered where your favorite ride came from? Or about the centuries of development and engineering it took to bring you the bike sitting in your garage? 

Today we’re explaining the full and extensive history of the bicycle. It took a long time to get from wooden wheels and no pedals to today’s fully motorized bicycles. From wooden frames to electric bikes, a lot has happened in the biking industry over the last two centuries.

Early 1800s: The First Bicycle

There is a surprisingly fierce debate regarding who actually invented the first bicycle. 

In fact, there’s an organization — the International Cycling History Conference — that meets every year to discuss and debate the history of the bicycle. There’s quite a bit to discuss, like the time that the “evidence” that Leonardo da Vinci invented the early bicycle was revealed as a hoax

Who Invented the Bicycle?

While the facts around the bike’s invention are up for debate, most scholars and academics agree that the first recorded mention of a bicycle was in Germany in 1817. Baron Karl von Drais de Sauerbrun of Germany was the name in mention back then.

This bike was called the Laufmaschine, or the “Running Machine” in English. This steerable machine looked like a bike with no pedals and a large area in the middle for a person to stand or run inside it. Before “bicycles” was the go-to name, your ancestors might have tossed around words like “hobby horse, “dandy horse,” or “draisine” as well. These were also called boneshakers, as bikes back then provided a bit more of a bumpy ride.

The Laufmaschine might have been an impractical invention, but it got us on the right track toward the modern bicycle glory would use centuries later. 

The Mid-1800s: New and Improved

The Laufmaschine picked up some steam recently after it was invented, but production was halted shortly thereafter because of the cost and impracticality. Wealthy Germans were also made fun of for riding these early bikes, which affected their popularity. 

Let’s jump to 1840s Scotland, where the recipient of the “Most Scottish Sounding-Name Award,” Kirkpatrick Macmillan, started to tweak the Laufmaschine design. 

Macmillan and a few others with equally-sounding Scottish names developed similar bicycle designs except with their own version of ‘pedals.’ Treadles were located by the rider's feet, which would connect to rods that turned the massive wooden wheels slowly but surely. 

While Macmillan’s and other similar designs never hit the open market, they were the first evidence of a bike with something closely resembling pedals. 

Vélocipède 

Now, we flash forward to Paris in the 1860s. People across France had been calling bikes “vélocipède de pédale” until someone had the bright idea to call them bicycles in 1868. 

Before that, the first instance of a bike with real pedals attached to the front was recorded in Paris around 1863, courtesy of Frenchman Pierre Lallement

Besides the first use of the word bicycle, two other very important things happened in 1868: the world’s first bike race happened in Paris, and Lallement sold his bicycle patent to American entrepreneur Calvin Witty. 

This is significant in the history of the bicycle because it eventually started an American obsession. 

The Late 1800s: The American Craze and the Safety Bicycle 

Naturally, once Americans got word of the vélocipède craze in Paris, it created close to a decade-long obsession: This was dubbed “vélocipèdomania.” 

This craze primarily took place in New York City amongst the wealthier residents and quickly fizzled out by the mid-1870s due to production costs and impracticality yet again. While this machine was the closest to the bike as we know it today, the 19th-century contraption still wasn’t practical enough for long-distance travel, eventually leading to the craze dying out. 

Fortunately, the Brits picked up on the development of the bicycle only a few years after vélocipèdomania. In England, James Starley’s newest invention in the 1870s, called the Ordinary, was the first real bike model. It was all metal — the bicycle frame and the wheels.

Starley’s first invention looked a little odd because the front wheel were so much larger than the back, yet the bicycle craze began once again both in Europe and America. The large front wheel led to the name “high wheeler” or “penny farthing.” The addition of spokes and pedals made for a more comfortable ride. 

The big wheel was difficult to control, and getting on and off required a Master’s degree from Oxford. On a serious note, the cyclist’s center of gravity was off, and many joyriders found themselves flipping over the handlebars. It’s a shame 360-degree bike helmets hadn’t existed yet around at that time.

Safety Bicycles

The Brits attempted a quick fix to the safety problem, thanks to John Kemp Starley (nephew of James Starley). In 1885, John Kemp Starley invented the Rover Safety Bicycle, which resembled modern-day tricycles. The front and rear wheels were finally the same size! He also brought the chain drive to this model.

Safety bicycles started to overtake the Ordinary model very quickly. As a result, modern-looking bikes started to become common across Europe and the United States. 

John Boyd Dunlop invented the inflatable rubber tire (pneumatic tires) in 1888, which made biking far more comfy. Here, we finally say farewell