The bicycle remains one of the most popular means of transportation nearly two centuries after it was first invented. This simple mechanical device has been enjoyed by children and used by adults to travel to work, for shopping and a myriad of other destinations. Powered by the human body, the bicycle has increased the range of travel many fold and today is a very popular form of exercise.
The History of the Bicycle
While the number and variety of bicycle models runs into the thousands, the same basic design of two wheels, handlebar steering and pedal propulsion is still in place. Bicycles range from simple models designed for children to very expensive versions that are designed for long distance and rugged terrain. Many of these new versions are quite expensive and use advanced, lightweight parts in their design. If your bike has set you back a considerable amount of money, then having bicycle insurance can protect the investment. It’s the smart way to insure that you pay less if your bike needs repairs or replacement.
The Origins of the Bicycle
Drawings and sketches of bicycles were around for centuries before the first one was created. The earliest sketch of a bicycle-type machine is generally attributed to a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, a man called Gian Giacomo Caprotti in 1493. It would be over 300 years before the first actual bicycle was created.
While certain bicycle prototypes were rumored over the ensuring three centuries, the first verifiable claim to the construction of a practical, usable bicycle belongs to Baron Karl von Drais, a German civil servant to the Grand Duke of Baden located in Germany. Drais invented what he called a “running machine”, a two-wheeled device that looks very similar to today’s bicycles. However, there are no pedals or chain as this device is powered by the feet on the ground. A person literally runs while sitting on the seat and steering with the handlebars.
The circumstances that caused the development of this running machine were based on tragic climate events that resulted in the death of many horses, which were the primary means of transportation during that time. Made almost entirely from wood, these velocipedes as they were called enjoyed mild popularity in Europe and North America for the next few decades, but by the Civil War was in steep decline due to the propensity of accidents and subsequent banning by many city authorities.
The End of the Velocipede
In 1863, a French metalworker was inspired to add rotary cranks and pedals to the front wheel hub, creating the first significant advance in bicycle design. In Europe this design was an immediate, but brief hit with the public. While this type of peddling system made it far easier to ride the machine at speed, the inherent flaw in the design was that the same wheel that was used for peddling also steered the device. This lack of stability sent the bicycle back to the drawing board.
Meanwhile, the end of the Civil War in the US led to a renewed interest in the velocipede, often called the “boneshaker” because of its rough ride. Rubber tires and ball bearings help smooth out the ride to a certain extent, but the rough roads in the US led to another quick demise to the velocipede.
The High Bicycle
The bicycle most associated with the 19th century was the “high bicycle”, a device most noted for the very large front wheel where the crank and pedals were attached and the much smaller rear wheel in the back. This unique design was created by Eugene Meyer, a Frenchman who developed a more stable bicycle that could ride at higher speeds. Unfortunately, the speed and position of the rider made this version very unsafe. The rider was so high in the air that falling caused serious injuries. The most common injuries were to the wrists in trying to stop the bicycle.
Despite these safety issues, the high bicycle grew in popularity across Europe and the US through the latter half of the 19th century. Still, the expense of this version meant that only the well-to-do owned these types of bicycles.
The Development of the Modern Bicycle
Concern over the high bicycle’s limitation of speed and dangerous nature, the development of the “safety” bicycle was pursued across both the US and Europe. In 1885, John Kemp Starley developed the “Rover”, the first iteration of the modern bicycle. It featured a steerable front wheel, a chain rear wheel drive and both wheels were of equal size.
The success of this design was immediately embraced and by 1890 these “safety” bicycles had replaced the high bicycle on both continents. The design was helped by an invention by John Dunlop who created the first pneumatic tire, an air-filled rubber tire that dramatically smoothed out the ride. In fact, the pneumatic tire really made the modern bicycle designs practical as the old-fashioned solid tires made riding these bikes very uncomfortable.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the bicycle craze had officially begun in the US and Europe. The mass production of modern bicycles resulted in improvements in design and use of materials that eased steering issues and provided more speed with greatly improved safety. One of the more subtle cultural changes that occurred with the advancement of the modern bicycle was that women could ride them comfortably as well. Famed American feminist Susan B. Anthony called this type of bicycle as “freedom machine” for women.
The Bicycles of Today
The improvements and design changes of the modern bicycle have been enormous over the past century. Today, there are several different types of bikes that are used for different sports and activities. There are racing bikes that are lightweight and built for speed. Mountain bikes that are rugged, durable and built for rough terrain and many different types of bicycles designed for exercise or leisure activities.
Although the automobile is arguably the most popular form of transportation today, the bicycle remains one of the most popular around the world. This remarkable machine has undergone quite a few changes over the centuries, but today bicycles are more popular than ever.