Science and Invention
When was the bicycle invented?
A series of inventions during the 1800s resulted, in 1876, in the introduction of the safety bicycle, the direct ancestor of the modern bike and the first commercially successful bicycle. It had wheels that were equal in size, making it easier and safer to ride than its “high-wheeler” predecessor. The bikes proliferated: By 1900 more than 10 million Americans owned bicycles.
As with other inventions, the bicycle was the result of the work of several innovators. In 1817 German baron Karl Friedrich Freiherr von Drais de Sauerbronn (1785–1851) developed a device that resembled a scooter. Named for its inventor, the drasienne later improved by Scotsman Kirkpatrick Macmillan (1813–1878), who in 1839 added pedals to the vehicle, giving the world the first real bicycle. In 1870 English inventor James Starley (1830–1881) designed a bicycle with a large front wheel and small rear wheel. Named the Ariel, the invention was also called a “penny-farthing” (after two very different-sized British coins), the “high-wheeler,” and the “ordinary.” Though the bicycle was easier to pedal and faster (one revolution of the pedals turned the front wheel once), its high center of gravity made it unstable and even dangerous. The innovation of the tricycle, or velocipede, improved the design of the Ariel by giving it the added stability of the third wheel. But it was not until the safety bike was developed in 1876 that the bicycle’s popularity took off. Invented by Englishman Henry John Lawson (1852–?), the bicycle had wheels of equal size and a bike chain (to drive the rear wheel). This practical design was improved again in 1895 when air-filled (pneumatic) tires were added. Mass production of the safety bicycle began in 1885.
Even after the advent of the automobile, the bicycle continued to figure prominently in everyday life. In the United States, bicycle riding became a leisure pursuit that rivaled baseball in popularity. Cycling clubs emerged. The tandem, the bicycle built for two, allowed American youths an opportunity for courtship. Further, the bicycle industry produced some of the great innovators in transportation, including bicycle designer Charles Duryea (1861–1938), who, with his brother Frank (1869–1967), demonstrated the first successful gas-powered car in the United States; and brothers Wilbur (1867–1912) and Orville (1871–1948) Wright, who were the first to successfully build and fly an airplane.