The History of the Bicycle

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Podcast Transcript

It is one of the most simple machines that most people use, yet incredible amounts of engineering go into their design. 

They are used by billions of people around the world and it is one of the only forms of transportation available to children. 

They can make humans incredibly efficient and their development was in many ways surprising.

I am of course talking about bicycles. Learn about the history of bicycles and how the modern version came to be on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

There was a story that Steve Jobs frequently shared about the bicycle.

There was a March 1973 article written in Scientific American that looked at how efficient different animal species were when it came to transportation. It analyzed how much energy it took animals to transport one gram of mass a distance of one kilometer. 

The most efficient animals were, not surprisingly, soaring birds like the condor and the albatross. 

Humans were sort of in the middle. They were somewhat efficient, but not as good a horse or a salmon. Humans used on average 0.75 calories to transport 1 gram 1 kilometer. 

However, the researcher, SS Wilson, then decided to add an extra data point. He added how efficient humans were on a bicycle. 

It turns out that a human on a bicycle was five times as efficient as one walking. Not only that, but it was more efficient than any other animal. 

So, the bicycle makes humans extremely efficient. 

The invention of the bicycle doesn’t go back as far as you might think. The earliest thing that we could identify as a bicycle only dates back to the 19th century. 

A German Baron named Karl von Drais created a device he called a Laufmaschine, which means running machine in German. In English, it was called a hobby horse, or a velocipede, or a dandy horse.

The device looked like a bicycle insofar as it had two wheels and the front wheel could be steered. However, there were no pedals and there was no chain or gears. Also, it was made out of wood.

You sat on it between the two wheels and then you propelled yourself by using your feet to push yourself on the ground, and then you could coast for a bit.

There is a theory behind why the velocipede was developed that is really interesting. If you remember back to my episode on the explosion of Mount Tambora 1815, it ejected an enormous amount of ash and particle into the atmosphere which caused the next year 1816 to be known as the year without a summer. 

As crops failed, the population of horses decreased due to a lack of food and people harvesting horses for food. 

The theory is that von Drais invented the velocipede due to the lack of horses. 

The velocipede was more of a toy for rich people, which is how it got the name “dandy horse”.  It was a pretty quickly passing fad as there were accidents with pedestrians and people were getting fined for using them on the sidewalk.

While this was clearly the progenitor of the bicycle, this version wasn’t the device that was revolutionary. 

The first mechanical propulsion system for a bicycle was believed to be developed in 1839 by a Scottish blacksmith named Kirkpatrick Macmillan.

His system had two rods on the front wheel that would be pumped that were connected to rods that rotated the back wheel.  

Also during this time people, improvements were being made regarding making wheels and frames out of metal as well as improvements and design.

The next big innovation to the bicycle was the development of the pedal.

The first bicycle with pedals was created by German Philipp Moritz Fischer in 1853. However, this model never caught on. 

The explosion in the popularity of bikes really occurred in France in the 1860s.

These were metallic framed bicycles that could be massed produced. These bikes had really poor suspension, especially on bad 19th century roads, and they had a problem with speed.

The speed problem had to do with the fact that the pedals were attached to the front tire. One rotation of the pedals was the equivalent of one rotation of the front tire, which meant the circumference of the front tire was the distance you could go with one pedal turn. 

The solution to this problem was in the penny-farthing bicycle in the 1870s. You’ve probably seen photos of these bikes. They were the ones with the enormous front tire and where the rider was wall off the ground. The name penny-farthing came from the British coins known as a penny and a farthing.

The penny-farthing, or high bicycle, was first invented by Eugène Meyer of Paris.

It solved the speed problem by just making a bigger wheel. Because the front wheel was bigger, one turn of the pedals meant that you would travel farther. 

The downside of the penny-farthing was pretty obvious. It was hard to mount and dismount, as well as being really dangerous if you fell. If you collided with something, the rider would usually be thrown over the handlebars.

The one innovation of the penny-farthing which is still with us today is the tension spoked wheel. 

The downsides and the dangerousness of the penny-farthing lead directly to things that created the modern bicycle. The chain and spoke that is attached to the rear wheel. These were called “safety bicycles”.

This basically solved the same problem that the penny-farthing did, but in a different way. Instead of just making a bigger wheel to make everything go faster, it had a smaller gear on the back to make a normal-sized wheel make more revolutions for each turn of the pedals. 

The first safety bicycle was invented by the English inverter John Kemp Starley in 1885, which he called “the Rover”.

This was a bike that looked like a modern bike, and one that you could probably hop on and operate without any instructions. 

Just a few years later in 1888, pneumatic tires for bicycles were developed which make the ride much smoother and also increased speeds by about 30%.

Bicycles became very popular in the United States in the 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s, however, their popularity began to wane when automobiles grew in popularity.  They sort of filled in the gap between when horses and cars were popular.

They remained more popular in Europe however, where distances between towns were shorter and city centers were more condensed. 

One of the things which people realized early on was that power delivered to the rear wheel depended on the size of the gear. 

The original solution to changing gears was to have a different size gear on each side of the rear tire. If you wanted to change gears, to go up a hill, for example, you had to stop, take off the chain, take off the rear tire, flip it around, and reattach the chain.

The first derailleur was built by the French cyclist writer ??Paul de Vivie, who invented a two-speed derailleur in 1905 so he could more easily cycle in the Alps.

The derailleur was actually banned in bike racing until was allowed in the 1937 Tour de France. 

Most of the innovations in bicycles since the end of the second world war were due to better materials, lighter frames, and reduction in price. 

Bikes in many countries became the predominant form of transportation. In China, during the reign of Mao Zedong, almost no one owned cars and everyone owned a bicycle. 

Today over 100 million bicycles are manufactured each year and there are over 1 billion bicycles currently in use around the world. 

There is one question about bicycles that have been raised by historians and it is a really interesting question.

Why weren’t bicycles invented earlier? 

If you think about it, the very first bicycles, before they had chains and gears, were made of wood. 

Everything that was required to build such an early version of the bicycle was available in ancient times. The ancient Chinese, Egyptians, Babylonians, Romans, and Indians all had wheels, chariots, and carts. 

It would have been trivial to repurpose two wheels to make something that would dramatically improve personal transportation. 

If you remember back to my episode on the Marian Reforms, a Roman soldier could hike 20 miles a day with a full pack.

When Karl von Drais made his first machine with no pedals, he managed to go 8 miles in less than an hour, just coasting and kicking his feet. 

So even a simple wooden device with two wheels could have revolutionized personal travel in the ancient world. 

There are a couple of thoughts as to why the bicycle was never invented until the 19th century. 

One is that it just wasn’t necessary because there were horses. Horses could pull carts and carry heavyweights, so a bike couldn’t necessarily compete with that. 

The other thing is that a bicycle necessitated good roads. There weren’t a lot of good roads in ancient times. Even good Roman roads might not have been good for a bicycle. 

Finally, the real reason is probably that you just can’t force or predict inventions. If you are old enough, you remember a time when suitcases didn’t have wheels. Suitcases could have had wheels at pretty much anytime, but they didn’t. 

Then at some point in the 1980s suitcases started having wheels and everyone in the world simultaneously thought, “why didn’t I think of that?”

Well, the same is true of the bicycle. All the pieces were there, but no one ever really thought to put the pieces together.

Nonetheless, bicycles are one of the most significant innovations with regard to human transportation…and the weird thing is that it all might have come about from a shortage of horses due to a volcano in Indonesia.


The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett. 

Today’s review comes from listener Urpso over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Perfect really

I only recently found this podcast and it is already one of my favorites. What’s not to love? It is chockfull of fun facts and history; it is educational, entertaining, and jolly good fun to listen to. Mr. Arndt, you do a fine job. 

Thanks, Urpso! 

Remember, if you leave a review or send in a question, you too can have it read on the show.