Whether it’s used as transpiration or leisure the bicycle is a major part of our lives these days. The bicycle is an invention that coincided perfectly with the Industrial Revolution, as it met the growing needs of people to go farther away in a shorter amount of time, and in a way it predicted the arrival of the car some half a century later. In many ways, the bicycle was to the Industrial Revolution what the aeroplane was to the period of the World Wars. However, it was not a finished product when it emerged onto the stage, but rather it took nearly half a century for the bicycle to become a recognisable shape to the bikes of today and another half century before it acquired the technology associated with the bikes of today.
Karlsruhe, in Baden, Germany was the birthplace of the first historically verifiable bicycle. Baron Karl von Drais was a civil servant working in the employee for Grand Duke of Baden and in his free time a passionate inventor. What we now call the bicycle was originally called a Laufmaschine, a running machine, and invented in 1817. It was little more than two wheels with a beam of wood across the top. It had a very primitive saddle and was propelled by the user taking long running strides. Seeing one in a museum, it’s hard to imagine the bike ever developed into the recognisable shape of today.
A few years after that first running machine, bicycles began acquiring one or two wheels. These larger machines, are not strictly speaking bikes, but came as a result of the development of the first bicycle. These ‘bikes’ had what we today might call outlandish technology, such as a hand crank to power the machine.
In the 1830s, however, came the first mechanical bicycle. These were developed by Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a blacksmith, in 1939. His device used treadles, effectively a pedal connected directly to the wheels instead of to a disk cassette and chain.
From then it took a few decades before the cycle developed the chains we associate with them today. The first bicycle race was held on 31 May 1968 in Paris. The French had by that time fallen in love with biking and the events became grand affairs, where one could have a picnic, place bets, meet with friends, and watch a race.
But in wasn’t until the 1890s that the bicycle truly became a success with the average person on the streets—the streets which were slowly starting to fill with new inventions that were allowing people to live farther and farther away from the places where they worked. This was the also the beginning of the age of commuters and this clumsy running machine had developed to the favourite transportation instrument of the new industrialised men and women.