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History of the bike

How did we get here?

History of the bike

The bicycle is more than 200 years old – here is the story of how a wooden contraption called the Laufmaschine evolved into the brightly coloured carbon numbers we know today.

The Laufmaschine

In the terrible European summer of 1816, volcanic ash clouded the sun and snowfalls killed the crops. The titanic eruption of Mount Tambora in far-off Indonesia had plunged the whole world into a frigid gloom. In Germany, horses were slaughtered for the food they could provide and the prolific inventor Karl Drais of Karlsruhe in the south-west of the country turned his mind to an alternative.

In 1817, we had the Laufmaschine (running machine) – which became known as the Draisine – a transport solution that has gone on to become today’s bicycle and provide cheap mobility, independence and freedom to millions of people around the world. So it seems that terrible cloud had a silver lining.

Karl Drais Laufmaschine

Drais wasn’t the first to put two wheels in series, but he added steering and the concept of the bicycle was launched. The format lives on in the modern day balance bike beloved of toddlers.

His design was feted in Paris and soon there was the ‘velocipede’ and the many ‘hobby horse’ variations that became the mobility fad of their time. These in turn sparked clever minds to devise the improvements that have continued to this day.

Pedals were added in 1864 in the Paris workshop of carriage maker Pierre Michaux (employee Pierre Lallement claimed the innovation and later moved to the USA to develop the bicycle further there) and the fad took off again. These bicycles were known as improved velocipedes, or popularly called ‘boneshakers’ for their rough ride.

The need for speed spawned the Penny Farthing in 1870, whose wheel size determined the ‘gearing’ of the bike. The longer your leg, the higher the ‘gear’ you could push and the faster you could go. Riders of these machines were on occasion called ‘scorchers’ for burning along the roads and paths, striking terror into pedestrians and horse riders.

The cycling craze

In countries around the world, people were realising the usefulness of this vehicle. It was in 1893 in Australia that the bike’s real potential was established. Percy Armstrong and R Craig rode from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Melbourne – a tremendously formidable journey at that time – covering 4,131km in less than 50 days.

For a time Australia was the long-distance cycling centre of the world, with various distance records established by Australian riders, such as William Virgin’s 4,300km ride from Perth to Brisbane in 60 days. Many were from the Western Australian goldfields, where the bicycle was by then well established as personal transport and as the postal service because it was easier than keeping horses fed in that harsh environment and the bicycle was faster and could go further anyway.

The bicycle proved the ideal vehicle for freeing women from some of the strictures of 1890s society. As the ‘safety bicycle’ became the standard type, pioneering women took them up for recreation and transport, ditching full skirts for bloomers in the process. Newspapers of the day devoted pages to the phenomenon of female ankles on display while columnists and letter writers were scandalised.

In addition to less-restrictive clothing, the bicycle delivered women with an unprecedented degree of freedom of movement. Such females could have broader social networks, better physical health, heightened self-confidence and a sense of purpose.

The bicycle thus enabled the development of the ‘New Woman’ of this time, who worked outside the home, saw herself the equal of men and could be a leader promoting women’s suffrage and social issues. For this reason, American social reformer Susan B. Anthony declared that bicycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

Better roads for riding have long concerned riders as well. The League of American Wheelmen was established in 1880 as much to organise rides as to advocate for the needs of bike riders. For example, the Good Roads Movement in the USA rose out of the League of American Wheelmen’s advocacy for roads suitable for bicycle riding. Such Leagues began springing up everywhere there were ‘wheelmen’, including many of the developing towns of Australia.

A new century

In the early twentieth century the bicycle was credited for enabling perhaps the greatest scientific innovation of the century. It was while riding his bicycle, Albert Einstein says, that he conceived his General Theory of Relativity. Now that’s an insight that has virtually added an extra dimension to our understanding of the universe. What other great realisations can this machine deliver?

The bicycle continues to be a vehicle of independence, enterprise and health for the developing world. A bicycle allows access to health care, education and the wider community and its affordable transportation is an economic opportunity because a bike means you can travel twice as far, twice as fast and carry four times the load.

Today, far from being replaced by motor vehicles, bicycles remain vital as a tool to combat the lifestyle diseases that are making us sick and sad in larger and larger numbers in the developed world. For healthy recreation and, most effectively, for active transport, every person benefits from a bicycle at their disposal.

Thank you Herr Drais – we salute you!

200 years of the bike

The two-wheeled evolution

What have been the major steps in bicycle design and manufacturing? Click the image below to see the full timeline.

200 years of the bike

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