Who Invented the Bicycle? The Accidental Eco-Transport Innovator

Black bicycle beside on blue door

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We all ride bicycles at some point in our lives: sometimes for transportation, sometimes for fun, and sometimes for exercise. But as we pedal our way out into the world, do we even think about who made the bicycle possible? Well, we took a deep dive to figure out who invented the bicycle, and we found some cool answers.

Who Invented the Bicycle?

The mastermind behind this set of wheels was actually one of many contributors, and like most inventions, the bicycle has a great origin story to go with it. It was invented by a German man named Karl Von Drais and was originally called a dandy horse. But the idea of the bicycle comes from even further back than the 19th century.

The idea of having transportation that was faster than walking with your own two legs is what drove the idea of the bicycle. The story of what makes this piece of transportation so unique is a great one, and it’s what we are going to dive into now.

Early Modes of Transport

Before we had cars, bikes, and trains, people typically moved from location to location by foot. They walked along dirt roads and across untamed terrain, and they could walk for long hours and even longer miles. Horses were the first real mode of transport, but after the ‘year without a summer’ in 1816, when several horses died, it became clear a non-living alternative was needed.

The horse inspired the bicycle, which is why the early designs were called ‘dandy horses,’ and it wasn’t uncommon to see both horses and dandy horses roaming the streets. But the question of ‘who invented the bicycle’ isn’t answered yet

Limitations of the First Bicycle

The early bicycle had several problems. The first was that it was essentially a wooden frame with wheels. No pedals or other means of making the bike move existed, so men had to either go downhill and balance themselves or push themselves with their feet. There was also no way to slow down or brake.

So, once you got your running start, you kept going until something stopped you. Typically, that something was either friction or a wall. Predictably, this led to a number of accidents and a widespread dislike for bicycles everywhere, with some cities even banning them from being used because of accidents and injuries.

The Pedal Comes to Town

The dandy horse remained in limbo thanks to its propensity for accidents and the need for the rider to walk or run with the bike to keep movement going. However, one invention was going to change everything for the bicycle industry, and that invention was called the pedal. You can’t answer the question of who invented the bicycle without the pedal!

The first pedals were invented around the 1860s, when two French carriage workers decided to install a system that would allow people to control the bikes with their feet. That system was the pedal. It was a system of cranks and pedals that controlled the back wheels, allowing the rider to maneuver the bike and gain the ability to steer. However, the frame of the bike was still made out of wood, so the ride typically wasn’t a comfortable one for those who wanted to give it a go.

A Quick Diversion

With the bike stabilized, for the time being, other people began producing wheeled vehicles with larger wheels. It wasn’t uncommon to see bike-like vehicles that had two massively oversized wheels and two smaller wheels. Or bikes with three wheels: two that were small and one that was huge. Some of the vehicles even sat two people!

While these bikes were certainly fun to look at, they were often very hard to move and pedal effectively due to the increased wheel size and weight. However, there were some successes in the development of these multi-wheeled vehicles that are still in use today, including the unicycle and the tricycle.

The Safety Bicycle

But the biggest event in bicycle history, that led directly to the bicycle we know and love today is the invention of the Rover Safety Bicycle in 1885. This bicycle stabilized the design to make it look more like the bicycle we know about today. It had a chain that connected the pedals and wheels together, allowed riders to steer and brake, and gave more control over the speed of the vehicle. Bikes also started to be made of metal and not wood, making the ride much more comfortable.

Manufacturers also redesigned the seat into the classic shape, empathizing comfort as well as mobility. With the safety bicycle, the ideals for what made a good bike were standardized: they had to have chains, one gear, a brake, and standard sized tires.

Now everyone could ride a bike, and the ride was a lot more comfortable than the earlier wooden frames. No longer were bikes seen as dangerous, out-of-control toys that only fools would ride, but instead as respectable means of public transportation that could be used by everyone.

The Addition of Tires

Bicycle tires were also reinvented to be made of rubber. The rubber provided more bounce for the bike and allowed it to glide on both dirt and pavement equally well. They also provided an increase in speed for the racing bikes at the time.

The rubber tire could be inflated to a required diameter, and soon a rubber rim on bicycle tires was also made standard. One year after the patenting on rubber tires in 1890, an inventor created the detachable tire in 1891. Bicycle riders could then detach their tires through clamps in order to make repairs to the inner tube of the wheels.

Going Into the 20th Century

Once the bicycle design was standardized, the sport of cycling soon followed. In Europe, cycling for sport, transportation, travel, and touring was done by adults. Even when cars started popping up, most Europeans still used bikes to get around.

However, the opposite effect happened in the U.S. As the automobile rose to prominence, the bicycle faded into nothing more than a children’s toy. Most American adults were using cars, so bikes soon became almost exclusively for children.

After the 2nd World War, the bicycle really caught on in America, where bikes were imported from Europe. One of the most imported bikes was called ‘the English Racer’ which was a fast and durable bike that caught the attention of aspiring U.S. cyclists. As the ’70s rolled around for America, the bike boom really hit its stride, with almost 17 million bike sales between 1971 to 1975.

Heading Off-Road

The next big invention for bicycles was the mountain bike. The mountain bikes were created to have greater durability and larger tires to improve balance and allow for tighter turns and more responsive steering. Plus, the handlebars were often wider to give the rider more control over the bike.

In addition, the tires were given a better tread to give them more grip and traction on the terrain they ride on and stronger rims to prevent damage to the tires. Different types of mountain bikes offer different accessories, but the main thing in common is a more durable frame and a tighter ride.

21st Century Bikes

With the 21st century, more and more bikes are being made, and there is something for everyone. There are bikes for children, racers, outdoorsmen, mountain bikers, and more. More bikes are also using technology to change gears, monitor the number of miles ridden, and improve stability to give a truly custom ride.

Also, bike riders can even experience what riding on a dandy horse is like, as balance bikes copy the design to teach young children how to steer and maintain balance. The small bikes are simply a frame and wheels, where kids can walk them around and get used to having the bike between their legs.

The bicycle boom is still going strong, and riding a bike is really something you will never forget. It’s a great way to engage your whole body, have fun, and spend some time outdoors. Plus, if you get a few friends together it becomes even more fun.

Who Invented the Bicycle?

The invention of the bike went through about as many ups and downs as a mountain bike rider does. The process from the 1817 dandy horse to the 1885 safety bike might have taken almost 60 years, but it’s very interesting to see how the simple idea of man-powered communication evolved over that time.

Things like chains, wheels, and brakes, that we take for granted today, took some time to become part of the bicycle as it developed. But all of the inventors who contributed to the bike should get some recognition when the question of who invented the bicycle is asked. Without them, the machine wouldn’t be what it is today.

The next time you hop on your bike, imagine what it would be like without brakes or pedals, and then thank all the inventors who made those additions possible.

Featured Image via unsplash

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