Evolution of the Bicycle

In my story, “The Bicycle,” a selection from my book, Pie in the Sky and Other Stories, an old childhood bicycle is the only vehicle by which Garret can finally reconnect with Annie, the long-lost girl of his dreams. Let’s take a look at the fascinating history of the bicycle as it evolved in Europe throughout most of the nineteenth century.

Over two centuries ago, in 1817, a German baron named Karl von Drais invented a steerable, two-wheeled velocipede, known variously as the draisienne or laufmachine. The old adage, “necessity is the mother of invention,” was at play: Karl no longer had a horse, and he needed a way to get around. Karl’s contraption, though a prime example of creativity, lacked pedals (among other problems) and fell far short of the speed and abilities of his erstwhile horse. But it was the conception of an idea that would later shake up the spheres of transportation, activity, and leisure.  Taking our leave of this great-grandaddy of the bicycle, we move along about four decades to…

French inventors Pierre Lallement, Ernest Michaux, and Pierre Michaux, who, beginning in the 1850s, developed machines with (wonder of wonders!) pedals attached to the heavy wooden spoke front wheel. Popularly known as “boneshakers” for their rough ride, they are regarded by some as the first machines known as bicycles.

That rugged ride failed to draw in enough customers, so Eugene Meyer, an enterprising French inventor, decided to soften the joyride with a pair of wire wheels. Recognized today as the “father of the bicycle,” he was issued the first French patent for wire wheels on a bicycle in 1868. Wheels whose rims attached to their hubs by flexible wire spokes could more readily absorb shock and support applied loads. In an attempt at improving stability, Meyer’s new model sported an oversized (about four feet high) front wheel. Though simply known as “bicycles” at the time, these bicycles later (by the 1890s) would become known as “penny-farthings” or “ordinaries,” to distinguish them from the “safety bicycles” that would come later. The origin of the name “penny-farthing” can be found in the large British penny (for the front wheel) and the much smaller farthing (for the back wheel).

Penny Farthing

Making our way westward to Britain, we meet James Starley and William Hillman, who, in 1874, built wire-spoke wheels under the first British patent on bicycles. Now they could provide a lighter penny-farthing bicycle to the British enthusiast. They named this bicycle Ariel, for spirit of the air. Up to this point, virtually all bicycle riders were daring young men.

Though the penny-farthing introduced the bicycle to the mainstream, most people were still wary of its four-foot high saddle. Impressed with his uncle’s work, John Kemp Starley nonetheless felt he could outdo James Starley. In 1885, John developed the “Rover,” also known as the “safety bicycle.” Its design featured a chain drive and wheels of equal size that facilitated a smoother, safer ride. Now ladies, gentlemen, and children felt comfortable hopping onto this updated bicycle. John Kemp Starley’s iteration became recognizable as the basic template for what would become the modern bicycle.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the bicycle proved to be an invention that had traveled a long and rocky road to become a widely recognized symbol of progress and freedom.

And Garret and Annie, so many years later, would become biking buddies and best friends. Covering much physical and emotional terrain, Annie exults in the freedom of the open road in her daily escape from home. And they both develop powerful qualities of tenacity and loyalty. 

But will these traits be enough to propel them along life’s arduous paths into each other’s arms?

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Ariel Motorcycles

James Starley

Wire Wheel

Eugene Meyer” 


History (online publication):

“The Bicycle’s Bumpy History,” Feb. 18, 2021