The bicycle as we know it evolved in the 19th century thanks to the work of several different inventors. A German baron named Karl von Drais made the first major development when he created a steerable, two-wheeled contraption in 1817. This clunky wooden prototype didn’t include a chain, brakes or pedals. Instead, riders propelled the 50-pound frame forward by pushing off from the ground with their feet. Known by many names, including the “velocipede,” “hobby-horse,” “draisine” and “running machine,” it is this early edition that has made Drais widely acknowledged as the father of the bicycle.
While Drais’s velocipede only enjoyed a brief stint in the spotlight before falling out of fashion—poet John Keats derided it as the “nothing of the day”—his early version continued to be improved upon across Europe. Beginning in the 1860s, several different French inventors including Pierre Lallement, Pierre Michaux and Ernest Michaux developed prototypes with pedals attached to the front wheel. These were the first machines to be called “bicycles,” but they were also known as “boneshakers” for their rough ride.
In hopes of adding stability, inventors such as Eugène Meyer and James Starley later introduced new models that sported an oversized front wheel. Dubbed “penny-farthings” or “ordinaries,” these oddly shaped machines became all the rage during the 1870s and 1880s, and helped give rise to the first bicycle clubs and competitive races. Beginning in 1884, an Englishman named Thomas Stevens famously rode a high-wheeler bike on a journey around the globe.
While the penny-farthing helped bring bicycling into the mainstream, its four-foot-high saddle made it too dangerous for most to ride. That finally changed in 1885, when Englishman John Kemp Starley—the nephew of James Starley—perfected a “safety bicycle” design that featured equal-sized wheels and a chain drive. New developments in brakes and tires followed shortly, establishing a basic template for what would become the modern bicycle.
Interest in the two-wheeled machines exploded, and by the 1890s, Europe and the United States were in the midst of a bike craze. A New York Times article from 1896 gushed that “the bicycle promises a splendid extension of personal power and freedom, scarcely inferior to what wings would give.”