This must be the first image we have of of a bike. It dates from the 17th century. Maybe the artist had seen or heard of such a machine although his version does look rather impractical as an earthly means of transport.
The first known example of what came to be called in English a hobbyhorse is this one made by Niepce in 1818. It did not catch on in France as it did in England where the improved version below became a craze among the rich in the late Regency era when having fun in public was still permitted. Hyde park was full of them and bystanders feared for their lives. The craze however died down when when the staider 1840’s of Queen Victoria tamed them.
The French continued doggedly to develop the concept. By 1868 the Michaux brothers had discovered (probably with a few bruises and the occasional concussion) that the machine would stay upright indefinitely provided that it it could be kept at a moderate speed. Their brilliantly simple solution, illustrated here, was to place levers in the form of pedals on the front axle. They went into business and opened a big factory in Paris to make them.
However, speed or lack of it was a problem for the more impetuous. Inventors, failing to think out of the box, increased the size of the driving wheel. It grew from 0,80m to 1,40 by 1871. Speeds shot up although its increased weight rather hindered the quest for speed and certainly acceleration. Weight was reduced by the invention of thin wire spokes mounted tangentially on the hub and diameters increased to 1,70m in 1878 while still only weighing 10kg. However, accidents increased, as did their severity, aggravated by the fact that, with racing wheels attaining 2,3m the rear wheel became relatively very small and light compared to the front, and with the driver sitting very close to the top, the front wheel brake hurled him forwards as though from a catapult.
With the invention of the pneumatic tyre the modern bicycle evolved from a leisure activity to a force for social change. The freewheel, less necessary as a braking aid once caliper brakes came acting on the rims rather than the tyre came in around 1900. Gears, a real boon to mankind,came about 1905. By 1936 the bicycle below was a serious means of transport and probably the primary one in many European countries before the democratization of the private car in the late ’50’s.
The advent of the bicycle was a powerful lever for change. The countryside was now easily accessible to city dwellers and the mobility of rural people, whether for leisure or work, increased dramatically. A clamour arose for better and eventually surfaced roads to reduce dust, which in turn helped the future spread of the motorcar. As cyclists, women could now go out and mix freely, since they could easily outdistance their steely-eyed chaperones. In fact, cycling was generally a great social equalizer. Money and social class did not count for much climbing a steep hill or repairing a puncture. Cycle racing also provided a new road to fame and fortune for many.
However, this dominant role in mobility was gradually eroded with the growth of motor vehicles and to some extent better urban transport. In the US and Canada they had become essentially childrens’ toys by the ’50’s. In Europe they maintained their importance until after the second world war when rising incomes allowed the purchase of motor cycles and cars. Bike use then went into a period of decline. Urban development plans concentrated on facilitating motor vehicle flows at the expense of cyclists and even pedestrians.
This philosophy began to be attacked in the 1970’s. Cities were becoming more unpleasant places to live, polluted, dangerous, and ugly. In North America, people fled to the suburbs, often leaving a gaping hole surrounding the central city, now dedicated to business. Slowly, policies are being reversed. In Europe, cycle paths were restored, notably in the Nordic countries, and public transport rehabilitated, together with significant disincentives for car use. The process is slower in North America where car use is understandably more deeply rooted given the extensive low-density suburban development. However, bicycle use in growing and private vehicle use is being slowly tamed.
The main issue now is safety. Cyclists have always contended with adversity. Erratically driven horse-drawn vehicles killed and injured many as did greasy tram tracks and rails. These have now been replaced by fast moving and impatient cars and visually challenged trucks. To reconstruct cities which are agreeable and safe for non-motorised users requires political will and this is still highly variable, from one city to another and from one election to the next. A widespread and sustainable commitment to active transport has yet to be made.