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The Origins of the Bicycle – Part 1

When you look at bicycles today with their added suspension, carbon fibre frames, inner tyre gel or even something as simple as mudguard it’s easy to forget how far they’ve come since they’re earliest interpretations. In fact, take a look at something like the Penny Farthing, I’m not even sure I could get seated on one without a fast trip to ground town, let alone ride it.

So where did they come from? What were the first bikes really like? And how did they become the vehicle they are today?

Let’s take a look back through the many mechanisms and revelations that have brought us to the modern bicycle.

The First Two-Wheelers

Wheeled vehicles propelled by manpower certainly aren’t a new thing, in fact contraptions like this date as far back as the 15th Century, however the world wouldn’t see it’s first two wheeled device until the year 1817 when German inventor Baron Karl von Drais revealed his ‘Velocipede’, which has also been known as the ‘Draisienne’ or a ‘Laufmaschine’. It is perhaps however better known as the ‘Dandy Horse’. Unlike what we’d now expect as standard for a bicycle, the Dandy Horse didn’t feature a pedal system at all. The machine consisted of a wooden frame with two wheels set inline, the rider would then use their feet to push along the ground propelling themselves forwards and steer using the handlebars, pretty much the same way you would today.

When it comes to the first mechanically propelled bicycle the history remains somewhat elusive. The earliest possible instance takes place in 1839. Supposedly a Scottish blacksmith by the name of Kirkpatrick Macmillan. This is according to the research of a later relative named James Johnston who was determined to prove that the bicycle was indeed first invented in his home of Dumfries. He alleged that Macmillan had invented a wooden bicycle that could be peddled via rods attached to the front and back wheels. In 1842 a Glasgow newspaper had reported an incident; a small girl had been knocked over by a “gentleman from Dumfries-shire… bestride a velocipede… of ingenious design” and charged with a fine of five shillings. Johnston claimed that this “gentleman” was Kirkpatrick Macmillan. Despite this there has been much debate on whether or not this is in fact true, though designs were produced there is no real concrete proof behind this claim and as such is often treated as a false allegation.

Pedal Power

The first patent for a pedal powered bicycle was made later in 1866, a French carriage maker named Pierre Lallement who was at the time working on a baby carriage (a Victorian pram) had seen people using Dandy Horses and was then inspired to create a velocipede with crank pedals attached to the front wheel of the machine. It was a fairly simple system and naturally it wouldn’t be long until other people started experimenting with the design in hopes of improving it further.