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The Origins of the Bicycle – Part 3

The Fast and the Furious

To increase the speed of the what was commonly known at the time as the velocipede a fairly simple shift in the design was employed. The front wheel was made significantly larger. This was the vehicle to use the name “bicycle” and has retroactively been given the name the “ordinary bike”, perhaps best known however is the nickname given to it by the British after the coins in their currency at the time, the “penny-farthing”. These bizarre looking bikes were in fact much faster than previous iterations however there renowned for being dangerous. Due to the size of the front wheel the rider would be seated at quite a height from the ground and travelling at fast speeds, it should come as now surprise then as accidents were frequent. Two broken wrists became common, happening when a rider attempted to break a fall and it wasn’t unusual to “take a header” which I’ll leave to your imagination. Yes, these bikes were seen as the folly of young adventurous men, it would take further improvements to make the bicycle accessible to everyone once again.

It wasn’t long until changes were made to combat the obvious issues with the penny-farthing. The front wheel reverted to a smaller size, with the back wheel being enlarged to make up for it. This meant that the rider would be able to place his or her feet on the floor if needs be. There was also the issue of the pedals being attached to the front wheel which caused issues with steering, it was not realistically possible to do both at once whilst riding. Pedals were attached to the rear wheel via a treadle system (similar to that on an old sowing machine) however for the first time, in 1879 a chain drive was added to the machine and the with these changes the ‘Safety Cycle’ was born.

The Golden Age

The 1890s became what is remarked on as the ‘Golden Age of Bicycles’ as further comfort improvements were made to the safety cycle a second ‘bicycle craze’ began to rise up. Perhaps the biggest of these improvements was introduction of the pneumatic tire in 1888 by another Scotsman named John Boyd Dunlop (as in Dunlop Tires) which would have ensured bones were far less shaken upon each ride. Later the rear freewheel mechanism was created meaning riders could coast as opposed to continuously peddling for the duration. This brought about the addition of coaster brakes which are of course still used today.

In a time before the automobile the bicycle was one of the most convenient ways to travel somewhere at a faster pace than their own legs to carry them. It became a mainstay of public transport and much of the grading of smooth road surfaces in the late 1800s was thanks to the popularity of the bike. Since it’s early days it has gone from strength to strength and today is the most common vehicle that exists in the world with over 1 billion being manufactured worldwide, so remember that next time a motorist complains about a cyclist.