It’s 2021! A brand new year brings a brand new story. This month, let’s flash the spotlight on a vehicle whose popularity recently spiked despite being around for more than 600 years! This two wheeled, human-powered vehicle has gone through numerous transformations at the hands of several inventors. It has survived many difficult times to be with us today. Yes! We are talking about the evolution of the most fun means of transport – The Bicycle.
Training wheels or no training wheels, we have been riding bicycles for multiple reasons. Today we rely on a bicycle for exercise, commuting and touring beautiful places. During the 2020 lockdown, the entire world saw a sudden spike in the number of bicycle riders on the streets – from kids to teens to adults – all wearing safety gear and enjoying a ride. But did you know that today’s bicycle took many dramatic transformations in the past? Some early models had two wheels, but no way to steer, requiring a rider to run fast before hopping on their bicycle. Not just that, the innovators varied too, with no clear mention of who spearheaded the concept first.
Let’s look at some major milestones in the bicycle’s journey to evolution.
It has been said that Leonardo da Vinci was the first person who ever visualised the concept of a bicycle in the year 1493. His version of the bicycle, although similar to later versions, sadly remained only as a painting. Leonardo da Vinci could never construct it.
His painting was restored in the Codex Atlanticus – a twelve-volume set of da Vinci’s drawings and writings restored in the 1970s. Several historians, including Hans-Erhard Lessing, a physics professor, refused to accept da Vinci’s version of the bicycle. Instead, they claim that bicycles originated in Germany in the 1800s and the first version was called the ‘running machine’.
Let’s visit Germany and find out more!
It began with a large volcanic eruption in Mt. Tambora (present-day Indonesia). It caused havoc, destroying crops and livelihood worldwide. This also raised the question of how to transport people residing in hilly areas without horses? It was then that a German inventor named Karl Drais decided to build a propulsion device that could replace horse riding. Two years later, in 1817, he presented the Draisine or the ‘running machine’. His version of this bicycle bore the hallmarks of a modern bicycle. However, it did not have pedals, chains or brakes. It was entirely made of wood, with two wheels of the same size and a steerable wheel in the centre. People had to push it with their feet on the ground to move forward. From there, the bicycle gained several hilarious names like ‘dandy horse,’ ‘hobby horse,’ ‘whirligig’ and ‘velocipede’.
Drais’s draisine could only enjoy a brief stint in the spotlight before falling out of fashion. Soon in the 1860s, French inventors Pierre Lallement, Pierre Michaux and Ernest Michaux modified Drais’ velocipede by introducing pedals on the front wheel. They had wooden wheels with an iron-wrought frame, which made it very bulky. Due to its construction, this bicycle did not offer stability to its riders. The pedals meant that you have to take your feet off the ground and hence balance became an issue. A much larger front wheel (up to 1.5 meters in diameter) let the bike go much faster, but riders were prone to dangerous falls. They came to be known as ‘boneshakers’ due to the bumpy ride that they offered!
In hopes of adding stability and making a less bumpy ride for bicycle riders, French inventor Eugène Meyer modified the 1860s boneshakers by adding pedals on the wheel and making the front wheel much larger than the back wheel to balance the bicycle. The structure of the bicycle looks a little scary, but these cycles were manufactured in a way that it becomes easier for people to ride them, even though it might be a little difficult to hop on it. Penny farthing was the first machine to be called the bicycle, and it was better known as the high wheeler. Soon it became highly popular in England and France. However, Meyer alone did not enjoy the spotlight. Its popularity is also attributed to the English inventor and businessman, James Starley, who created a model named ‘Ariel’. This led to the rise of bicycle clubs and competitive races.
The end of the era of penny farthing bicycles arrived sooner than anticipated. In 1885, James Starley’s nephew, John Kemp Starley heavily borrowed ideas from his uncle and invented the Rover Safety Bicycle. He additionally installed brakes to prevent people from abruptly falling from their cycle. His invention came to be known as the contemporary bicycle or safety bike. It had two wheels of the same size, and the rear wheel was powered by a chain.
In 1888, a further modified version of the bicycle came into existence when John Boyd Dunlop from Scotland created the pneumatic tire for his son’s bicycle. A vet by profession, one day Dunlop’s son complained of how cobbled streets on his way to his school made his bottom sore. Dunlop solved his son’s problem by inventing the inner tube and patented the pneumatic tyre which was essentially a hosepipe inside an outer rubber tyre with treads.
In 1892, Harry Dacre, a British songwriter, became famous overnight when he composed the song Daisy Bell. The song depicted a charming couple happily singing and riding a ‘tandem bicycle’. The tandem – a two-wheeled “bicycle built for two” was first created by Mikael Pedersen, a Danish inventor. The bicycle weighed about 10 kg and was named as ‘the Pedersen bicycle’. With tandem soon becoming a popular choice among bicycle riders, Pederson went on and built a bicycle that accommodated four riders. That bicycle weighed close to 30 kgs.
The craze for Tandem bicycles began to wane soon after World War II. With time, the bicycle piqued the interest of challenge-seekers. Could a bicycle race against a horse cart? Soon races ensued between humans and animals, and ultimately against nature as cyclists pursued cross-continental tours as long as 3,500 kms. Bicycle racing became an important event in the first modern Olympic games in 1896.
While the popularity of cars and bikes suppressed the usage of bicycles, many inventors went on to invent mountain bikes, electric bikes, race bikes and even immovable bicycles at the gym. Over several decades, while the basic frame remained intact, the style and designs of these bicycles morphed a lot. Lighter materials like titanium and carbon fibre replaced the wooden models, making the current bicycles far lighter and stronger than Karl Drais and his contemporaries could ever have imagined!
Today, we have bicycles that are powered by electricity and solar energy, with gears to control speed and balance. These specialisations give us the liberty to select bicycles based on where and how we plan to ride. And with the growing bicycle culture taking a hold on us, soon we may get to see a new bicycle revolution, where we will cautiously opt for a bicycle over a car and contribute in reducing our carbon footprints.
Well, that was the evolution of bicycles. Who knows, in the future we will have more advanced forms that will allow us to cross water bodies!
Books are Tanaya Goswami’s first love and cheesecakes come a close second. Talking about movies, music, calligraphy, politics, and Elon Musk will get you listed under the friends’ section of her diary. Ever since moving on from her job as an English lecturer, she spends her time at BYJU’S crafting stories filled with emotion and sprinkled with sarcasm. Outside of work, she’s either learning something new (French, most recently!) or is curled up with a book and a cup of coffee. She firmly believes that discovering what you don’t know is the key to knowledge and is constantly working towards improving herself. Drop in a line at [email protected] if you liked her stories, have something nice to say, or if you have compelling ideas to share!