What is the History of the Bicycle?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The history of the bicycle is actually a bit murky, which is rather remarkable when one considers the fact that the bicycle was developed in the 19th century, a very well-documented period in history. What is definitely known about the history of the bicycle is that it was marked by a number of false starts before people finally developed the bicycle in its modern form, and that bicycles have not changed much since the late 1800s, beyond the developments of cutting-edge materials to make bicycles more efficient.

Mountain bikes were developed in the late 20th Century.
Mountain bikes were developed in the late 20th Century.

The earliest version of the bicycle was developed in the late 1700s as a “walking machine.” It basically consisted of a bicycle frame which was walked, rather than pedaled. This rather pointless device wasn't a very big hit, not least because it was difficult to manage on surfaces other than smooth pavement or gravel, but it clearly inspired some would-be inventors.

The basic design of bicycles hasn't changed that much since the late 1800s.
The basic design of bicycles hasn't changed that much since the late 1800s.

In the 1860s, French inventors developed the velocipede, a pedaled variation on the walking machine which was better-known by the uncharitable name of “boneshaker,” a reference to the rough going on a velocipede. The pedals were located on the front wheel, with the rider reclining slightly to pedal the bicycle, and the wheels were made from wrought iron and wood, telegraphing every bump in the road to the unfortunate rider.

The boneshaker had one clear flaw beyond the uncomfortable ride: it was difficult to steer and tiring to pedal. In response to this problem, inventors developed the high wheel bicycle, also known as the penny farthing, in the 1870s. This bicycle had one large wheel in the front and a small one in the back, transforming each push of the pedals into more power and making the bicycle more efficient. Some creative variations on the boneshaker included tricycles for ladies, and four wheeled tandem bicycles.

Penny farthings were more efficient, but they were also dangerous, and not very comfortable to ride, even with an all-metal frame. The next major development in the history of the bicycle was the development of gearing, which allowed inventors to create the safety bicycle. Safety bicycles had two identically-sized wheels, with pedals in the middle attached to gears. The safety bicycle had a center of balance which was easy to maintain, and it was easy to steer and ride, thanks to the use of gearing.

With the invention of the safety bicycle, the popularity of bicycles began to explode, and it only increased when someone came up with the bright idea of the pneumatic tire, creating a smooth ride in addition to a safe one. The basic form of the bicycle has not changed since, although some elements on the frame have moved around, and improvements have been made in gearing and braking to improve efficiency and safety.

Modern bicycles are designed for a variety of purposes, including commuting, stunt riding, mountain biking, and cargo or passengers, with specialized versions for men, women, and children. The cost of a bicycle has also declined significantly since the 19th century, with basic bicycles being accessible to most consumers, although high-end versions can get quite costly.

The invention of the commonly used air tire has improved the efficiency and safety of bicycling.
The invention of the commonly used air tire has improved the efficiency and safety of bicycling.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I always suspected that those penny farthing cycles were uncomfortable. I feel like people are always talking about them as though they had some kind of virtue, but they don't just look ridiculous, they really were ridiculous with very few good points.

It would probably be safer to just use a unicycle.


@irontoenail - I don't think it's possible to get the same range of movement on a tricycle. And I can imagine people experimenting with a two wheeled bike that didn't have pedals and realizing that it could work well and stay upright as long as they were going at a certain speed.

The bicycle is actually one of the greatest inventions as far as I'm concerned. It's completely environmentally friendly and it makes it easy for people to go long distances without needing any power other than their own legs. I wish more people used bikes as a matter of course. The only problem with them is that they are dangerous with so many other vehicles on the road.


It's interesting how people pursued this idea even though it doesn't seem very intuitive and it wasn't exactly popular when it first came out. I mean, if I had never ridden a bike and never heard of one before, I wouldn't expect to be able to balance on two wheels like that. I would have thought that a tricycle arrangement would be more popular.

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