The history and evolution of the bicycle


The 207 year history and evolution of the bicycle

The origins of the bicycle are shrouded in mystery. It is not possible to attribute its invention to any single person. Still, what is clear is that the early ancestors of the modern bicycle were in use by the early 1800s. To celebrate May is Bike Month, we wanted to highlight parts of the incredible history and evolution of the bicycle and its impact on society. From its humble beginning as a possible replacement for the horse, to its use during the suffrage movement as a symbol of freedom and liberty — the history and evolution of the bicycle is filled with incredible stories.

We will briefly will cover:

  1. The beginning of the bicycle
  2. Key moments and figures in the development of the bicycle
  3. When did folding bikes join the party?
  4. Bicycles and society today


The beginning of the bicycle


The first iteration of the bicycle goes back to 1791, when Comte de Sivrac was seen riding a two-wheel “wooden horse” in the gardens of the Palais Royal in Paris. This new human powered machine, also known as celeriferes/velociferes were propelled forward by the rider pushing with their legs and had two rigid wheels which made steering incredibly difficult. Lifting, pulling or jumping of the front wheel was required to change direction. Despite their lack of steering and rough ride, these machines, remained popular over the next two decades. Some men in Paris formed clubs and raced along the Champs Elysees, years before the first Tour de France.

The improvements

In 1817, prolific German inventor Karl von Drais, published an advertisement (above) showcasing his custom, made-to-order invention: the Laufmaschine (running machine in German.)

A forester for the Grand Duke of Baden, Karl Drais is also credited with inventing early versions of the typewriter, stenographer and the meat grinder. Drais used his new Laufsmaschine to explore the Duke’s forests and continue testing his design. Thanks to his skills, Drais was appointed professor of mechanics by the Grand Duke Karl. Despite his new design allowing people to cover twice the distance than they could on foot, this machine had some downfalls. There were no pedals, the only way to propel forward was to push with your legs.

The original Laufsmachine design, also known as velocipede or hobby-horse in Europe, was improved by Denis Johnson in 1819. His design featured a sleek curved wooden frame with some metals parts chosen to reduce weight and increase comfort.

Early velocipede racing and touring

It was not long before this improved design reached the United States. An article in the May 28, 1819 edition of the New York Post read “This new invented machine for traveling, which has been seen in the Park and Broadway yesterday, to the astonishment of the spectators, who had conceived it an impossibility for a man, by his own exertions, to move with so much facility and swiftness…

Similarly, it did not take long before two people wanted to race on these “new machines.” Races between velocipedes and horses were also quite common, as the velocipede was pitched as a replacement for the horse: cheaper, faster, easier to store. And it ate less. One of the first mentions of a race between two bicycles was on the March 22, 1819 edition of Hampshire Telegraph and Naval Chronicle. “Yesterday a race took place at Chigwell-row, Essex, between Mr. Jones and Mr. Brady, for 25 guineas, who went the greatest distance in one hour, upon one of the Velocipedes, or modern hobby-horses! The stakes were won by Mr. Jones performing 7 ¾ miles, beating his adversary ¼ of a mile.

Velocipede touring quickly became a thing. A story The Morning Chronicle, London, June 7, 1819, described how it “is now become quite common for persons to come down from London on Velocipedes [to Brighton]. Mr. T. Alford and three others arrived here at one o’clock on Sunday afternoon, having performed the journey (50 miles) in little more than nine hours.”

Who invented the first pedal-powered bicycle?

Another part of the bicycle evolution shrouded in mystery is who first invented the first pedal powered bicycle. Most can agree that pedals were born in the workshop of Pierre Michaux, in 1863 but there is no definitive proof about whether it was Michaux, his employee Pierre Lallement or even his own son Ernest Michaux. Nevertheless, this statue exists today in honor of Pierre and his son Ernest, celebrating them as the inventors of the first pedal powered bicycle.

How dangerous Penny-farthings led to the design of safety bicycles and the modern bicycle

In the 1870s, the penny-farthing, featuring pedals connected to a large front wheel and a smaller back wheel, gained popularity. This design allowed for higher speeds but was also dangerous due to its high center of gravity.

Next came the boneshaker

In the 1880s, the “safety bicycle” was introduced, featuring two wheels of the same size and a chain-driven rear wheel. This design was safer and more comfortable, leading to a surge in popularity.

Small wheels and folding frames

Collapsible bikes have existed ever since the invention of the safety bicycle in 1880s. These were popular as modes of transport for military paratroopers. In 1900, Mikael Pederson created a folding version of his Pedersen bicycle for the British army (photo below). This folding bike weighed 6.8 kg (15 lb) and had 24 in wheels was fitted with a rifle rack and was used during the Second Boer War.


The history of the modern folding bike started with the release of the F Frame Moulton Bike, invented by Sir Alex Moulton in 1962. Alex Moulton’s F Frame line-up consisted of 5 models and was aimed at being more comfortable and adjustable. He also decided his new design would have small wheels and high-pressure tires, which made it faster and lighter.

The F Frame design performed so well that only a month after the Moulton was launched, John Woodburn broke the Cardiff-London record on a Moulton F-Frame, covering 162 miles at an average speed of 24 miles per hour.

By the 1970s, other bike companies began offering a folding bike in their model line up. For example: the Raleigh 20 folding bike was first offered in 1968, the Bickerton Folding Bicycle was released in 1971 and in 1976 Andrew Ritchie released the Brompton folding bike.

By the late 1980’s Bike Friday Founders, Hanz and Alan Scholz, began brainstorming a folding bike that could fit in a suitcase but still performed well during bike touring trips. Finally, in 1992, Green Gear Cycling, the parent company to Bike Friday, began offering the Sport 14. The Sport 14 design became the New World Tourist which is still made in our Eugene, Oregon Factory and has become the best selling Bike Friday model.

Bicycles and the suffrage movement

In May 1819, Denis Johnson introduced a dropped-frame version for ladies to accommodate their long skirts, calling it the Ladies’s Walking Machine.

Bicycles would become, several decades later, an important part of the suffrage movement in the United States. In 1896, Susan B. Anthony wrote: “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike.” Cycling provided women with newfound independence and mobility, allowing them to travel greater distances and participate in activities outside the home.

As the popularity of bicycles grew nationwide, a bicycle club, the League of American Wheelmen, was formed on 30 May, 1880 in Rhode Island. Membership quickly reached 150,000 in 1900. 140 years later, the League of American Bicyclists remains committed to promoting cycling for fun, fitness and transportation through advocacy and education.

Bicycles today

What began as a simple replacement for the horse has turned into a global industry worth over $64.62 billion in 2022. Over 100 million bicycles are produced every year around the world and there are 52 million bicycle riders in the U.S.

Bike Friday‘s neighboring city of Portland, Oregon is even ranked as the 2nd most bike friendly city in the United States, behind Minneapolis, Minnesota.



Sources and further reading:

The Smithsonian

Momentum Magazine

World Bicycle Relief

“Inventing the bicycle” Biking France Blog

The Year Without Summer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *