Who Built the First Rideable Bicycle?
There are several early but unverified claims for the invention of the bicycle. The earliest comes from a sketch said to be from 1534 and attributed to Gian Giacomo Caprotti, a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci. In 1998 Hans-Erhard Lessing described this as a purposeful fraud. However, the authenticity of the bicycle sketch is still vigorously maintained by followers of Prof. Augusto Marinoni, a lexicographer and philologist, who was entrusted by the Commissione Vinciana of Rome with the transcription of da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus.
Later, and equally unverified, is the contention that a certain “Comte de Sivrac” developed a célérifère in 1792, demonstrating it at the Palais-Royal in France. The célérifère supposedly had two wheels set on a rigid wooden frame and no steering, directional control being limited to that attainable by leaning. A rider was said to have sat astride the machine and pushed it along using alternate feet. It is now thought that the two-wheeled célérifère never existed (though there were four-wheelers) and it was instead a misinterpretation by the well-known French journalist Louis Baudry de Saunier in 1891.
The first rideable bicycle was made by Kirkpatrick MacMillan of Dumfriesshire, Scotland, in 1839, although an attempt to construct one had been made by Jean Theson at Fountainebleau, France, in 1645. Before this, crude machines had been made, which had no form of steering and had to be propelled by pushing the feet against the ground. Machines of this type appear on bas-reliefs in Babylon and Egypt and on frescoes in Pompeii.
In England, a stained glass window, dated 1580, in the Church of Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, shows a cherub astride such a machine. But all these machines seem to have been four-wheeled. The true bicycle belongs to the 19th Century. MacMillan’s bicycle was driven by rods attached from pedals to a sprocket on the rear wheel. The first chain-driven bicycle was produced by Tribout and Meyer in 1869. In this year the first bicycle show-in Paris-and the first cycle road race-from Paris to Rouen-took place.
An Englishman, James Starley, of Coventry in Warwickshire, is known as “the father of the cycle industry”. In 1871, he introduced a bicycle with a large driving wheel and a smaller trailing wheel. This was the “ordinary” bicycle, known to everyone as the penny-farthing.
In 1874, a chain-driven bicycle with two wheels of equal diameter was designed by H. J. Lawson. This was known as the Safety bicycle and became enormously popular from about 1885 when the Rover Safety bicycle was built by John K. Starley, James’s nephew. The pneumatic tire-in other words, a tire filled with air-was invented in 1888 by John Boyd Dunlop, a veterinary surgeon of Belfast, Northern Ireland. By 1893 the design of the bicycle had been developed into the modern diamond frame with roller-chain drive and pneumatic-tired wheels.
Bicycle historians often call this period the “golden age” or “bicycle craze.” By the start of the 20th century, cycling had become an important means of transportation, and in the United States an increasingly popular form of recreation. Bicycling clubs for men and women spread across the U.S. and across European countries. Chicago immigrant Adolph Schoeninger with his Western Wheel Works became the “Ford of the Bicycle” (ten years before Henry Ford) by copying Pope’s mass production methods and by introducing stamping to the production process in place of machining, significantly reducing production costs, and thus prices.
His “Crescent” bicycles thus became affordable for working people, and massive exports from the United States lowered prices in Europe. The Panic of 1893 wiped out many American manufacturers who had not followed the lead of Pope and Schoeninger, in the same way as the Great Depression would ruin car makers who did not follow Ford.