A history of the bicycle

A history of the bicycle

While the windmill has arguably been the most influential machine throughout Dutch history, surely the bicycle can claim second place in shaping life in the Lowlands.

A quarter of all trips made in the Netherlands are made by bike, a percentage that goes up to one third for all trips under 7,5 kilometres. That amounts to more than 4,5 billion annual bike rides over 15 billion kilometres, or 300 trips a year for well over 900 kilometres per person.

To facilitate all this riding, there are around 18 million bikes in the Netherlands, more than one per person, and with an average of 1,3 million bikes purchased every year, those numbers are not dropping.

For those interested in how the bicycle came to be such a ubiquitous part of life in the Netherlands, this excellent video gives a history of the decisions that led to fietscultuur. That just leaves the history of the machine itself.

The first bicycles

The first verifiable practical bicycle was invented by a German, Baron Karl von Drais, in 1817. He called it a Laufmaschine (running machine), as it was a balance bike made of wood with, instead of pedals, a sort of lever that turned the front wheel to steer. On his first reported ride, the baron covered 13 kilometres in less than an hour, which was very impressive for a machine weighing 22 kilograms.

The Laufmaschine was successful enough that British cartwrights took up the idea and sold improved models, which were quickly nicknamed "hobby-horses" after the children’s toy. The summer of 1819 saw the hobby-horse adopted by fashionable society in London, only to fade away once riders wore out their boots and were fined two pounds for riding on the footpath.

Developing mechanical propulsion

The first bicycle that looked like our modern conception of one was by a Scottish blacksmith in 1839, which had a rear-wheel design using mid-mounted treadles connected by rods to a rear crank. The first really popular design, however, was by a Frenchman, although exactly which Frenchman it was is still debated.

The first company to mass produce bicycles, however, was Michaux et Cie, founded in Paris in 1868. Their design, made of two pieces of cast iron bolted together, was easier to pedal than the Scottish ones, but it had stability and comfort problems: the pedals were mounted on the front wheel, which made it difficult to steer, earning it the nickname the "boneshaker". Michaux, however, named it the Vélocipède.

The Vélocipède was also a success in the Netherlands, where Henricus Burgers in Deventer founded the First Dutch Vélocipède Factory in 1869. Its brief popularity was destroyed in France by the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, however the boneshaker remained more common in the UK.

The penny-farthing

Improvements on the Vélocipède led to the development of the large front wheel bicycle known now as the penny-farthing, named for the coins. This design has a larger front wheel (the penny) to enable higher speeds, a smaller rear wheel (the farthing) and a lighter frame.

As penny-farthings travelled fast and riders were high up in the air, they were mostly only ridden by young men. Riders could be thrown over the front wheel ("taking a header" or "coming a cropper"), with two broken wrists not uncommon.

English inventor James Starley developed the "Ariel" model for the British market, with ball bearings, solid rubber tyres and hollow steel frame pieces. This design was exported all over the world, slowly being taken up in France after the war, as well as in the US and the British Empire. The machines were not especially cheap, however, so bicycling remained the province of the urban well-off.

The safety bicycle

That all changed with the development of the safety bicycle, which made cycling safe for both men and women of all ages. John Kemp Starley, James Starley’s nephew, produced the first successful design, which had a steerable front wheel, equal-sized wheels and a chain drive on the rear wheel.

As Starley didn’t patent his design, it was widely imitated and by 1890 had completely replaced the penny-farthing in North America and Western Europe. Its improved design was helped by John Dunlop’s reinvention of the pneumatic bicycle tyre in 1888, which made for a much smoother ride.

These improvements meant that by the late 1890s, the safety bicycle was very popular among the upper and middle classes of Europe and North America. It was also the first bicycle really suitable for women (given the fashions and mores of the time) and was taken up by them in large numbers.

Egalitarian cycling

The improved manufacturing process of Western Wheel Works in Chicago, using mass production and stamping for the frames, reduced production costs, in turn reducing prices. This made their "Crescent" bicycles affordable for working people, with massive exports from the United States lowering prices in Europe.

The impact that bicycles had on women in particular was great, as it gave them unprecedented mobility, even bringing about a sartorial change towards "rational dress", dispensing with corsets and ankle-length skirts.

Cycling in the 20th and 21st centuries

While cycling decreased in popularity in North America as people came to prefer the automobile, it continued to grow in Europe over the first half of the 20th century, with commuting, bicycle racing and "cyclotouring" all popular activities, as they are today.

Using gears on bikes was allowed by European racing organisations in the 1930s, although ordinary bikes, including most military bikes used in World War II, were still single speed.

After the war, developments in cycling have focused mostly on getting bicycles to be lighter and faster, using new technology such as carbon fibre or 3D printing. The model that most people ride around the Netherlands, the ever-popular omafiets, is still largely based on John Kemp Starley’s design from the 1880s.

Sources: Wikipedia, Histotheek

Alexandra Gowling


Alexandra Gowling

Alexandra is an Australian citizen and an experienced expat, having spent (quite a bit of) time in Asia before coming to the Netherlands a year ago. She enjoys writing, reading...

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