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British Industrial History

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History of the Cycle

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c1820. Hobby Horse.
c1820. Hobby Horse.
French Celeripede of 1816.
Johnson's pedestrian hobby horse riding school.

A bicycle, or bike, is a pedal-driven, human-powered vehicle with two wheels attached to a frame, one behind the other.

The concept was of the 'Hobby-horse' was picked up by a number of British cartwrights; the most notable being Denis Johnson of London. We can assume a name change occurred when Johnson patented his vehicle and named it “pedestrian curricle” or “velocipede,” but the public preferred nick-names like “hobbyhorse,” after the children’s toy or, worse still, “dandy-horse,” after the foppish men who often rode them. Johnson's machine was an improvement on Drais's, being notably more elegant: his wooden frame had a serpentine shape instead of Drais's straight one, which allowed the use of larger wheels without raising the seat higher.

1819 During the summer of 1819 the "hobby-horse", thanks in part to Johnson's marketing skills and better patent protection, became the craze and fashion in London society. The dandies, the Corinthians of the Regency, adopted it, therefore the poet John Keats referred to it as "the nothing" of the day. Riders wore out their boots surprisingly rapidly, and the fashion ended within the year, after riders on sideways were fined two pounds. Nevertheless, the velocipede provided the basis for further developments.

Because of an increasing number of accidents involving pedestrians, municipalities began enacting laws prohibiting the use of these "velocipedes" on city streets. After 1819, the dandy-horse mostly faded into obscurity.

Though technically not part of 2-wheel "bicycle" history, the intervening decades of the 1820s-1850s witnessed many inventions concerning human-powered vehicles also called velocipedes using technologies building on the draisine, but the idea of a workable 2-wheel design, requiring the rider to balance, had been dismissed, as these new machines were all tricycles or quadricycles. Only gradually did the design of self-propelling vehicles progress. Mechanics experimented with pedal or handle driven in three or four wheeled designs, but these suffered from greater weight and higher rolling resistance. However, Willard Sawyer in Dover successfully manufactured such vehicles and exported them worldwide in the 1850s. Many of these inventions were later applied to the bicycle.

1839 The first mechanically-propelled 2-wheel vehicle was believed to have been built by Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a Scottish blacksmith. A nephew later claimed that his uncle developed a rear-wheel drive design using mid mounted treadles connected by rods to a rear crank, similar to the transmission of a steam locomotive. Proponents associate him with the first recorded instance of a bicycling traffic offence, when a Glasgow newspaper reported in 1842 an accident in which an anonymous "gentleman from Dumfriesshire... bestride a velocipede... of ingenious design" knocked over a pedestrian in the Gorbals and was fined five British shillings. However, the evidence connecting this with MacMillan isn't even circumstantial, since the artisan MacMillan wouldn't have been termed a gentleman.

A similar machine was said to have been produced by Gavin Dalzell of Lesmahagow.

The first documented producer of rod-driven 2-wheelers was Thomas McCall, of Kilmarnock in 1869. The design could not compete with the front-crank velocipede of the Lallement / Michaux type, however, despite McCall's all steel version of 1869.

1860s The first really popular and commercially successful design was a French one (an example of the style is held in the Museum of Science and Technology (Ottawa)). Initially developed around 1863, it sparked a fashionable craze briefly during 1868-70. Its design was simpler than the Macmillan bicycle, it used rotary cranks and pedals mounted to the front wheel hub. Pedalling made it easier for riders to propel the machine at speed, but the un-geared limitations of the design would later lead to the large front wheel of the "Penny-farthing".

The use of metal frames reduced the weight and provided sleeker, more elegant designs, and also allowed mass-production. Different braking mechanisms were used depending on the manufacturer. In England, the velocipede earned the name of "bone-shaker" because of its rigid frame and iron banded wheels that resulted in a "bone-shaking experience for riders."

1870s The high bicycle - the 'Penny-farthing' - was the logical extension of the boneshaker design, the front wheel enlarging (limited by the inside leg measurement of the rider), the rear wheel shrinking and the frame being made lighter. The Frenchman Eugene Meyer is now regarded as the father of the High Bicycle by the ICHC in place of James Starley. Meyer invented the wire-spoke tension wheel in 1869 and produced a classic high bicycle design until the 1880s.

James Starley in Coventry added the tangent spokes and the mounting step to his famous bicycle named the Ariel. He is regarded as the father of the British cycling industry.

Ball bearings, solid rubber tires and hollow-section steel frames became standard, reducing weight and making the ride much smoother. Depending on the rider's leg length, the front wheel could now have a diameter up to 60-inch (1.5 m). This type of bicycle was known as the "ordinary", and was later nicknamed "Penny-farthing" in England. They were fast, but unsafe. The rider was high up in the air and travelling at a great speed. If he hit a bad spot in the road he could easily be thrown over the front wheel and be seriously injured or even killed. "Taking a header" (also known as "coming a cropper") was not at all uncommon. The rider's legs were often caught underneath the handlebars, so falling free of the machine was often not possible. The dangerous nature of these bicycles meant that cycling was the preserve of adventurous young men.

The American "Star" bicycle was an ordinary high-wheeler turned around to prevent those headers, with the large wheel in the rear, but now there was the danger of being thrown backwards when riding uphill. Elderly gentlemen preferred, and women had to ride, the more stable tricycles or quadricycles. Queen Victoria owned Starley's "Royal Salvo" tricycle, though there is no evidence she actually rode it.

Other makers at this time included Thomas Humber of Nottingham, Daniel Rudge of Wolverhampton, John Keen, F. Noble and Co of London and the Phantom Wheel Co

Although French and English inventors modified the velocipede into the high-wheel bicycle, the French were still recovering from the Franco-Prussian war, so English entrepreneurs put the high-wheeler on the English market, and the machine became very popular there, Coventry, Oxford, Birmingham and Manchester being the centres of the English bicycle industry. Soon bicycles found their way across the English Channel.

By 1875 high-wheel bicycles were becoming popular in France, though ridership expanded slowly. In the United States, Bostonians such as Frank Weston and Albert A. Pope started importing bicycles in 1877 and 1878, and Pope started production of his "Columbia" high-wheelers in 1878, and gained control of nearly all applicable patents, starting with Lallement's 1866 patent. Pope lowered the royalty (licensing fee) previous patent owners charged, and took his competitors to court over the patents. The courts supported him, and competitors either paid royalties ($10 per bicycle), or he forced them out of business. There seems to have been no patent issue in France, but English bicycles still dominated the French market.

By 1884 high-wheelers and tricycles were relatively popular among a small group of upper-middle-class people in all three countries, the largest group being in England. Their use also spread to the rest of the world, chiefly because of the extent of the British Empire.

1879 Aside from the obvious safety problems, the high-wheeler's direct front wheel drive limited its top speed. Accordingly, inventors tried a rear wheel chain drive. Although a Henry Lawson invented a rear-chain-drive bicycle in 1879 with his "bicyclette", it still had a huge front wheel and a small rear wheel. Detractors called it "The Crocodile", and it failed in the market.

1885 John Kemp Starley, James's nephew, produced the first successful "safety bicycle", the Rover and which he never patented. It featured equally sized wheels and a chain drive to the rear wheel. It was widely imitated, and this safety bicycle completely replaced the high-wheeler in North America and Western Europe by 1890.

1888 John Boyd Dunlop's reinvention of the pneumatic tyre made for a much smoother ride.As with the original velocipede, safety bicycles had been much less comfortable than high-wheelers precisely because of the smaller wheel size, and frames were often buttressed with complicated spring assemblies; the pneumatic tire made all of these obsolete, and frame designers found a diamond pattern to be the strongest and most efficient design.

The combination of the chain drive, the pneumatic tire, and the diamond frame all helped bicycles become very popular among elites and the middle classes in Europe and North America in the middle and late 1890s. It was the first bicycle that was suitable for women, and as such the "freedom machine" (as American feminist Susan B. Anthony called it) was taken up by women in large numbers.

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.

The safety bicycle was only relatively safe, and clearly women could not cycle in the then-current fashions for voluminous and restrictive dress. The bicycle craze fed into a movement for so-called rational dress, which helped liberate women from corsets and ankle-length skirts and other encumbering garments, substituting the then-shocking bloomers.

Cycling steadily became more important in Europe over the first half of the twentieth century, but it dropped off dramatically in the United States between 1900 and 1910. Automobiles became the preferred means of transportation. Over the 1920s, bicycles gradually became considered children's toys, and by 1940 most bicycles in the United States were made for children. In Europe cycling remained an adult activity, and bicycle racing, commuting, and "cyclotouring" were all popular activities.

The derailleur gear developed in France between 1900 and 1910 among cyclotourists, and was improved over time. Only in the 1930s did European racing organisations allow racers to use derailleurs; until then they were forced to use a two-speed bicycle. The rear wheel had a cog on either side of the hub. To change gears, the rider had to stop, remove the wheel, flip it around, and remount the wheel. When racers were allowed to use derailleurs, racing times immediately dropped.

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