History of the Bike: A National Bike to Work Day Salute

It’s National Bike to Work Day, so we thought we’d look at the many changes the bicycle has seen over the years. It’s surprisingly fascinating.

Photo by Ian Wilkes

It’s National Bike to Work Day, which means you’re likely to see more bikes than usual on the road today. But for many, cycling to work is just part of the daily routine. In fact, an estimated 3.2 million people in the U.S. bike to work at least once a week.

Cycling has gone through many highs and lows over the years, so in honor of National Bike to Work Day, we thought we’d take a look at the history of the bike — from its early inception through today. (History buffs take note: though we did our best to verify these dates, early records conflict somewhat.)

History of the bike

3500 B.C. (or so)
The wheel is invented in Mesopotamia. People line up for days to be one of the first to own one but then feel duped when the sleeker second-generation model comes out a year later. (Or so we suspect.)

1790 (ish)
Comte de Sivrac puts 2 wheels together to form the célérifère, a wooden, bike-like contraption with no pedals or steering ability. To change direction, the rider would have to lift, drag, or jump the front wheel to one side. And fixed-gear riders thought they were hard-core!

1817
Baron von Drais invents the Draisine. Though not the first 2-wheeler on the market, the Draisine — also referred to as the “swiftwalker” or “hobby horse” — includes a handlebar, which gives the operator the ability to steer (brilliant!). However, its lack of pedals means riders have to use their feet to propel themselves Flintstone-style.

Mid 1800s
Pedals are added to the front axle of what is now referred to as the vélocipède (French for “fast feet”). The uncomfortable friction created by the wood and metal wheels rolling over cobblestone streets, however, leads to the not-so-endearing nickname “boneshaker.”

1868
The vélocipède makes its way to the U.S. where it takes off in a big way — and then quickly loses steam once people realize how cumbersome it is.

Early 1870s
The high-front-wheeled Ordinary bike (also known as the “penny farthing”) makes its debut, as does the word “bicycle.” The large front wheel improves comfort and speed, but, with its awkward center of gravity, does little for safety.

1880s
After one too many “headers” (incidences of people flying over their handlebars of their Ordinaries when they braked), the Safety bike — a bike with same-sized wheels and hollow tubing — is created.

1889
Pneumatic (inflatable) rubber tires are invented and added to the Safety bike. Woohoo! No more bone shaking! Brakes are also improved (since stopping’s kinda cool). Bicycling regains popularity in the U.S and has a surprising effect on women’s liberation. Susan B. Anthony says, “I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”

Early 1900s
It was too good to last. Bicycling’s popularity once again wanes as cars bust onto the scene and other forms of recreation carry the day.

1956
The League of American Bicyclists deems May National Bike to Work Month.

1960s
Due to an increasing concern over pollution and thanks to its affordability, the bike once again makes a comeback.

1972
Partially due to astronomical gas prices (sound familiar?) bicycles outsell cars in the United States.

2012 
Mountain bikes, road bikes, fixed-gear bikes, and foldable bikes … we’re a society that’s just gotta ride (the latest U.S. Census reports that 38 million people enjoy riding their bikes). And why not? Whether for recreation or transportation, biking has a lot to offer (like saving on gas and getting exercise).

So for all you 2-wheeled road warriors who biked to work today (or any day), we salute you.

Related links

5.5 steps for participating in Bike to Work Day
Tips for sharing the roads with bikes
Finding the perfect bike rack

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