“Life is like riding a bicycle: you don’t fall off unless you stop pedaling.” Claude Pepper
The first two wheel means of transport, and the forerunner of the bicycle, was the Draisienne or laufmaschine and was invented by the German Baron Karl von Drais and presented to the public in 1817 in Mannheim. The Draisienne had no pedals and consisted of a wooden frame with two in-line wheels and was driven by the rider pushing along the ground with the feet while steering the front wheel.
In 1865 the Frenchman Pierre Michaux and his son Ernest built what looked like our modern-day bicycle. Their vélocipède (fast foot, from Latin velox, fast, and pes, foot) had an iron frame and iron wheels, with pedals mounted on the front wheels, but was not chain-driven.
Due to the absence of a chain, there was no power transmission: the speed of the bicycle could only be increased by making the wheel on which the pedals were assembled larger. This led to the creation of the High Bi in 1870 (Bi referring to bicyclette, two wheeler), a bicycle with a large front wheel and a tiny rear wheel. Balancing on such a high bike was not easy and obstacles on the road led the rider to be catapulted over the front wheel. The High Bi that is seen as the start of the High Bi era was the Ariel, built by James Starley in 1871. It was a steel bike with radial spokes.
The first successful chain driven bicycle, the Rover, was introduced by John Kemp Starley in 1885 (although the first bicycle with chain drive was invented by the German K. Meyer in 1868). It had a steerable front wheel and equally sized wheels with a chain drive to the rear wheel. This bicycle, called safety bicycle, quickly became so popular that it replaced the High Bi in North America and Europe by 1890. The chain drive, the pneumatic tire invented by John Dunlop in 1888, changing steering the front wheel to the rear wheel and the diamond frame all made riding a bicycle more comfortable and smooth.
The golden age or bicycle craze started and by the start of the 20th century cycling had become and important means of transportation and an increasingly popular from of recreation with bicycle clubs spreading in both the USA and Europe.
In the USA the Western Wheel Works in Chicago, founded by immigrant Adolph Schoeninger, became the dominant producer in the US. He used mass production methods and introduced stamping in the production process, reducing production costs and thus prices (a method later adopted by Henry Ford). This made his “Crescent” bicycles affordable for working people.
The bicycle has played an important role in female emancipation because it gave them mobility and personal freedom. Since women could not cycle in the then fashionable voluminous dress, the increase in women driving bicycles led to the movement for the “rational dress”, liberating women from corsets and ankle-length skirts.
Women´s bicycles´ frames have a top tube that is connected in the middle of the seat tube instead of the top. This design, known as a step-through frame or an open frame, allows the rider to mount and dismount in a gracious way while wearing a skirt or dress.
With the increased popularity of the automobile at the beginning of the 20th century, bicycles gradually became considered children’s toys, and by 1940 most bicycles in the United States were made for children.
Today the 5 countries with the most bicycles per capita are the Netherlands (18 million bikes vs. a population of 16,9 million), Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Norway.
More reading material on bicycles in the Netherlands:
http://www.fietsersbond.nl/de-feiten/fietsen-cijfers/fietsen-cijfers-2#14 (website in Dutch)
a 2-wheeled vehicle that a person rides by pushing on foot pedals (source: Merriam Webster).
The English bicycle, Spanish bicicleta and Italian bicicletta come from Latin bi-, two, plus Greek kyklos, circle, wheel.
The origins of Dutch fiets are unknown. Some say it comes from French vélocipède, which over time changed into fieselepee, fietsepee and then fiets. Another theory suggests it comes from the word vietse in a dialect spoken in Limburg (southern part of the Netherlands), to move fast, probably from French vite, fast.
Bicycle in other languages:
Dutch: de fiets
Spanish: la bicicleta
Italian: la bicicletta