Penny-Farthings, Washington D.C., c. 1884
Looking at the bicycles in the picture above, it's hard to believe their roots go as deep as the 15th century. But in 1418, Giovanni Fontana had invented the first-ever man-powered, wheel-based machine of transportation. It had 4 wheels and a rope connected by gears. Several centuries later in 1790, the Comte Mede de Sivrac of France invented what he called Celerifere. These were wooden bikes with two wheels of the same size, with no pedals and no steering at all. Another few decades after in 1817, Karl von Drais had invented and built his own version of the Celerifere, this time with a steering mechanism. They were referred to by many names, mostly velocipede, and running machines.
Von Drais' bikes came from a necessity: there was a shortage of oats to feed the horses, which created a need for an alternative means of transportation. Most resources will probably omit Giovanni Fontana and the Comte Mede de Sivrac of France from their list of bicycle inventors, but Karl von Drais is widely recognized as a major contributor to the bicycles' history.
Two Argentinian cyclists who were on a cycling journey of 2 years, 1936
From 1860 onwards, the bike will develop in baby steps, having small but significant tweaks and improvements every few years. Each one of those "upgrades" is made by a different inventor. In the 1860s, the French were working diligently on developing pedals. Their prototypes were the first to be called "bicycles", but they had another name- “boneshakers”, for the rough nature of their ride, especially on the cobbled streets that were so commonly paved in major cities at the time.
In this decade, in 1868 specifically, Clement Ader filed a patent for rubber wheels.
Daredevil act before an audience, c. 1905
And then came the Penny-Farthings. Those vintage lolling bikes we see only in cartoons today. The ones with the huge front wheel, and minute rear wheel. This design was invented by James Starley in order to enhance stability, and it was truly all the rage in the 1870s and 1880s. It contributed to the establishment of bicycle clubs and competitive races. People were so drawn to the Penny-Farthings that in 1884, an English man went out to ride them around the globe.
Another cartoon-ish type of bike, the unicycle, was invented in the 1870s. In that same period, in 1876, inventors Browett & Harrison filed for a patent for the caliper brake.
Six-day bicycle race in Madison Square Garden, c. 1900.
The Starley Penny-Farthings were developed for safety, but ironically, they were exceptionally unstable due to their size. They also took up much space, making them no-so-portable, to say the least. Over the years, there were more than a few patents for portable folding bikes but these never took off. And so in 1885, the safety bikes came around, sporting a design close to that of today, with two equally sized wheels.
We mentioned before that the history of the bike is a patchy messy one, didn't we? The 1885 safety bikes weren't the first model to be called that. There was an earlier, lesser-known safety bike from 1879. Its safety was in its rear-wheel chain drive.
Messenger boy in New York, 1896
The 1880s, dubbed the "Golden Age of the Bicycle" was also when the adult tricycle and the pneumatic tire were introduced. This is the inflatable tire, made to resolve the problem of the achy bottom that was shaken mercilessly on cobbled stone streets, without shock absorbers. Towards the end of the decade, in 1889, two more patents were filed for the tandem bikes (the ones with two seats for two riders) and the pedal-back brake (in which, you pedal back to break).
"The only marvelously magical mid-air riders of the standard wheel", c. 1900
People's enthusiasm about bikes quickly caught up with the times, and early as 1897, people started filing patents for electric-powered bikes. These were batteries based or pedal-powered. Rush hour in the 1890s looked like the Tour de France, since the streets were packed with bikes, which were one of the main means of transportation. In the picture below, you can see the woman in the front is riding a three-wheel bike, steered and braked through handles and pedals.
Bikes were included as one of the events in the first modern Olympic games in 1896. In 1903, The first Tour de France was held as a promotional event for L’Auto, a French newspaper.
Aquarelle print of cyclists, 1887
The future of the bikes from this point in time on is pretty much common knowledge. In this period towards the turn of the 19th century, some big bike companies started springing up, some remain functional to this day, like Raleigh and Schwinn. Then came mountain bikes, and electric bikes as we know them today, the famous BMX bikes and Amsterdam, the city of bikes. To think this all started way back in the 4th century BC with a small discovery of the wheel!
We welcome you to enjoy the rest of the photos, and if you'd like to see more, please visit the full digitized collection on the Library of Congress website.
A Woman's self-portrait dressed as a man with his penny-farthings, 1890
British actress Madge Lessing, 1898
Leisure cyclists, East Potomac Park, Washington, D.C., 1942