Bicycles: From Dangerous Designs... I Oxford Open Learning


    Bicycles: From Dangerous Designs…

    June is a great month for celebrating the bike, with the 10th to the 16th being National Bike Week. So let’s explore a little of the history of this everyday object.

    The Laufmaschine

    The first contraption that could be considered an ancestor of the modern bicycle was the Laufmaschine (or running machine in English), also known as the dandy horse, swift-walker and hobbyhorse. It was created by German inventor Karl von Drais in 1817. This early form of bicycle consisted of a wooden frame with two wooden wheels and leather-covered tyres. The Laufmaschine didn’t have pedals and so, as the name suggests, the rider was required to push themselves along with their feet whilst siting atop the frame. Aside from having no pedals, the Laufmaschine also lacked brakes and a steering mechanism and so was difficult, and pretty dangerous, to operate.


    Drais’ Laufmaschine enjoyed only a brief moment of popularity, but it inspired numerous French inventors to develop new prototypes improved the rider experience This included a three-wheeler version, developed in 1850, which allowed for a more stable ride, and the first bikes with pedals in the early 1860s. Known as velocipedes, these early bikes were still made of a wooden frame but had pedals on the axle of the front wheel. They were often nicknamed boneshakers because, with the rider now fully mounted on the bike and the issue of shock absorption not having been addressed yet, they could feel all of the bumps in the road surface, making for a pretty uncomfortable ride.

    The Penny Farthing

    In 1870, the infamous Penny Farthing was invented. The name came from the shape of the bike as it was said to resemble a penny and a farthing coin next to each – then front wheel being significantly larger than the rear. Whilst the four-foot-high saddle of the Penny Farthing made it very difficult for riders to mount and offered a dangerously unstable ride, this new model gave rise to the first bicycle clubs and competitions which became quite popular during the 1870s and 80s.

    Bicycles Become Safer And More Practical

    In 1885, English inventor John Kemp Starley developed the ‘safety bicycle’ which featured equally sized wheels, a rear wheel that was connected and driven by a chain, and a frame made of steel rather than wood. As tyre technology improved, air-filled pneumatic tyres were added to the safety bicycle and in 1903 internal hub gears were invented. Shock absorption remained an issue for bike riders and, whilst inventors had played around with coil springs and bumpers, it wasn’t until the 1930s, when designers began to take inspiration from motorbikes, that developments in suspension technology really took off.

    For more information about the evolution of the bike, visit Science of Cycling: History of Bicycle Frames. If you’re also interested in learning about the long history of e-bikes (the first electric bike was created in 1895!) you can do so here: History of the Electric Bike | Electric Cycles (


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