“Ideas rise out of communities of creative people.
What do the following have in common: a derailleur gear, an aluminum frame, the freewheel, disc wheels, anatomical saddles, clipless pedals, suspension, folding bikes? Answer: they were all ideas that originated in the late 1800s. The late English cycling historian, John Pinkerton, once remarked, “Think of a new idea in bicycle design and someone will have already invented it, probably in the nineteenth century.”
|After the fundamentals of bicycle design had been conceived
by the end of the 1860s, a multitude of subsequent improvements were suggested
and tried. In some cases the ideas died, marking the end of that particular
evolutionary branch. In other instances, the concepts were embraced to
the point that they led to commercial successes. It’s worth noting
that Jim Hurd, the former curator of the Bicycle Museum of America, says
that at the turn of the century there were two buildings in Washington
DC that held every patent in the U.S. One building held patents covering
every type of product you can think of. The other building was reserved
specifically for bicycle patents. It’s a manifestation of how much
energy had gone into refining the bicycle and it’s the reason why
it’s such a challenge for modern designers to make any sea-change
When browsing through the timeline below, remember that bicycle inventions that were successful were rarely the result of a spontaneous flash of inspiration by one person. More commonly, they were built on previous ideas and experiments and no one date or individual can always be attributed to a particular design. Furthermore, many viable prototypes were abandoned and not pursued until years later. One could argue, perhaps, that an invention should have successful “progeny” to be considered a true milestone. Some “milestones” can thus be challenged in that they only gained importance in retrospect; they might have marked a stepping stone to something more advanced from which there was no turning back but in reality, the innovation was quickly forgotten and had no permanent impact. All this creates both ambiguity and controversy as to who the “true” inventor was and the date when the first successful version was produced.
To add to the confusion, in recent years several early icons of bicycle history have been relegated to the hopper of popular myth. Most, if not all, alleged developments before the granting of the Von Drais patent in 1818 are highly conjectural.
For example, the drawing of a “bicycle” (circa 1493) purported to be by Giacomo Caprotti, a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci (photo left; click to enlarge; source #1), is now acknowledged by most to be a hoax.
The Flemish or German “Bicycle Window,” which was installed in Stoke Poges church in the 16th or 17th century (photo right; click to enlarge; source #2), shows an angel on a device that some argue looks like a prototype hobbyhorse. It is far more likely to be a one-wheeled contraption that was often associated with cherubims and seraphims in mediaeval iconography.
There is also the risk that, unless there is credible documentary evidence, some early innovations are actually subsequent bicycle priority claims from the 1890s or later and are thus false stepping stones that do not convey an accurate history.
For example, a vehicle with two wheels in-line (photo left; click to enlarge; source #3) was attributed to a Comte de Sivrac around 1791 but this story was most likely created by the historian Baudry de Saunier in 1891 and has erroneously been copied by numerous authors ever since.
Other claims are more problematical. A case in point is the chain and rear cog-driven velocipede attributed to Meyer and Guilmet in 1869 (photo right; click to enlarge; source #4) and which is now in the Musée des Arts et Métiers. Serious questions remain unanswered as to the date and history of the bike even though it is held up by some to be a true missing link in bicycle evolution.
Arguments about who invented the bicycle are thus rarely fruitful and never conclusive. In all likelihood, the Baron von Drais (Germany), Kirkpatrick Macmillan (Scotland), the Michaux family (France), Henry Lawson (England) and many others, all contributed critical elements but it was the Starley family of Coventry, England who can perhaps lay claim to bringing it all together as a commercial venture even though their first models were unsuccessful and they did not necessarily “invent” the designs that they incorporated. Nevertheless, within 20 years after the Boneshaker appeared in the 1860s, most of the basic elements of modern bicycle design had appeared and were included in Starley’s 1885 “Rover” (photo left; click to enlarge; source #5).
Even though controversy still surrounds Macmillan’s machine, it was prophetic in that it included three of these critical design elements: (1) two smallish, equally-sized wheels with the rider sitting between them (2) a rear-wheel drive and (3) a front wheel that was steered and was independent of the transmission. The additional two pieces of the puzzle that were subsequently incorporated by Starley and others were (4) a “geared-up” drivetrain (such that the number of pedal revolutions does not equal the number of wheel rotations) and (5) the chain drive itself which was eventually to become ubiquitous.
Since those early days, there have been periods of relative famine when it comes to dramatic improvements in bicycle or component design. This was largely a result of two phenomena. First was the rise of the automobile in the 1920s. The second cause was rather more ominous, namely the perverse policy of the Union Cycliste Internationale and other cycling organizations to ban radical or innovative bicycles from competing in their sanctioned events. These prohibitions included derailleur gears, wheel rims made of anything except wood and frames of a configuration other than the standard diamond. Not surprisingly, nothing earth shattering shows up between 1910 and 1930, until Tullio Campagnolo begins to influence the industry. There seems to be another period of relative inactivity in the 1950s and 60s but this was followed by the bicycle boom of the 80s led by Japanese and American companies and which spawned the high-tech machines of today. Trickle-down of the technology means that sophisticated bicycles can now be had for relatively modest prices.
In the last two decades, there have been many recent advances in materials, especially the increasingly widespread use of carbon fiber and titanium. In addition, the demise of the threaded fork and quill stem in favor of the threadless fork/stem combination, the increased numbers of gears and the improvements in wheel design are valid contributions to bicycle evolution. Finally, the fat-tire folks would probably consider the new fork and frame suspensions as fairly revolutionary changes in their bikes even though there were marketable versions of effective suspension systems that date back 100 years. Other design changes, such as larger steerer tubes, integrated headsets, and compact frames may still be controversial but do seem to be working their way into the mainstream of bicycle development.
And what of the future? For the mass market, the industry will need to continue to improve those things that discourage more people from riding: comfort, finicky gears, oily chains, flat tires etc. The road bike business got a severe wake-up call when the mountain bike phenomenon occurred although the playing field has leveled out somewhat since the heady days of the 1980s and 90s when the fat-tire contingent were outselling their skinny-wheeled brethren.However, since then, the “comfort” and hybrid bikes have now created a sizable niche in the market. Some form of suspension could soon end up on every good bike, road or mountain of any style. Perhaps recumbents and small-wheeled bicycles will now move further into the mainstream; their aficionados always claim that they should not be regarded as “velo-eccentrics” but sales figures do not really support them … yet. Even though they might be an anathema to the hard-core sports riders, new pedaling-assist mechanisms may also become more common.
At some point, maybe the crank/chain/cogs system of the drivetrain will be replaced by something totally different or at least by non-metallic components that need no lubrication. In the meantime, it is inevitable that still further increases in the number of gears is probably being considered though with thirty-speed systems now readily available, one must continue to ask what the practical limit is. Perhaps CVT (Continuous Variable Transmission) shifting system will achieve the light weight, robustness and efficiency to become a market player.
Effective electronic/automatic shifting will undoubtedly remain on the radar screens of component manufacturers. Even though the innovative attempts by Browning Research and Mavic failed as commercial ventures, Shimano is still in that market with their Nexus Auto-D unit, rolled out in 1999, which analyzes cadence and speed and automatically shifts for the rider. More importantly, Campagnolo’s Electronic Record, possibly due in 2005, will offer both front and rear on-demand automated shifting. In addition, the hundred-year-old Anglo-French competition between hub and derailleur gears might not be over. In 1998 Rohloff introduced a 14-speed hub gear that uses needle bearings, thus mitigating in part, one of hub gears’ inherent disadvantages, that of increased frictional resistance.
Tire developments will continue, especially in respect of lower hysteresis losses and greater puncture resistance through improved materials. Practical tubeless or lightweight solid tires would be a boon to cyclists if weight and rolling resistance remain within acceptable limits. Clipless pedals that are truly safe for recreational cyclists have yet to appear. [Editor’s note: It’s possible to get injured if you aren’t practiced enough.] Shimano tried it and admitted it was one area of research in which they failed.
Good quality spokeless wheels for the masses could go hand in hand with a move to smaller wheels which are less affected by sidewinds. Something similar to Mike Burrows’ monoblade wheel mounting system which enables tires and chains (or drive belts) to be easily be removed without taking the wheel off or splitting the chain might also gain mainstream acceptance. Lightweight disc brakes might well end up on all high-end bikes as they too continue to improve.
Looking further out in time, magnetorheological or electrorheological brake and suspension systems (which rely on fluids which change in viscosity when exposed to electrical or magnetic fields) might become viable. Bicycle computers will unquestionably get more and more sophisticated and minicomputer-controlled applications for various functions will become commonplace.
As if to reinforce the premise made at the beginning of this article, many of these ideas have been tried in the past but time will tell which of them will qualify for future lists of milestones.
Bicycle history marches on. The chart ends with a Rohloff hub transmission, and Campagnolo 10-speed drivetrain. Currently, Campy has the Super Record component group, which has an 11-speed cassette for building drivetrains with up to 33 gears. And, there have been developments in internal hub gearing, too, such as the ingenious NuVinci infinitely variable transmission. While Shimano just debuted their Di2 electric road drivetrain.
I used many published and Internet sources for the above list. It was remarkable how many inaccuracies and red herrings needed to be purged from my first drafts as I learned more about the controversies surrounding both the early claims and the more recent history. In this effort, I received many invaluable comments from the individuals listed below. Notwithstanding their generous assistance, any remaining errors that remain are mine alone. It is also worth observing that controversies still abound, not all my correspondents were necessarily in agreement but it would be most presumptuous of me to claim that resolution of such differences of opinion is within either my ability or the scope of this article.