You might think that an invention as simple as the bicycle would have an uncomplicated past. But as it turns out, this highly popular invention has a history fraught with controversy and misinformation. While stories about who invented the bicycle often contradict one another, there’s one thing that’s certain — the very first bicycles were nothing like the ones you see cruising down the street today.
The first known iterations of a wheeled, human-powered vehicle were created long before the bicycle became a practical form of transportation. In 1418, an Italian engineer, Giovanni Fontana (or de la Fontana), constructed a human-powered device consisting of four wheels and a loop of rope connected by gears, according to the International Bicycle Fund (IBF).
In 1813, about 400 years after Fontana built his wheeled contraption, a German aristocrat and inventor named Karl von Drais began work on his own version of a Laufmaschine (running machine), a four-wheeled, human-powered vehicle. Then in 1817, Drais debuted a two-wheeled vehicle, known by many names throughout Europe, including Draisienne, dandy horse and hobby horse.
Drais built his machine in response to a very serious problem — a dearth of real horses. In 1815, Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, erupted and the ash cloud dispersed around the world a lowered global temperatures. Crops failed and animals, including horses, died of starvation, according to Smithsonian magazine.
Drais’ hobby horses were a far cry from the aerodynamic speed machines that are today’s bicycles. Weighing in at 50 lbs. (23 kilograms), this bicycle ancestor featured two wooden wheels attached to a wooden frame. Riders sat on an upholstered leather saddle nailed to the frame and steered the vehicle with a rudimentary set of wooden handlebars. There were no gears and no pedals, as riders simply pushed the device forward with their feet.
Drais took his invention to France and to England, where it became popular. A British coach maker named Denis Johnson marketed his own version, called “pedestrian curricles,” to London’s pleasure-seeking aristocrats. Hobby horses enjoyed several years of success before they were banned from sidewalks as a danger to pedestrians. The fad passed, and by the 1820s, the vehicles were rarely seen, according to the National Museum of American History (NMAH).
Bone shakers and penny-farthings
Bicycles made a comeback in the early 1860s with the introduction of a wooden contraption with two steel wheels, pedals and a fixed gear system. Known as a velocipede (fast foot) or a “bone shaker,” the brave users of this early contraption were in for a bumpy ride.
The question of who invented the velocipede, with its revolutionary pedals and gear system, is a bit murky. A German named Karl Kech claimed that he was the first to attach pedals to a hobby horse in 1862. But the first patent for such a device was granted not to Kech but to Pierre Lallement, a French carriage