The history of the bike: the wheel that keeps on turning

From the earliest velocipede to the modern-day e-bike! Read our brief history on the evolution of the bicycle

Most of us have owned a bicycle at one point in our life, whether it was a BMX when we were kids or a state of art machine for our work commute. But have you ever thought about where it all started? What did the first bike look like?

The very first bike

The first known example of what we may call a bicycle dates from around 1790 and was designed by Comte Mede de Sivrac. It was called a Celerifere, a wooden invention not too dissimilar from a scooter with no pedals or steering! A steering tool, which was attached to the front wheel, was invented in 1816 by Baron Karl von Drais de Sauerbrun. He called his new creation Draisienne, a play on his name, though it’s also known as the hobby horse.

Some people believe that the invention of the pedal bicycle should be credited to Kirkpatrick MacMillan (1812-1878). He invented the first pedal set-up that could more effectively drive his bike design, which had a wooden frame and iron-rimmed wooden wheels. MacMillan rode the bike 68 miles to visit his brothers in Glasgow raising huge public interest.

Others swear that Pierre and Ernest Michaux are the true inventors of the modern bicycle. This father and son duo first assembled a two-wheeled vélocipède around 1867. The bike was a little bit like a tricycle, having cranks and pedals connected to the front wheel.

The vélocipède had the uncomfortable nickname of "boneshaker" because of the typical shaky ride caused from its iron frame and wooden wheels wrapped in an iron rim.

From about 1870 bicycle frames began to be constructed entirely of metal, an improvement in both performance and material strength over the earlier wood frames, and bike design began to change accordingly. Pedals were still attached directly to the front bigger wheel for improved riding experience. This is the birth of the Penny Farthing bike which was extremely popular in Europe and the United States in the 1870s and 1880s.

The safety bike

The safety bike transformed the bicycle from a dangerous bit of kit to a reliable and comfortable device that could be safely used by everyone.

The original bike was hugely improved in 1885 by John Kemp Starley, with his modern bike design placing the rider much lower between the two wheels of the same size, with a sprocket and chain system that drove the bike from the rear wheel. This design is still in use today.

The introduction of inflated rubber tyres ended the uncomfortable jolty ride, making cycling safe and creating a golden age of cycling. With cyclists’ numbers increasing in Europe and North America, so did bike use in commercial and military ways.

Since then, there has been no stopping the constant improvement in bicycle design, materials, components and manufacturing processes, making the bicycle one of the most popular modes of transport in the world.

Bikes in modern times

In more recent times, bicycles have become faster as well as more practical with some of the designs now very notable such as the recumbent bicycle, the iconic BMX and mountain bikes.

The basic bike frame design has hardly changed in the last 100 years, though materials have improved, from space-age titanium and carbon fibre, which have resulted in lighter and stronger bikes, a long way from the original iron and wooden models.

Many more technical innovations followed, which allowed riders to work themselves through a range of gears that allow bikes to go faster as well as to climb steeper hills than a regular bike could ever manage to achieve.

Bike styles have massively changed too, to allow the incorporation of design features that specifically enhance and embrace one particular style of riding. Focusing on individual styles means that you can go into any given bike shop and select from a huge variety of bicycles from mountain bikes to hybrids, cruisers and tandems.

What is the future of the bike?

Over the last few years, there has been a growing trend for specific bike designs. Hybrid bicycles and commuter bicycles can range from fast to wider-tyred bikes designed primarily for comfort but also load-carrying, with increased versatility over a range of different road surfaces and inclinations.

Electric bikes have also become more popular of late - a trend that is unlikely to slow down in the future. Though they are electric, some of the models can be ridden as a normal bike, which helps novices get started with cycling without too much initial fitness commitment.