Rapid development of the bicycle

After Karl Fried­rich Drais made trans­port his­tory in 1817 by inven­ting the dandy horse, there was a con­si­de­ra­ble pause in the his­tory of the bicy­cle's deve­lop­ment: it was not until 1867 that the French car­riage buil­ders Pierre Michaux and his son Ernest unvei­led the so-cal­led "velo­ci­pede" at the World Exhi­bi­tion in Paris. Its design incor­po­ra­ted a crank with a set of foot pedals moun­ted on the front wheel, and it sold very well. 

Foto: © TECHNOSEUM, Foto: Klaus Lug­ins­land

TECHNOSEUM, Foto: Klaus Lug­ins­land

In 1870 fur­ther pro­gress was made when the velo­ci­pede was trans­for­med into the penny-far­thing. This had a much big­ger wheel at the front than at the back. Riding it con­se­quently requi­red even more skill, and above all an ath­lete's sense of balance. The penny-far­thing set the first stan­dards with its hard rub­ber tyres and its steel wheel rim and spo­kes. The mix­ture of spor­ting chal­lenge and a very expen­sive price tag made the penny-far­thing a popu­lar "play­thing" for the weal­thy which they used to impress others. Unfor­tu­na­tely, this pre­ven­ted the bicy­cle from beco­ming sui­ta­ble for eve­r­y­day use before the end of the 19th cen­tury. 

The real breakthrough in the deve­lop­ment of the bicy­cle came a few years later with the return to the low (safety cycle) design: two wheels of the same size which moved the cen­tre of gra­vity a bit fur­ther back, a chain to drive it, a lever trans­mis­sion sys­tem, and a low seat posi­tion. The safety cycle – with the same basic design as today's bicy­cles – was paten­ted in 1885. 1890 saw the intro­duc­tion of the dia­mond frame which is still used today and pro­vi­des grea­ter sta­bi­lity as it uses less mate­ri­als and is ligh­ter.  

The bicy­cle: a suc­cess­ful indus­trial pro­duct pro­vi­des mass mobi­lity in Europe 

By the end of the 19th cen­tury the bicy­cle already loo­ked much like it does today. Thanks to incre­a­sin­gly indus­tria­li­sed mass pro­duc­tion in Ger­many, its neigh­bours and the USA as well as fal­ling pri­ces owing to com­pe­ti­tion, the bicy­cle gra­dually became the day-to-day means of trans­port for all sec­ti­ons of society. The bicy­cle was now affor­da­ble, even for the large num­bers of agri­cul­tu­ral wor­kers and the mas­sive indus­trial work­force that emer­ged in the boom years of the late 19th cen­tury, and it played a major role both in mili­tary and eco­no­mic terms, in par­ti­cu­lar in the form of cargo-car­ry­ing bicy­cles and fac­tory/com­pany bicy­cles. The post office also used huge num­bers of bicy­cles for deli­ve­r­ing let­ters. For 40 years their widespread use made them a domi­nant fea­ture of streets­cape and the flow of traf­fic was lar­gely deter­mi­ned by them. This early ascend­ancy of the bicy­cle in the late 19th cen­tury was also given a major boost by cycle racing.  

It was only after the out­break of the 2nd world war that bicy­cle pro­duc­tion fell shar­ply. Howe­ver by 1948 pro­duc­tion had retur­ned to its pre­vious level, and the pro­duc­tion figu­res then incre­a­sed by leaps and bounds fol­lo­wing the intro­duc­tion of the Deutschmark.  

Com­pe­ti­tion from the car and the side-lining of the bicy­cle

In the USA the bicy­cle was already under com­pe­ti­tion from the auto­mo­bile by the 1920s, and it was lar­gely super­se­ded. Howe­ver in Europe, and espe­ci­ally in Ger­many, the bicy­cle con­ti­nued to bear the stan­dard as the domi­nant pri­vate means of trans­port until the 1960s. Nevert­he­less, mass car owner­ship tri­um­phed here too, and the bicy­cle incre­a­sin­gly gave ground to it. Ger­many gra­dually chan­ged from the arche­ty­pal cycling coun­try to the coun­try of the car. Pub­lic per­cep­tion of the bicy­cle chan­ged, and it became a lei­sure and fair wea­ther means of trans­port to be used only for short trips. This also mar­ked the start of its mar­gi­na­li­sa­tion in poli­ti­cal and plan­ning terms which las­ted until the 1980s.    

Renaissance of the bicy­cle

Despite this poli­ti­cal mar­gi­na­li­sa­tion, the bicy­cle began to expe­ri­ence a gra­dual renaissance in the 1970s which is still going strong today. The rea­son for this is that peo­ple have become more health-con­s­cious and envi­ron­men­tally aware. This incre­a­sin­gly set limits to the growth of car traf­fic, and fur­ther help was pro­vi­ded by traf­fic cal­ming mea­su­res and the pro­mo­tion of cycling by local aut­ho­ri­ties. The adver­ti­sing indus­try dis­co­vered the bicy­cle as a sym­bol of youth, free­dom and indi­vi­dua­lity. The image of the bicy­cle impro­ved. Fur­ther advan­ces in bike tech­no­logy con­tri­bu­ted to the change: gear chan­ging sys­tems were impro­ved, bat­tery-assis­ted bikes were intro­du­ced, dif­fe­rent types of bikes were laun­ched onto the mar­ket, and fashion became an import­ant facet of bicy­cle design. The incre­ase in its per­cei­ved value and its price made the bicy­cle more popu­lar again, and it achie­ved new sales records, doub­ling its mar­ket share in a very short space of time.

At the same time, traf­fic plan­ners began to take a more com­mit­ted and inno­va­tive approach to expan­ding the cycling infra­struc­ture. This pro­cess is still under way today, and in many pla­ces it has led to signi­fi­cant incre­a­ses in the num­ber of peo­ple who tra­vel by bike.

Foto: © TECHNOSEUM, Foto: Klaus Lug­ins­land

The safety cycle was also accom­pa­nied by the first fra­mes desi­gned espe­ci­ally for women.

Foto: © TECHNOSEUM, Foto: Klaus Lug­ins­land

The penny-far­thing had a much big­ger wheel at the front.

It was only after the out­break of the 2nd world war that bicy­cle pro­duc­tion fell shar­ply. Howe­ver by 1948 pro­duc­tion had retur­ned to its pre­vious level, and the pro­duc­tion figu­res then incre­a­sed by leaps and bounds fol­lo­wing the intro­duc­tion of the Deutschmark.  

Com­pe­ti­tion from the car and the side-lining of the bicy­cle

In the USA the bicy­cle was already under com­pe­ti­tion from the auto­mo­bile by the 1920s, and it was lar­gely super­se­ded. Howe­ver in Europe, and espe­ci­ally in Ger­many, the bicy­cle con­ti­nued to bear the stan­dard as the domi­nant pri­vate means of trans­port until the 1960s. Nevert­he­less, mass car owner­ship tri­um­phed here too, and the bicy­cle incre­a­sin­gly gave ground to it. Ger­many gra­dually chan­ged from the arche­ty­pal cycling coun­try to the coun­try of the car. Pub­lic per­cep­tion of the bicy­cle chan­ged, and it became a lei­sure and fair wea­ther means of trans­port to be used only for short trips. This also mar­ked the start of its mar­gi­na­li­sa­tion in poli­ti­cal and plan­ning terms which las­ted until the 1980s.   

Quel­len­an­ga­ben: 

  1. Baden-Würt­tem­berg Minis­try of Trans­port and Infra­struc­ture (publ.) (2016): Baden-Würt­tem­berg RadSTRATEGIE (cycling stra­t­egy)  – Wege zu einer neuen RadKULTUR für Baden-Würt­tem­berg (Rou­tes to a new cycling CULTURE for Baden-Würt­tem­berg. Stutt­gart
  2. Nuhn, Hel­mut / Hesse, Mar­kus (2006): Ver­kehrs­geo­gra­phie (Trans­port geo­gra­phy) Pader­born
  3. Had­land, Tony / Les­sing, Hans-Erhard (2014): Bicy­cle Design: An Illus­tra­ted His­tory. Cam­bridge