The invention of the bicycle can never be exactly pinpointed by historians, but the popularity and evolution of the bicycle really started to rise in the Victorian times.

Early Walking Machines and Hobby Horses

In 1817 the “walking machine” was invented by Baron Von Drais which was an early form of bicycle which he made to simply get him around faster than walking. It was constructed using two wheels of the same size with the front one steerable through the frame and made completely from wood. It was operated and moved by pushing against the ground with your feet and gliding forwards, there were no pedals and chain with this contraption, so much effort was needed to move along big distances.

This early form of bike known as the “Draisiennes”did not gain popularity in Britain due to the amount of energy you needed to actually use it, so was only really seen being used in parks and gardens and was quite popular in Paris. He claimed that on good roads and ground you could get up to 9 miles per hour which was the same speed as a trotting horse.

The machine became known as a “hobby horse” and demanded high prices and tended to be used only as form of entertainment rather than transport. In 1818 Denis Johnson a coach maker from Covent Garden in London made his own hobby horse and patented it, going on to open a riding school in the City where elite gentleman could come and learn how to use these machines.

With the new influx of men starting to ride hobby horses around the city, London banned the contraptions because they were seen as very dangerous amongst the horses and people in the streets. At the same time a select few in villages and smaller towns were using them to get around, including postmen delivering mail to homes.

Early Bicycles

Between 1820 and 1865 there was a major growth of inventors trying to build the latest bicycles and improve on existing models that were being used. In 1861 Pierre and Ernest Michaux were credited with inventing the pedal system attached to a front axle, which allowed people to cycle rather than push the bike with their feet. This required a large front wheel to help aid pedalling, as with a small wheel you needed much strength!

There were many other weird contraptions being made at this time which led to controversy over whether bicycles should be foot or hand powered because of the contraptions that were currently being made utilising both forms. “Mr Baddeley’s Manumotive Exercising Carriage” had the rider sat between two six foot tall wheels with steering and pedals controlled through hand cranks.

In 1839 a blacksmith in Scotland called Kirkpatrick Macmillan created a bike that was said to be the first that looked much like we use today. The bike was a 2 wheeled machine which could be powered without having to use your feet on the ground with the front wheel used for steering and the back wheel driven by cranks to cycle. This machine though was hard to ride and hard to use on anything but flat and smooth roads due to the lack of an efficient pedalling system. It would rattle and bounce along most roads and many found it hard to steer.

The Penny Farthing and Rover Safety Bicycle

Around 1870 James Starley became known as the real founder of bicycles in Victorian Britain with his “penny farthing” bikes and led on to his nephew John Kemp Starley building the famous “Rover Safety Bicycle” which had all the main features that bikes have today with 2 medium sizes wheels and powered by pedals and chain combined with sprocket systems to the rear wheel. Due to the safety and ease of use of this model, the high wheeled “penny father” bike started to be phased out in favour of this new style of bicycle.