Posted by: spencersteele | March 24, 2010

TechPost #2 : The Bicycle in Context to the Industrial Revolution

The Bicycle in Context to the Industrial Revolution

By Spencer Steele


1.0 Introduction

The evolution of the Bicycle has taken place over 500 years. Like many other machines, the modern day Bicycle was heavily influenced by the Industrial Age occurring in Europe.  This report is divided into 3 categories of bicycle development:  Pre-Industrial, Industrial and Post-Industrial.

2.0 Pre-Industrial

Like the Human species, the bicycle did not start out the way it is today. The earliest predecessor to the bicycle was known as the “Draisines”, or Laufmaschine, (“running machine”), and was invented by Baron Karl von Drais. Composed of a wooden frame and handles, the “Draisines” was a method of transportation which the rider could steer while pushing the bike along with his feet (Canadians Science and Technology Museum, 2006). The Draisines “set new standards of elegance and performance, and sparked an unprecedented flurry of experimentation with human-powered vehicles” (Herlihy, 2006).

By 1818, the Laufmaschine was very popular in Paris and would go on to inspire Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement, the inventors of the famous “Velocipede”. The “Draisines” design took place just before the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Because of the amount of work it took to build the “Draisines”, only members of the upper class could afford it, and it was tool of pleasure rather than that of transportation.                                                                            

3.0 Industrial

At the time of the Agricultural Industrial Age in England, more jobs were being found in the cities, to make ends meet many farmers had to go work in the city as there was less demand for their specialization (Kreis, 2006).  The result was a rapid need for transportation to and from the city centers. The Velocipede was the answer to this growing problem.  In the early 1860’s Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement utilized a mechanical crank drive to power their precursor to the bicycle, the Velocipede. The Velocipede had a lighter steel tubular frame and pedals that spun a large front wheel to accelerate it to high velocities. The front wheel was slightly larger than the rear wheel and incorporated a comfortable saddle seat.

The Industrial Age was absolutely necessary for the development of the “penny-farthing”, a tall bicycle featuring wire wheels and solid rubber wheels (Norcliffe, 2001). The use of wire wheels and rubber tires greatly enhanced traction, however I’m sure the ride must’ve been very shaky and made for an uncomfortable commute.  

The problem with the penny-farthing is that it was so high that it was difficult to mount and proved very hard to balance while riding.  Despite this disadvantage they have been extremely popular throughout the ages and can now be seen amusedly ridden by clowns in circuses. Eventually, the safety concerns associated with the penny-farthing would bring around a new era of bicycles after the Industrial Revolution.

4.0 Post-Industrial

After the Industrial Revolution, specifically in 1885, the “safety bicycle” was invented by John Kemp Starley. As its name suggests, it was much safer then the higher bicycles of the Industrial Revolution. A large factor was the smaller wheel diameter and introduction of a rear chain drive which transferred power to the rear wheel rather than the front, making steering much easier.  

While the new “safety bicycle” was hitting the streets, John Dunlop “reinvented the pneumatic tire” (Norcliffe, 2001) making driving on paved roads much more efficient. The safety bicycle would go on to influence the design of modern mountain bikes, touring bikes and BMX bikes.

5.0 Conclusion

The Industrial Age and the Bicycle co-evolved together in a symbiotic-like relationship. The various forefathers of the bicycle were necessary for transporting the workers that drove the Industrial Revolution while the ability to replicate the parts needed to construct them could only be found during and after the revolution. Many features of modern day bicycles can be traced back to the Industrial Age, making it an important time to the history of this technology.



Canadian Science and Technology Museum. (2006). Baron von Drais’ Bicycle. Retrieved from on March 22nd 2010.

Herlihy, David V. (2004). Bicycle. London, England:  Yale University Press.

Kreis, Steven. (2006, October 11). The Origins of the Industrial Revolution in England. Retrieved from on March 24, 2010.

Norcliffe, Glen. (2001)The Ride to Modernity: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869-1900. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press.


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