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National Bicycle History Archive of America
Historical Sources / Museums / Exhibits
- (Africa, America, Asia, England, Ireland, Europe)
by David Mozer
Note: Many people claim credit for inventing the first bicycle.
The answer to the question often depends upon the nationality of who you
ask; the French claim it was a Frenchman, Scots claim a Scotsman, the English an
Englishman, and Americans often claim that it was
an American. Since the early 1990's the
International Cycling History
Conferences, with proceedings Cycle History (San Francisco), has worked to get
past the jingoism. Our current understanding of the history of the bicycle
suggests that many people contributed ideas and developments:
||Giovanni Fontana built the first human powered land vehicle
-- it had four wheels and used an endless rope connected via gears to the
||Sketches showing a primitive version of a bicycle, purported
Leonardo da Vinci,
surfaced in 1974. Further examination of the drawings indicates these
are not by da Vinci's hand. The speculation that these are a sketch by a
pupil after a lost drawing by da Vinci is also considered false. An age test
was performed, but the library in Milan (belonging to the Vatican) conceals
its negative outcome, see
. Experts consider the sketches a hoax.
||Comte de Sicrac is credited with building the "celerifer" -
purportedly a hobby horse
with two wheels instead of a rocker. This is now considered a
patriotic hoax created by a French historian in 1891. It was debunked
by a French researcher in 1976. In fact, a Jean Sievrac
(!) of Marseille obtained an import price for a four-wheeled speed coach
called celerifer in 1817.
||Heinrich Mylius' bicycle, the Heimat Museum, Themar, Germany
called the running machine, velocipede, Draisienne and dandy horse, it was invented by Karl Drais, in response to
widespread starvation and the slaughtering of horses, the consequence of a crop failure the year before (caused by the
eruption of Tambora). It had a steer-able front wheel. This is the first appearance of the two-wheeler principle
that is basic to cycling and motorcycling and minimizes rolling resistance.
The velocipedes were made entirely of wood and needed to be balanced by
directing the front wheel a bit. People then did not dare to lift the feet
off safe ground, therefore the velocipedes were propelled by pushing off
with the feet. After the good harvest in
1817 riding velocipedes on sidewalks was forbidden worldwide, since the velocipeders used the sidewalks,
and because they could not balance on the
rutted carriageway, the fad passed. It took nearly 50 years, until a
roller-skating boom created a new public with a better sense of balance.
For more information see:
||Another entry in bicycle lore: Kirkpatric Mcmillan, a
Scottish blacksmith adapted a treadle-type pedals to a bicycle, is
considered a hoax, see the
David Herlihy's book.
Bone Shaker or Velocipede: Made of stiff materials, straight angles and
steel wheels make this bike literally a bone shaker to ride over the cobblestone roads of
the day. The improvement is a front wheel with peddles -- direct drive,
fixed gear, one speed. This machine was known as the
velocipede ("fast foot"), but was popularly known as the bone shaker, They also
became a fad, and indoor riding academies, similar to roller rinks, could be found in
||Ordinary: These are better know as the "high wheelers". It is
more comfortable to ride than its predecessor, but it requires an acrobat so they
popularity has always been limited. This was the first all metal machine to appeared.
(Previous to this metallurgy was not advanced enough to provide metal which was strong
enough to make small, light parts out of.) The pedals were still attached
directly to the
front wheel with no freewheeling mechanism. Solid rubber tires and the long spokes of the
large front wheel provided a much smoother ride than its predecessor. The front wheels
became larger and larger as makers realized that the larger the wheel, the farther you
could travel with one rotation of the pedals. You would purchase a wheel as large as your
leg length would allow. These bicycles enjoyed a great popularity among young men of means
(they cost an average worker six month's pay), with the hey-day being the decade of the
1880's. Because the rider sat so high above the center of gravity, if the front wheel was
stopped by a stone or rut in the road, or the sudden emergence of a dog, the entire
apparatus rotated forward on its front axle, and the rider, with his legs trapped under
the handlebars, was dropped unceremoniously on his head. Here the term "taking a
header" came into being. This machine was the first one to be called a bicycle
Friedrich Fischer (German) first mass-produces steel ball bearings, patented
by Jules Suriray in 1869.
Browett and Harrison (English) patent an early caliper brake.
Scott and Phillott (English) patent the first practicable epicyclic
change-speed gear fitted into the hub of a front-driving bicycle.
The first American manufacturer of cycles begun with the Columbia Bicycle at
the Weed Sewing Machine Company factory in Hartford, Ct. The first regular
trade catalogue was twenty pages long. The first bicycles were the 60" High
Wheelers and sold for $125.00 when sewing machines sold for $13.00.
Henry J. Lawson (English) patents a rear wheel, chain-driven safety bicycle,
the “Bicyclette” (his earlier models were lever driven).
Thomas Humber (English) adapts the block chain for use with his range of
While the men were risking their necks on the high wheels, ladies,
confined to their long skirts and corsets, could take a spin around the park on an adult
tricycle. These machines also afforded more dignity to gentlemen such as doctors and
clergymen. Many mechanical innovations now associated with the automobile were originally
invented for tricycles. Rack and pinion steering, the differential, and band brakes, to
name a few!
||Bicycle Activism: Good roads society organized by bicyclist and lobbied
for good roads -- paving the way for motor vehicles!
||Thomas Stevens struck out across the country, carrying
socks, a spare shirt and a slicker that doubled as tent and bedroll. Leaving
San Francisco at 8 o'clock on April 22, 1884, he traveled eastward, reaching
Boston after 3700 wagon trail miles, to complete the first transcontinental
bicycle ride on August 4, 1884. After a pause, he continued east, circumnavigating earth,
and returning to
San Francisco on Dec 24, 1886. See Around
the World by Bicycle, 2000
reenactment of 1884
ride, and 2006
reenactment of 1885 ride.
Playing Cards are introduced and become the most recognizable brands of
playing cards sold in the United States. They are currently manufactured by
the United States Playing Card Company.
||Pneumatic tire: First applied to the bicycle by an Irish veterinarian who
was trying to give his sickly young son a more comfortable ride on his tricycle. This
inventive young doctor's name was Dunlop. Now that comfort and safety could be had in the
same package, and that package was getting cheaper as manufacturing methods improved,
everyone clamored to ride the bicycle.
Safety Bike: As the name implies the safety bike is safer than the
ordinary. The further improvement of metallurgy sparked the next innovation, or rather
return to previous design. With metal that was now strong enough to make a fine chain and
sprocket small and light enough for a human being to power, the next design was a return
to the original configuration of two same-size wheels, only now, instead of just one wheel
circumference for every pedal turn, you could, through the gear ratios, have a speed the
same as the huge high-wheel. Initially, the bicycles still had the hard rubber tires, and
in the absence of the long, shock-absorbing spokes, the ride they provided was much more
uncomfortable than any of the high-wheel designs. Many of these bicycles of 100 years ago
had front and/or rear suspensions. These designs competed with each other, your choice
being the high-wheel's comfort or the safety's safety, but the next innovation tolled the
death of the high-wheel design -- pneumatic tires. This is basically the same design as
standard contemporary bikes. The safety bike allowed large numbers of people to take up
cycling. Bikes were relatively expensive so use was somewhat restrict to the elite.
||Mass Production: The bicycle helped make the Gay Nineties
what they were. It was a
practical investment for the working man as transportation, and gave him a much greater
flexibility for leisure. Women would also start riding bicycles in much larger numbers.
Change In Social Order: Betty Bloomer's bloomers become very popular.
Ladies, heretofore consigned to riding the heavy adult size tricycles that were only
practical for taking a turn around the park, now could ride a much more versatile machine
and still keep their legs covered with long skirts. The bicycle craze killed the bustle
and the corset, instituted "common-sense dressing" for women and increased their
mobility considerably. Victorian
women cyclists. American
Music and women bicyclists. Women
|Bamboo bikes are manufactured.
The bicycle messenger business started in California when a
railway strike halted mail delivery for the Bay Area. An ingenious bicycle
shop owner in Fresno came up with the idea to deliver it by bicycle. He set
up a relay between Fresno and San Francisco, with 6 riders covering about 30
miles each. The last rider would cover 60 miles.
||Annie Kopchovsky (nee Cohan)
(a.k.a. Annie Londonderry)
was a Latvian Jewish immigrant to
Boston, who traveled around the world.
She started in Boston in June 1894 on her Sterling bike and finishing her
ride in Chicago in Sept 1895. She was probably the first
woman to take a bicycle on a world trip. Reports suggest that she traveled mainly on ships and trains
-- riding her bicycles mostly to and
from the main ports. She was sponsored by The Londonderry Lithia
Spring Water Co.
||Ignatz Schwinn and Adolph Arnold formed Arnold, Schwinn &
Company to produce bikes. Albert Pope purchased 75 small bicycle
manufacturers to form the
||"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more
to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see
a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance."
Susan B Anthony
|Major Taylor was the American cycling sprint champion, and he topped all
European champions as well. Taylor was one of the first black athletes to become a world
champion in any sport. (Taylor is celebrated in Andrew Richie's book
Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.)
See also: The Major Taylor Association,
The Major Taylor Society and
The Major Taylor Velodrome.
||Bicycles first used in conflict in
the Second Anglo-Boer War in South Africa.
Military Bicycles: A Short History
||Internal hub gears invented by
Sturmey Archer. By 1930
these were used on bikes manufactured around the world. There
dominance lasted until the 1950s the parallelogram derailleur was
introduced. See also
||Kids Bikes: The focus of planning and development of the transportation
infrastructure was the private automobiles. Bicycles use declined and the bicycle was
considered primarily as children's toys. Kids bikes were introduced just after the First
World War by several manufacturers, such as Mead, Sears Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward, to
revitalize the bike industry (Schwinn made its big splash slightly later), these designs,
now called "classic", featured automobile and motorcycle elements to appeal to
kids who, presumably, would rather have a motor. If ever a bike needed a motor, this was
it. These bikes evolved into the most glamorous, fabulous, ostentatious, heavy designs
ever. It is unbelievable today that 14-year-old kids could do the tricks that we did on
these 65 pound machines! They were built into the middle 50s, by which time they had taken
on design elements of jet aircraft and even rockets. By the 60s, they were becoming leaner
||Tullio Campagnolo patents the quick release hub.
||Schwinn introduced the fat tire, spring fork, streamline
Excelsior, designed to take the abuse of teenage boys, which was the
proto-type mountain bike. The Schwinn Excelsior frames became the model for
the early mountain bikes almost fifty years later.
Recumbents banned from racing. This had the effect of putting the
recumbent bicycle design in the closet for fifty years, until it was
re-discovered, primarily by MIT professor David Gordon Wilson and his
||Simplex introduced their cable shifted derailleur.
||Historic European footage of unusual bikes from the late
1930s and early 1940s.
bicyclists in the French Resistance. by Rebecca G. Halbreich, published
in Ex Post Facto, 1994
Campagnolo introduced cable-operated, parallelogram derailleur.
Campagnolo. For two decades Campagnolo equipment dominated true racing bikes.
Eventually, he acquires 135 patents.
||Women ride in the first-ever World Championships on the road
and track. Balina Ermolaeva becomes the first women's World Sprint
Champion; Elsy Jacobs takes the road race.
||Renaissance: President's Council of Physical Fitness. Renewed interest in
bicycle for recreation and fitness. This was the seed of a new major bicycle boom that
accelerated through the 60's. The "English 3-speed" was the fancy consumer model
of the time. Before the end of the decade it was the 10-speed derailleur "racing
bike" which dominated the American market (the derailleur had been invented before
the turn of the century and had been in more-or-less common use in Europe since).
||Earth Day: Increased awareness of westerns civilization's level of
consumption of natural resources, air pollution, and destruction of the natural
environment. This generated a new spurt in the growth of bicycle sales and bicycling,
especially around college campuses.
||Oil embargo: Fuel shortages and shifts in relative price of transportation
options created an environment which encouraged bicycle commuting. Many of the new
recruits to bicycling stuck to it after the end of the embargo and became enthusiasts.
There was also reinvigorated interest in the engineering of bicycles,
including renewed interest
||The prototype of the mountain bikes were first developed in
Marin Co, California, north of San Francisco. Joe Breeze, Otis Guy,
Gary Fisher, and Craig Mitchell were the earliest designers, builders and
||A new round of steep oil prices increases further encouraged bicycling.
More bikes than car were being sold in the USA. Triple chain-ring cranks had become widely
available, adding to the range of situation that bicycle were practical for.
||Renewed interests in health and fitness, by the middle and upper class
perpetuated the acceptance and growth of commuting, recreational and touring bicycling.
||Bike messengers develop should backs to carry large envelopes
flat. The style migrates into general use as an alternative to back
packs, ruck sacks and purses.
||Aerobic exercisers take the padding out of bike shorts and
use them in exercise class. The style migrates into general use --
some wearers haven't exercised in decades.
||Tour de France Feminine run for the first time (winner:
||Women's road race included in the Olympics for the first
time (winner: Connie Carpenter.) Successes by American racing cyclist
in the 1984 Olympics drew attention and added prestige to cycling. The ranks
of racing cyclists grew substantially.
to be added to the rear gear cluster the number of speeds increase from 15 to 18, 21 and
||Three-time national XC champion Jacquie Phelan founds the
Women's Mountain Bike and Tea Society; the first formal outreach
organization for women. WOMBATS is dedicated to introducing women to
mountain biking in a fun, non-competitive environment.
||Shimano (Japanese) introduces integrated brake/gear levers.
||Sachs (SRAM) introduces PowerDisc, the first mass-produced
hydraulic disc brake system.
||Mountain Bike compete at the Olympic Games for the first
time in Atlanta, GA USA.
||Department of the Interior and Nielson surveys show that bicycling is the
third most popular participatory sport after swimming and general exercise.
||Rohloff Speedhub 14 speed internal hub gearing system, with
no overlapping ratios and a gear range as wide as a 27-speed derailleur
||Campagnolo introduces 10 cog rear cluster, allowing 30 speed
The rising interest in bicycle history has brought about an increasing demand for old
bicycle information. As enthusiasts and collectors become more sophisticated, the quality
of information becomes more important. Unfortunately far too little accurate information
exists, despite a growing number of collectors, vendors, books, publications, etc.
Furthermore, it is a hit-and-miss proposition when seeking personalized answers to
specific needs and questions.
Normal histories of most bicycle companies are non-existent or poorly documented.
Information regarding specific years, precise details, and clear explanations of specific
models is either non-existent or obscure at best. Nearly every bicycle book ever published
completely deletes or glosses over the history of American-made bicycles of the period of
1920 to 1965. The few books which have attempted to address this era have been riddled
with inaccuracies and/or missing information. Thus, the National Bicycle History Archive
of America (NBHAA) has been organized to provide accurate and detailed information.
What is NBHAA?
It is an archive of historical materials related to bicycles. Materials of NBHAA
have been around informally since the 1970s. However since 1993, The Archive has
been actively in the process of formally organizing both itself and the history
of bicycles. A computerized database is being compiled and an index will soon be
available to interested parties, organizations, schools and libraries via the
Internet at www.nbhaa.com.
NBHAA focuses on the history of American bicycles and the American bicycle industry.
This interest also includes history of bicycle dealers, wholesaler/distributors, industry
personalities, etc. Of course the bicycles themselves are a central focus of The Archive.
What does the NBHAA Contain?
NBHAA is a library of over 60,000 original catalogues, photos, books, documents
related to bicycles (mainly domestic, but including much foreign). NBHAA also contains
over 300 old original bicycle films such as Six Day Bike Rider and the 1930s safety film,
On Two Wheels. The time range of the serious historical data starts in the 1860s and
stretches to the 1970s. Additional pieces lead up to the present.
Examples of some original printed matter are bound volumes of League of American
Wheelmen (L.A.W.) bulletins from the late l800s to the 1930s; CTC Gazettes from 1800s to
the 1930s; mint, autographed turn-of-century books from Thomas Stevens, Major Taylor, Karl
Kron and others; one of the first known English language bicycle books (from 1869); a
nearly complete run of Columbia bicycle catalogues from 1877 through 1990; industry trade
publications such as American Bicyclist, Bicycle World, Bicycle Journal, - and much more.
Photos range from tin types to 8xl0 glossies to color transparencies.
Archives of several bicycle (and bicycle-related) companies including Cleveland Welding
Company, Shelby, Delta Electric, TroxeI, Colson, Whizzer Motor Bike, Bowden (Bomard), H.P.
Snyder, D.P. Harris, Sears Roebuck, Spiegel, Montgomery Ward, Western Auto, Murray-Ohio,
Monark-Silver King, Mead Cycle, Manton & Smith and many others have been largely saved
and categorized. These archives include original catalogues, photos, factory letters,
dealer books, original advertisements and related data.
Of special interest is the historical area of Classic Bicycles (1920 through 1965).
These were the deluxe (usually American) bicycles with streamlined styling, fat tires,
built-in gadgets such as lights, horns and speedometers. These bicycles were particularly
well known to the baby-boomer generation.
NBHAA is still seeking to acquire photos, movies and historical catalogues and printed
How to Contact NBHAA?
Write, call or E-mail. Be sure to enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope for
replies. Due to the volume of inquiries, we cannot provide unlimited identifications
without a minimum fee. Also be sure to enclose photographs of any bike or part in
Address: NBHAA, PO Box 787, Davis, CA 95617
Tel: 714-335-9072. Email: OldBicycle(at)aol.com
History of Bicycles and Bicycling
Books on the
History of Bicycles and Bicycling