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Journey through a brief history of the early bicycle and discover some of our modern cycling treasures.

1817

Karl Drais invents the Laufmaschine

Also known as the draisine or the dandy horse, this early bicycle had no pedals.

Although unverified designs for bicycles date back to 1493, German inventor and civil servant Karl Drais was the first to officially invent and patent a practical bicycle.

Drais invented the Laufmaschine (German for "running machine") in 1817, patenting the design in 1818. The draisine, as it was known in English, was initially manufactured in Germany and France. It was popular there until a high accident rate convinced city authorities to ban it from the streets.

Drai's early design for the Laufsmaschine

Above: Drai's 1817 design for the Laufsmaschine.

A wooden draisine, c. 1820

Above: A wooden draisine, c.1820.

1839

Kirkpatrick Macmillan invents the first treadle bicycle?

Macmillan, a blacksmith from Keir in Scotland, designed a rear-wheel driven treadle bicycle.

The treadles moved backwards and forwards, placed at the front of the bike but moving the back wheel. Macmillan's bicycle was very heavy and required a lot of physical effort to use.

Nevertheless, reports say he quickly mastered the art. In fact, a local newspaper ran a story on his 68 mile trip to Glasgow in 1842. It was a trip which brought him local notoriety – Macmillan was fined five shillings for running into a small girl in the Gorbals.

However, historians now question whether Macmillan's invention was as it seems. Evidence suggests that his 1839 designs actually date from 1869 and belong to fellow Scot Thomas McCall. McCall was reportedly paid by Macmillan's nephew to help promote Macmillan as the first true inventor of the bicycle.

Bicycle designs thought to be by Thomas McCall in 1869, later predated to 1839 and attributed to Macmillan.

Above: Bicycle designs thought to be by Thomas McCall in 1869, later predated to 1839 and attributed to Macmillan.

1819

The dandy horse craze sweeps London

British coachmakers adapted Drais' designs, most notably Denis Johnson of London, sparking a dangerous fashion trend!

These British bikes improved upon Drais' original designs. Johnson's famed "pedestrian curricle" had a curved wooden frame, large wooden wheels and metal embellishments.

These bikes were lighter and more elegant, appealing to the Regency's Corinthians and dandies. Riding was the fashion in London society during 1819, until the city took to fining riders on the pavements – and Pinks of the Ton realised how quickly their boots wore through!

Cartoon satirising the dandy horse craze

Above: Cartoon satirising the dandy horse craze.

1865

Who invents the first pedal bicycle?

There is considerable debate over who introduced the popular vélocipède: Pierre Lallement, or father-son duo Pierre and Ernest Michaux?

The early history of the front pedal bicycle is shrouded in mystery. Although cycling historians agree that a French metalworker attached pedals to a front wheel during the early 1860s, it's still uncertain who it was.

Some suggest that Pierre Lallement invented the front pedal bicycle in Paris around 1865. Later patent designs show he added pedals to the front wheels, creating an uncomfortable machine known as the vélocipède or "boneshaker".

Other historians credit father-son duo Pierre and Ernest Michaux as the true inventors of the modern bicycle.

Pierre Michaux was a Parisian blacksmith who began building bicycles in the early 1860s. In 1865, either Pierre or his son Ernest added cranks and pedals to the front wheel of a draisine. This small addition transformed the draisine into the vélocipède.

Impressed by their designs, the Olivier Brothers backed father and son to found Michaux et Cie in 1868. They were the first company to produce pedal-powered bicycles on a large scale.

Don't be fooled by the bright blue and yellow paintwork of our vélocipède – it isn't as jolly as it seems. This bone-jarring machine was built in 1869 and comes from the Michaux workshop in Paris. The stiff iron frame and wooden wheels wrapped with an iron rim made for a very bumpy ride.

Blue and yellow 'boneshaker' bicycle from Paris, from the Michaux et Cie workshop

Above: This bike in our collections comes from Paris, from the Michaux et Cie workshop. You can see it in our Technology by Design gallery on Level 3 of the National Museum of Scotland.

Lallement riding a vélocipède in 1870.

Above: Lallement riding a vélocipède in 1870.

1866

Pierre Lallement registers the earliest patent for a pedal bicycle

His US patent drawing shows a machine like Denis Johnson's draisine, but with pedals and rotary cranks attached to the front wheel hub. He also made some attempts to address comfort, with a thin piece of iron over the top of the frame to support the seat.

Pierre Lallement's US Patent No. 59,915 design

Above: Pierre Lallement's US Patent No. 59,915 design.

1867–1869

The bike boom grips Europe

The first real bicycle craze began in 1867, spreading over Europe and America during 1868 and 1869.

But just as when the dandy horse terrorised London, the trend faded within a year or two. Pedestrians were quick to complain and many cyclists found riding on iron wheels extremely uncomfortable.

A group of schoolboys with their high bicycles, outside Madras College, St Andrews, Fife, c. 1860s

Above: A group of schoolboys with their high bicycles, outside Madras College, St Andrews, Fife, c. 1860s.

A batch of new bicycles arriving at the Forgue Emporium, Aberdeenshire

Above: A batch of new bicycles arriving at the Forgue Emporium, Aberdeenshire.

1868

The first recorded bicycle race takes place in Paris

As bicycles became the craze once again, it didn't take long for races to begin!

The first recorded bicycle race took place on 31 May 1868 at the Parc de Saint-Cloud, Paris.

English cyclist James Moore won the 1.2km course, helped to victory by ball-bearings inlaid on his iron tyres.

James Moore (right) with fellow cyclist Jean-Eugène-André Castera

Above: James Moore (right) with fellow cyclist Jean-Eugène-André Castera.

1869

Eugène Meyer invents the wire-spoke bicycle tyre

The French mechanic's innovation changed how bicycle frames were designed, leading to the iconic high bicycle.

Tally ho! The high bicycle is a cycling classic but perhaps you know it better as the Penny Farthing – so called because it resembled a large penny and small farthing coin set next to each other!

By the late 1860s, improvements in metalworking techniques meant frames could be fashioned entirely from metal. Bicycles around this time were faster, lighter and stronger, and this was reflected in changing designs.

These innovations enabled Eugène Meyer to patent the wire-spoke wheel and design the high bicycle. His designs featured the familiar large front wheel with pedals attached.

Did you know that it was also responsible for the phrase "breakneck speed"? The front wheel was so high and the brakes so ineffectual that riders who stopped suddenly were simply flipped over the front, often landing on their heads.

Penny Farthing dating from 1884

Above: This penny farthing dates from around 1884. You can see it in our Technology by Design gallery on Level 3 of the National Museum of Scotland.

Carte-de-visite depicting a man on a penny farthing bicycle, by Henry Knight, St Leonards on Sea

Above: Carte-de-visite depicting a man on a penny farthing bicycle, by Henry Knight, St Leonards on Sea. From the Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland.

1871

The Ariel becomes the first high bicycle produced in Britain

The Ariel was created by James Starley of Coventry, the father of the British cycling industry.

Advertised as "the lightest, strongest, and most elegant of modern bicycles", it marked the beginning of popular bicycle manufacturing in Britain.

One innovation in particular cemented the Ariel's status as a landmark in cycling history: the tangent wheel. This front wheel made the ride more comfortable; allowing for tension, the Ariel could absorb road shocks better than boneshakers.

Cycling historian Andrew Ritchie describes James Starley as "the most energetic and inventive genius in the history of bicycle technology". The quadruplet bicycle on display on in the Window on the World at the National Museum of Scotland stands testament to that.

Ariel bicycle

Above: Ariel bicycle.

A quadruplet race pacing bicycle produced by Ariel in the late 1890s, on display on Level 5 of the Window on the World in the National Museum of Scotland.

1881–1914

A revolution in ladies' fashion and status

The Rational Dress Society, founded in 1881, campaigned for lighter, looser clothing and bloomers.

Perhaps one of the greatest claims made of the bicycle comes from American suffragette Susan B Anthony: ''I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.’’

As the bicycle became more accessible during the 1880s and 1890s, women and suffragists began to make the connection between cycling and political freedom, using it as a cause célèbre.

The bicycle offered independence and new horizons – and demanded a society and fashion which supported this. After all, how were modern ladies supposed to navigate a steep hill in corsets and voluminous skirts?

The Edinburgh Ladies Cycling Club, photographed on one of their weekly Sunday runs, c. 1930s.

Above: The Edinburgh Ladies Cycling Club, photographed on one of their weekly Sunday runs, c. 1930s.

This rare 1895 poster advertises bicycles made by Glasgow company New-Howe Machine Co. Ltd. It features a lady cyclist in a quite scandalous outfit!

Above: This rare 1895 poster advertises bicycles made by Glasgow company New-Howe Machine Co. Ltd. It features a lady cyclist in a quite scandalous outfit!

arte-de-visite depicting lady with bicycle, by Thomas C. Partridge, Sudbury, c. 1897

Above: Carte-de-visite depicting lady with bicycle, by Thomas C. Partridge, Sudbury, c. 1897. From the Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland.

1885

John Kemp Starley's Rover Safety Bicycle launched

The Safety Bicycle transformed the bicycle from a dangerous contraption to a reliable device for everyday transportation.

John Kemp Starley (nephew of James, of Ariel fame) returned to early 19th century designs, creating a bike with wheels of an equal size so the rider could sit lower to the ground. His sprocket and chain system drove the bike from the rear wheel, while the front wheel could be steered. This is the same basic diamond frame design still used today.

"Rover" safety bicycle with solid rubber tyres, made by J.K. Starley of Starley & Sons, Coventry, c. 1888

Above: "Rover" safety bicycle with solid rubber tyres, made by J.K. Starley of Starley & Sons, Coventry, c. 1888. You can see it in the Technology by Design gallery on Level 3 of the National Museum of Scotland.

1888

John Dunlop invents the pneumatic rubber bicycle tyre

Forget the Tour de France – cycling rivalries have a long history!

While many people believe that John Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre first in 1888, that honour actually belongs to fellow Scottish inventor Robert Thomson. Their invention made cycling a much smoother experience.

You can find out more about the invention of the pneumatic tyre here.

Early Dunlop tyre

Above: This rubber tyre was donated to the museum by John Dunlop himself. You can see it in our Technology by Design gallery on Level 3 of the National Museum of Scotland.

1903

The first Tour de France is held

Starting life as a promotional event for L'Auto, a French newspaper, le Tour is now one of the world's most famous cycling races.

Did you know? The yellow jersey worn by the lead rider in the Tour de France is a tie to the yellow paper that L'Auto was printed on.

Black and white photo showing the finish of the 1903 Tour de France

Above: The finish of the 1903 Tour de France.

1949

Fausto Coppi win the Giro D'Italia-Tour de France double

After this historic victory, Coppi was crowned Il Campionissimo: the champion of champions.

Created by designer Drummond Masterton, this milled aluminium bowl is inspired by the 60th anniversary of Fausto Coppi winning the Giro d'Italia-Tour de France double in 1949.

Masterton’s designs for Campionissimo capture the alpine cycling landscape Coppi navigated to win the 1949 Giro.

You can find out more about this artwork here.

Milled aluminion bowl entitled Campionissimo

Milled aluminion bowl entitled Campionissimo

Above: Aluminium bowl entitled Campionissimo, made by British artist Drummond Masterton in 2009, inspired by the 60th anniversary of the Italian cyclist Fausto Coppi winning the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France. You can see the bowl in the Making and Creating gallery on Level 3 of the National Museum of Scotland.

1962

Alex Moulton pioneers bicycle suspension

When it came to suspension, Moulton bicycles were decades ahead of other bicycle manufacturers. They were truly unisex, class-less bikes.

The Moulton bicycle is a unique design with many features that set it apart from other bicycles. During the 1950s, engineer Alex Moulton defined the key features of the Moulton bicycle: small wheels, suspension, and a stiff unisex frame.

When the design was released in 1962, it was one of the first major innovations in bicycle design since the safety bicycle in the 1880s and made an immediate impact.

Moulton bicycle the Deluxe M2, with small wheels and a pannier at the back.

Above: This 1965 Moulton bicycle was known as the Deluxe M2. You can see it in the Technology by Design gallery on Level 3 of the National Museum of Scotland.

1966–1974

"Mountain bicycling" takes off

Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California, is generally regarded as the birthplace of the sport.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a group of US teenagers known as the Larkspur Canyon Gang rode 1940s vintage balloon tyre bicycles on Mt. Tamalpais and through Baltimore Canyon in Larkspur, California. Their exploits spawned the birth of mountain biking as a sport. Joe Breeze, a bicycle frame builder, heard of their cycling adventures and developed what is considered to be the first mountain bike.

The first mass-produced mountain bike was the Specialized Stumpjumper, first released in 1981.

This 1992 Kirk Revolution mountain bike from our collections has a moulded magnesium frame – at the time a revolution in bicycle manufacturing.

Black mountain bike made by Kirk Precision Ltd

Above: Mountain bicycle from the 'Revolution' series by Kirk Precision Ltd, 1992.

1993

Graeme Obree breaks the world hour record

On 17 July, a relatively unknown cyclist from Scotland did the unthinkable: he smashed the World Hour Record on his homemade bicycle, Old Faithful.

Graeme Obree’s unorthodox machine was the culmination of years of experimenting with aerodynamics and durability, and his success marked the start of a professional career defined by cycling innovation.

Every choice Obree made when building Old Faithful was designed to increase speed and endurance.

He made the bottom bracket (the part which connects the crankset and chain to a bike) deliberately narrow, so the component was lighter. He used washing machine bearings when standard bike bearings were unsuitable, assuming (correctly) that they were of a higher quality. The wheel fork only had one blade and shoes were fixed to the pedals, decreasing resistance against the cyclist’s body. Obree even invented a new aerodynamic cycling position, the Tuck: hunched over the handlebars, arms folded away under the chest. Taken together, bike and position reduced aerodynamic drag by around 15 per cent.

You can find out more about Old Faithful here.

Graeme Obree's home made bicycle Old Faithful

Detail of Graeme Obree's bicycle Old Faithful showing the pedals

Above: Graeme Obree's bicycle Old Faithful, on display in our Sporting Scotland gallery on Level 6 of the National Museum of Scotland.

Graeme Obree riding Old Faithful

Above: Graeme Obree riding Old Faithful.

2006

Sir Chris Hoy takes gold at the Commonwealth Games, held in Scotland.

Hoy won the Team Sprint with team mates Craig MacLean and Ross Edgar, and took bronze in the 1 km time trial.

You can see more objects associated with the Commonwealth Games here.

Above: Gold medal won by cyclist Sir Chris Hoy at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

Above: Gold medal won by cyclist Sir Chris Hoy at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, on loan from Sir Chris Hoy.

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