A Bicycle Trip Thru History

The little town of New Bremen, Ohio, boasts a big story – bicycles!

That’s where The Bicycle Museum of America rotates hundreds of historic bicycles on display. The stories revealed from the invention, innovations, and designs of today’s most common mode of transportation are a journey through cultures, minds, and entertainment.

The first genuine bicycle is credited to Karl von Drais. The German baron patented his two-wheel “walking machine” in 1818, which was human-steered and powered. However, the pedal was not part of the innovation in this early design. As such, the rider had to push the ground with their feet. Thus, the name “walking machine.” Eventually, this popular invention was banned because it caused many accidents.

History passed by the next evolution of the bicycle. In 1839 Scottish blacksmith Kirkpatrick MacMillan conceived the Treadle Bicycle. Its foot treadles propelled it with the use of driving rods and cranks. Unfortunately, it was largely ignored. Pedals were connected to the wheels in 1863 when Frenchman Pierre Lallement developed the Velocipede. A few years later, it was patented as the “fast foot” in America. However, its infamous nickname, “boneshaker” was better known as the 100-pound instrument thundered along on ironclad wooden rims.

Less than a decade later, the iconic Highwheeler rolled into public consciousness. This lopsided bicycle design by Englishman James Starley featured an oversized front tire and an undersized back tire. But it was a smooth ride on India rubber tires as long as a sudden stop didn’t send the rider flying over the handlebars. The reason for the large front tire design was that the pedal connected directly to it, and by doing so, one pedal turn matched one wheel turn, so the larger the wheel, the longer the distance it traveled with one rotation of the pedal.

By 1885, Starley’s nephew John Kemp Starly brought the two-wheel machine back to balance. He also added a chain drive. The Chain Drive Safety or “Safeties” became all the rage at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Even Susan B. Anthony was a fan saying it gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. These “wheel women” became competitors and soon had monikers like “The daring women of the racetrack.” Even Annie Oakley got into the act and began captivating Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show audiences with her rifle-shooting tricks … while riding no-handed on a bicycle!

This Golden Age of Bicycles in the 1890s was also liberating to black Americans. Further bicycle advancements made racing them the thing to do. Marshall Taylor was so fast on a bike that his nicknames included “The Ebony Wonder,” “Whirlwind,” and “Black Cyclone.” But it also made him the target of bigoted competition. Flimsy excuses were used to ban him from races. His first professional race was at Madison Square Garden, where his motivation outpaced all others to the point that he lapped the entire field. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, cycling was the most popular sport in the world. And with that, Taylor proceeded to become a world champion and the first black sports superstar in American history. In fact, the pinnacle of bicycle racing today – the Tour de France – began in 1904.

Everyone embraced the bicycling craze. And so, it became a tool of social interaction. As such, the 1890s also introduced the tandem bicycle, where two seats were positioned in front-back alignment, not to be confused with the Sociable, where the riders sat side by side. These multi-rider bikes were used on the battlefield as early as the late 1800s. The soldier riders became known as Buffalo Soldiers. Machine guns were even mounted into bicycle designs.

If you weren’t sociable, there was the Monocycle. Frenchman Rosseau of Marseilles invented this contraption in 1869. The rider sits inside a large wheel. The single wheel has an outer and inner part. The inner holds the rider steady. The outer moves the weird contraption. Steering is controlled by shifting weight; accordingly, and to stop, there’s a hand lever.

As the decades progressed and the normalized bicycle had variations like gears that differentiated it from the 1-speed or 3-speeds, it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1880s that a generational shift happened seemingly overnight. Although trick riding atop a bicycle dated a hundred years earlier, it became an art form when BMX bikes were suddenly everywhere. Its insurgency paved the way for the X-games of today. BMX bikes were designed to maneuver in ways previously not dreamed of. And they could traverse the most difficult of terrain. But the Ice Bicycle of the early 1900s first attempted to break the biggest obstacles of all – snow and ice. The concept replaced the front wheel with a sled runner. It is still around, although colder climates provide the best chance to get a glimpse. In warmer climates, the Water Bicycle was invented in 1917. It was a semi-submersible pedal-powered propeller and a handlebar-controlled rudder.

Bicycles, through the Twentieth Century, continued to diversify. The Cycle Rickshaw, or Pedicab, became popular in Singapore and other Asian countries in the 1960s. Circus acts developed specialized trick bikes like the 1959 Schwinn Circus Tycoon. This largely immobile bicycle had deep-grooved wheels to keep it upright during high wire acts. Around the mid-Twentieth Century, bicycle culture was told in stories on the Big Screen. The 1948 Italian movie Bicycle Thieves is considered a classic. But the mid-1980s featured a cluster of well-known bicycle movies. Titles included American Flyers, RAD, Quick Silver, and the most iconic of them all – Pee-wee’s Big Adventure! In it, Pee-wee Herman embarks on a cross-country search for his stolen 1953 Schwinn DX. Today, that famous bicycle – actually, there were several used during filming, but this is one of the few remaining from the set that wasn’t lost or stolen – is on display at the Bicycle Museum of America in New Bremen, Ohio. It’s a fantastic ride through history.

By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler, Your Tour Guide to Fun!

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