200 years of pedal power

Sarah Lyon, 09 February, 2017
As cyclists the world over start to celebrate the 200th anniversary of their favourite mode of transport, Sarah Lyon discovers a less than straightforward story…

A French craftsman, a German nobleman or a Scottish blacksmith? All three have a claim to being the inventor of the bicycle, but rather than taking sides, those of a more charitable disposition are likely to be heard saying that it was more a process of evolution, with each of the three playing their part.

One thing for sure is that cycling has never been more popular. British Cycling magazine reports that more than two million people across the country now cycle at least once a week. There is a boom industry in specialised accessories, especially clothing (oh, to have shares in Lycra).

For many cycling enthusiasts Germany will be the place to visit during this anniversary year. It was here, in Mannheim, that Baron Karl Drais von Sauerbronn patented his velocipede, or draisine, 200 years ago in 1817. It had two wheels and a leather saddle draped over a wooden frame. A rotating handlebar was attached, which enabled the front wheel to be turned. It was powered by the rider pushing their feet along the ground. As an interesting aside, one of the main complaints was the amount of shoe leather riders went through while pushing it along!

The public soon began calling it the ‘dandy horse’ because it was mostly young aristocrats wearing flamboyant clothes that were riding these new machines. However, credit where it’s due, the term bicycle was coined in France in the 1860s.

There is, of course, nothing more recognisably Parisian than the clichéd image of pedalling along the Seine. A bouquet of flowers and a baguette thrown nonchalantly into the bike’s wicker basket complete the picture.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was the nation that went on to found the world’s greatest bike race in 1903, the adrenalin-fuelled Tour de France.

As far back as the 1790s, French aristocrat and craftsman, the Comte Mede de Sivrac, had been tinkering with his ‘invention’, the celerifere. Made out of wood, it was more like a scooter than a bicycle, as it had no steering or pedals and, crucially, four wheels instead of two.

It wasn’t until 1863 that another Frenchman, Pierre Michaux (and his son Ernest) came up with the idea of attaching the pedals to a cranked arm which propelled the front wheel. Pierre joined together with the enterprising Olivier Brothers (Aimé and René, the sons of a wealthy Parisian industrialist) to form a velocipedes company called Michaux and Company.

The Michaux velocipede was the world's first mass-produced bicycle. By all accounts it was an incredibly uncomfortable bike, with a tiny seat and wooden wheels encased in iron. In England it was given the nickname of ‘the boneshaker’.

Much earlier though – and an interesting addendum to the history of the bicycle – is the input, in 1839, of a Scottish blacksmith called Kirkpatrick Macmillan from Keir in Dumfries. He used his ironmongery skills to add pedals to the German ‘push-along’ cycle.

Macmillan never thought of patenting his invention or trying to make any money out of it, preferring to live a quiet country life, but others who saw it were not slow to realise its potential and soon copies began to appear for sale.

His family, however, was not so unassuming, and on his gravestone in Keir churchyard, the epitaph reads (you’ve guessed it) Inventor of the Bicycle

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