Invented 200 years ago, the humble bicycle is one of the most popular and enduring innovations of all time. Relatively cheap and simple to produce, environmentally sound, easy and fun to use, great for keeping fit and available to people of all ages and from all walks of life, it is still a significant part of our lives today.

The first useable ‘bicycle’ was invented in Germany by Baron Karl von Drais in 1817. It was made almost entirely of wood and known as a Hobby Horse. This simple, early version of a bicycle was ridden by sitting in the saddle and pushing yourself along with your feet. When there was enough speed, you could put your legs up and freewheel. Although now what we’d think of as a ‘balance bike’ popular with children, in the 1820s these ‘bicycles’ (sometimes nicknamed a ‘dandyhorse’) became something of a craze among elite young gentlemen in London.

Their design remained basically unchanged until the 1860s, when pedals were added to the front wheel. Although officially named velocipedes, these early bicycles were nicknamed ‘boneshakers’ as they shook the rider around with their hard, solid wheels, often on rough cobbled roads.

The design continued to develop with the invention of the famous Penny-farthing, which was faster and easier to steer, but difficult to climb onto and balance. Then came the safety bicycle, the forerunner of today’s bicycles. The seats were nearer the ground, the driving wheel was now at the back and turned by chains linked to pedals, and both wheels were the same size. Hollow rubber tyres, inflated by air, were fitted on a lighter, wire-spoked wheel. Later, gears made pedalling easier to get up hills and metal frames became lighter.

Faster than walking and cheaper and easier to maintain than horses, the advent of the bicycle sparked a revolution in personal transport and independence. As they grew in popularity, bicycles led to new and improved roads, became a focus for social activity and made it possible for people to commute to work from outside of cities. They also offered unprecedented freedom for women to travel without relying on men. Today, bicycles remain an affordable and effective means of transport all over the world, particularly in developing countries where they provide essential access to school and work, health and social services, family and friends.

Did you know..?

In 2005 the bicycle won a UK national survey of people’s favourite inventions, with a whopping 59% of the vote.

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Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above. 

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This object is in the collection of National Cycle Museum