bicycle, light, two-wheeled vehicle driven by pedals. The name velocipede is often given to early forms of the bicycle and to its predecessor, the dandy horse, a two-wheeled vehicle moved by the thrust of the rider's feet upon the ground. Probably the first practical dandy horse was the draisine, originated c.1816 by Baron Karl Drais von Sauerbronn, chief forester of the duchy of Baden, to facilitate his inspection tours. Introduced into England in 1818, it was slowly improved, and c.1839 Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a Scottish blacksmith, developed a machine propelled by foot treadles and incorporating cranks, driving rods, and handlebars. The French inventor Ernest Michaux introduced in 1855 a heavy crank-driven bicycle. This was perfected c.1865 by Pierre Lallement, whose velocipede, known as a "boneshaker," ran on ironclad wooden rims, the front wheel larger than the rear. Major improvements followed rapidly, including a light, hollow steel frame, ball bearings, tangential metal spokes, and solid rubber tires.
By the 1880s the front wheel had attained a diameter up to 64 in. (163 cm). Although the larger the wheel, the greater the potential speed, size was limited by the length of the rider's legs, and speed by their strength. The safer tricycle, a three-wheeled vehicle similar to the bicycle, also enjoyed a vogue in the 1880s, especially among women and short men. The safety bicycle, with wheels of approximately equal diameter and a sprocket-chain drive connecting the pedals with the rear wheels, was first manufactured at Coventry, England, c.1885 by the English machinist James Starley; following the invention of the pneumatic tire in 1888 by the Scot John Dunlop, the safety bicycle superseded the high-wheeled form. Subsequent modifications include the freewheel (a rear wheel that turns freely when the pedals are stopped), the coaster brake, the hand brake, variable drive gear, and adjustable handlebars.
In the 1880s cycling became a fad of major proportions in the United States and Europe. Bicycle clubs were formed; both sexes participated in rides into the country, often on tandem bicycles. The League of American Wheelmen, organized in 1880, was a leader in the agitation for good roads. Although cycling declined in the United States with the introduction of automobiles, it has recently grown in popularity, notably since the introduction in the 1970s of wide-tired, off-road "mountain bikes." In many parts of the world the bicycle remains a more important means of transportation than the automobile. See also bicycle racing; motorcycle.
See D. V. Herlihy, Bicycle (2004); M. Glaskin, Cycling Science (2012).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.