The Evolution of Bicycles: A Patent History

Karl Drais, circa 1820. Inventor of an early precursor to the modern bicycle.

For more than 100 years, the Tour de France has been the top competition in the bicycling world, and in recent years recognizable athletes such as Lance Armstrong have brought much more focus to the sport, albeit not always for positive reasons. The multiple-stage bicycle race that is a month long trek around France has lasted through multiple swells and declines in biking popularity. Currently, the bicycling world is seeing an uptick in interest, thanks to rising interests in personal transportation in urban environments as well as a growth in environmental responsibility in consumers from across the world. Many cities around the world have been embracing bicycle lanes on public roads as a means of supporting low-carbon emitting forms of transportation.

Periodically we turn to our Evolution of Technology series whenever we want to profile the chronology of development for an intriguing invention which has revolutionized our world. With the storied Tour de France once more taking place across the picturesque regions of France, we thought that this week would be a good time to investigate the history of innovation which led to today’s bicycle.

There are many who consider the bicycle to be one of the greatest inventions related to social mobility, allowing many people with a personal means for moving beyond the boundaries of their towns and communities much more easily. What we found in our latest research showed us that the 19th Century was an incredibly interesting time for the history of bicycles. Fortunately, we were able to find some patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office which show evidence of early inventions in this field. We also scan current technologies in this field to show what some companies are attempting to improve upon in today’s bicycles.



The Draisienne, or the “Hobby Horse” 

The earliest verifiable records of an early predecessor to the modern bicycle comes from the German inventor Karl Drais. His walking machine, which has come to be known as the draisienne, actually more closely resembles the appearance of contemporary bicycles of today than many other two-wheeled vehicles which followed in later decades. Drais, a German baron at the time, invented the walking assistant in large part because of transportation issues caused by horse starvation. Also known as the “hobby horse,” this machine had two in-line wheels with front-wheel steering; riders straddled the frame while walking forward and were able to coast forward with ease down a hill.

There are conflicting reports whether Baron von Drais applied for a patent for his draisienne, which became popular when it was introduced to France in 1818, where it became known as the velocipede. There are reports that an American inventor, W.K. Clarkson, Jr., of New York, filed a patent for a similar invention. However, much of these records, if they existed, were destroyed in the U.S. Patent Office fire of 1836, the first major disaster to befall the patent office over the course of its history.


Pedal Velocipede 

The next major development in bicycling technologies comes in the 1860s, when the first attempts are made at adding a driving mechanism. This would be the start of the pedal bicycles that we see traveling along streets and sidewalks all over the world. These models began utilizing rotary cranks which were attached to front wheel pedals to power the bicycle forward.

From U.S. Patent No. 59,915, simply titled “Velocipede.”

These velocipedes were often commonly known as “boneshakers” due to their rigid metal frames and wheels; rubber wheels weren’t introduced until later, in the late 1870s. The frame, constructed of iron, could easily reach up to 100 pounds in weight. Although these look like contemporary bikes, these models had a much lower gear ratio, resulting in a bike that traveled much slower than today’s versions.

Multiple timelines place the date of the first velocipede with pedals at various points throughout the 1860s. Perhaps the earliest U.S. patent issued to protect one of these vehicles was U.S. Patent No. 59915, which is simply titled Velocipede. The patent protects an invention consisting of two wheels and a mechanism for driving the wheels. The assembly also includes an arrangement for guiding the velocipede assembly and a portion that enables a rider to balance while driving the vehicle. As the velocity of the vehicle increases, it becomes easier for a rider to balance while driving the velocipede. This patent was issued in November 1866 and was assigned to Pierre Lallement of Paris, France.

Although the 1860s can be seen as the decade when the modern development of the bicycle began in earnest, there are some reports that place the invention of a pedal-powered velocipede in Scotland during the late 1830s. Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a blacksmith from Dumfriesshire, is purported to have built a rear-wheel drive velocipede close to 1839. The vehicle was powered by a foot treadle. No patent was filed for the invention, and there’s not a lot of evidence to support this claim, which originally comes from a nephew of Macmillan’s.

From U.S. Patent No. 89341, titled “Improved Velocipede.”

A number of other advancements were seen during the velocipede period of bicycle development. Rubber tires began to be instituted during this time, and the earliest versions were nailed to the metal wheels of this model. Although France embraced the velocipede in its earliest days, American riders also took to the personal form of transportation by the later parts of the 19th century. U.S. Patent No. 89341, which is titled Improved Velocipede, was issued to James Rankin of Detroit, MI, in April 1869. This invention benefits from the introduction of ball bearings into the assembly of velocipedes to aid in motion of the treadles, or the foot pedals which impart motion to the vehicle. This design utilizes a clutch device and pulley design which helps to create continuous rotary motion to the axles, providing smoother motion. According to diagrams attached to this patent, this design used three wheels; three- and four-wheeled velocipedes were popular for a time before the development of the “penny farthing.”



High-Wheelers and Penny Farthings

From U.S. Patent No. 415072, entitled “Tandem Bicycle.”

High-wheeler bicycle, penny farthing or ordinary are all terms used to describe an unusual development in the field of bicycles during the latter parts of the 19th Century. The size of the front wheel continued to grow as this allowed riders to travel further with each pedal rotation. Advancements in metallurgy at this time also allowed bike makers to manufacture products which were composed entirely of lightweight metals, drastically improving the portability of these vehicles. They achieved their maximum popularity between 1873 and 1885, and some models reached speeds of up to 20 miles per hour.

The construction of these penny farthings, however, created a major safety concern that spurred later improvements towards the contemporary bicycle. The high-wheeler was front-wheel driven, and with the pedals attached to the front wheel, the center of gravity for a rider was very high and forward on the vehicle. This caused many riders to lose their balance when trying to avoid obstacles and tumble forward over the front wheel of the bike. Some bicycle history timelines claim that this is how the term “taking a header” first came into being.

From U.S. Patent No. 351001, titled “Anti Friction Bearing for Velocipedes.”

We were unable to find any U.S. patents from the time period related to high-wheelers or penny farthings, but there was still a good deal of innovation in the field of bicycles during the late 1800s. U.S. Patent No. 415072, entitled Tandem Bicycle, was issued to inventors William Starley of Coventry, England, and Herbert S. Owen of Washington, DC, in November 1889. Patent diagrams show a tandem bicycle assembly similar to the tandem bikes still sometimes seen today. U.S. Patent No. 351001, which is titled Anti Friction Bearing for Velocipedes, protects a roller-bearing assembly for bicycles that is arranged to create much less wear through friction than previous models. It was issued to John Kemp Starley of Warwick, England, in October 1886. The Starleys involved with both of these inventions are related to James Starley, considered by many to be an early leader in the development of the bicycle industry.


Safety Bicycles

From U.S. Patent No. 2,289,996, entitled “Velocipede.”

The Starleys were also a major name involved with the next generation of bicycle development, which became known as the safety bicycle. By 1885, the Starleys unveiled the Rover Safety Bicycle, which incorporated the tubular metal diamond-shaped frame as well as the chain-and-gear assembly powering the back wheel, instead of the front wheel, that we see standard on almost every bike made today.

One of the earliest patents we noticed that was directed at safety improvements to bicycles through rear-wheel driving mechanisms was U.S. Patent No. 2289996, entitled Velocipede. Interestingly, this invention retains the large front wheel shape which was endemic to bicycles in 1880, when this patent was issued to Lewis M. Hosea of Cincinnati, OH. However, this velocipede instruction was created to allow the rear wheel to provide more stability and prevent a rider from “oversetting.”

From U.S. Patent No. 453550, titled “Tire for Vehicle-Wheels.”

Another major bicycle development around this time period was the creation of pneumatic tires which were inflatable and elastic, which provided a much more comfortable experience for bicycle riders than metal or wooden wheels. U.S. Patent No. 453550, which is titled Tire for Vehicle-Wheels, was issued to John Boyd Dunlop of Belfast, Ireland, in June 1891. It protected a method of manufacturing and applying inflated tires which consisted of an air-proof tube and a non-expansive tubular covering. The non-expansive tubular covering is comprised of vulcanized rubber along with layers of canvas, cloth or other materials.

Bicycle development and popularity during this period paved the way for the establishment of the Tour de France in 1903. In its first incarnation, the bicycling competition only included six stages, but each 400-kilometer was about twice as long as the average stage length today. The popularity of bicycling as a means of transportation even led to the creation of good roads societies around the United States. Activist groups like the League of American Wheelmen, now the League of American Bicyclists, advocated for infrastructure improvements to roads that also enabled the automobile to become much more practical.


Current Developments 

The design and construction of bicycles has remained largely unchanged over the course of the past century. There is, however, a great deal of innovation still being created by bike makers across the world. Many of these inventions are related to improvements in comfort and safety for bicycle riders, and we’ve even noticed some introduction of computer processing technologies in a couple of patents recently issued by the USPTO.

From U.S. Patent No. 8770808, titled “Bicycle Tail Light.”

Tire safety and lights for improved rider visibility during the night are featured by a couple of recently issued patents which we enjoyed reading about today. U.S. Patent No. 8770808, which is titled Bicycle Tail Light, protects an adjustable bicycle light using a light-emitting diode (LED) light source and a versatile mount that can attach to a luggage rack, chain stay or seatpost. Assigned to Light & Motion Industries of Marina, CA, the patent’s description discusses how the invention is designed to create greater light output and increase the ease of replacing batteries. A method of making bicycle tires from materials other than vulcanized rubber is discussed within U.S. Patent No. 8770243, entitled Bicycle Tire. This patent was assigned to Fine Chemical Company of Korea and it protects the manufacture of a bicycle tire composed of foaming synthetic resin materials. These construction method is designed to use eco-friendly materials while preventing the tire from unexpectedly separating from the rim during use.

We wanted to wrap up our discussion of contemporary bicycling innovations that look to bring the traditional bicycle into the 21st Century by applying some computing technologies to the experience of riding. U.S. Patent No. 8781690, issued under the title Bicycle Seat Position Indicator and assigned to Shimano Inc. of Osaka, Japan, protects a seat position indicator connected to a controlling device. This indicator sends a signal to the controller regarding the height of the seat relative to the height of the rider and can indicate to the rider that a height adjustment should be made. Finally, we were intrigued by the microcomputer and drive assistance electric motor disclosed within U.S. Patent No. 8781663, titled Bicycle Drive Apparatus. This patent is also assigned to Shimano Inc., and it protects a bicycle with a drive apparatus which has no need for a shift position sensor, simplifying the construction of this vehicle compared to prior models. The bicycle is still powered by pedaling, but the microcomputer issues a shift command to the transmission for shifting gears automatically.


For more information please see The Development of the Bicycle, published by the National Museum of American History.


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