Manotechnologie, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The History of Bicycles and Other Human-Powered Vehicles

Have you ever wondered who invented the first bicycle? With over 1 billion bikes in the world, you may be curious to find out more about the history of the bicycle. After all, it’s a hugely popular, and environmentally-friendly mode of transport which is used by all ages. 

The history of the bicycle is somewhat confusing - the bicycle we know today wasn’t invented until the 1800s. So prior to this, how did people get around? 

European Boneshaker By Daderot - Own work, Public Domain

Bicycle Predecessors

There are many predecessors to the modern bicycle, however, it’s still argued amongst historians as to who actually invented the first bike. Some examples of predecessors for the bike are: 

  • The Recumbent 
  • Boneshaker
  • Hobby Horse
  • Pedal Velocipede 

Who Invented The Bicycle?

Depending on the nationality of the person you ask the answer you get may vary, as many different people claim credit for inventing the bike.

Therefore, to get the most accurate information on who invited the bicycle it’s important to investigate the history of the bicycle. 

Bicycle History in Debate

There are numerous names credited for the invention of the bicycle. These include Giovanni Fontana who invented the first human-powered land vehicle. This had four wheels and was  similar to a bicycle. However, it appears that a more detailed description of this machine fails to exist. 

It isn’t clear who invented the bike as many people claim credit for this, therefore it has caused a lot of debate. 

France, Scotland, England, and America all claim that it was someone in their country who developed the first bike. Although there are other countries that claim ownership of the bicycle too. 

Since the 1990s there has been an annual conference called the International Cycling History Conference where historians share their findings and ideas about the bicycle. After each conference, the latest findings are published, and the books are available around the world.  

It is believed that the bicycle was changed and evolved over time with different ideas being put forward to make the bike we know today. The issue with this is that crediting the original bike becomes even more complex. 

In previous years, it has been said that Leonardo da Vinci may have designed the bicycle, indeed, he was famous for inventing a variety of machines. However, there doesn’t appear to be much evidence for this apart from a drawing which was found in 1974. Upon further research, this was likely not done by da Vinci. 

Image Credit: Von Autor/-in unbekannt – Wikimedia Commons

The Celerifere

Comte Mede de Sivrac is credited with creating the Celerifere back in 1790. This was made from a hobby horse that came with four wheels instead of two. It also had a seat; riders would use their feet to push off and then glide on the Celerifere. 

According to iBike nothing else is known about Comte, not even when he was born or when he died. Therefore, it is likely that he may never have lived at all. This is likely a patriotic hoax by some French Historian in 1891.                               

Draisine or Laufmaschine, around 1820 via Wikimedia Commons

The Steerable Laufmaschine

German Baron Karl Drais von Sauerbronn invited an improved version of the Celerifere in 1818, which he named the Laufmaschine. In German, this translates to ‘running machine’.  

This was made entirely of wood and had no pedals. Just like the Celerifere, the rider would need to use their feet to make the machine go forward. However, you could steer this version. 

Image Credit: SAF, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


The Laufmaschine was renamed the Velocipede which is Latin for fast foot and is still a term used today. Although, this is used to describe various forerunners of the monowheel, unicycle, the bicycle, the tricycle, and the quadricycle developed between 1817 and 1880. 

It was renamed by French inventor Nicephore Niepce, who built his own version of the Laufmaschine which included an adjustable seat. Niepce was also known for his photography.  

TransmissionDraisienneMacMillan.gif via Wikimedia Commons

Mechanically Propelled

It wasn’t until 1839 that a system of pedals and levers was used on bikes. Scottish inventor Kirkpatrick Macmillion devised a system to change the pedal-less bicycle into a fully functioning machine. 

This Velocipede was exciting as it allowed users to ride with their feet off the ground.

Although Kirkpatrick is named as the inventor of this, it may not be his creation. It may belong to France and haven just been taken over by British Propaganda.  In 1863, a popular and successful bike was invented in France. This was the most popular bike at that time and was invented by a French blacksmith known as Ernest Michaux. 

Like the bicycle made by Kirkpatrick, it included pedals, but these were mounted to the front wheel. The bike also had rotary cranks. In 1868 Michaux founded his own company called Michaux et Cie which became the first company to commercially manufacture bikes with pedals. 

Photo by Greg Boll on Unsplash

Penny Farthing

The Penny Farthing was invented in 1871 by James Starley, a British engineer. Although the French Velopede was a hugely successful invention at that time, the Penny Farthing was also successful in its own right. 

It was an efficient bicycle and consisted of a small rear wheel and a large front wheel that pivoted on a simple tubular frame, with tires of rubber. 

The downside of the Penny Farthing is how riders got off and on the bike. This required them to jump off using a metal peg on the back wheel. 

The Rover Safety Bicycle via Wikimedia Commons

Safety Bicycle

Although the “Safety Bicycle” seems like a strange name to call a bicycle, it makes sense when it’s compared to the Penny Farthing which was at a height, making it harder for the user to get on and off. With the Safety Bicycle being easy enough to mount whilst touching the floor, users were able to stop the bike by putting their feet on the ground. 

It was named the Safety Bicycle and created by Harry John Lawson in 1876, as it advised those who were buying it that it was safer than using Penny Farthings. 

However, the safety bicycle didn’t catch on. This is likely due to the high price point, weight, and complexity compared to the Penny-Farthing. 

In 1885 John Kemp Starley came out with the first commercially successful safety bike, which he named Rover. Although this modern bike was heavier and more expensive than other offerings, the advanced offerings made it a huge hit. 

Image credit: Overman Wheel via Wikimedia Commons

The Overman Wheel Company

In 1892 the Overman Wheel Company was founded in the USA. It was the first manufacturer of safety bicycles in the United States, following the British creation. Overman wanted quick success, and therefore rushed to geta safety bicycle into this market. 

It was a high-quality bike according to the company, made using steel parts as opposed to cast metal parts. With this Safety Bike providing a smoother ride than other options, it was no wonder it was a huge hit in the 1890s. 

Seventies Batavus Champion Intercycle 10 speed via Wikimedia Commons

The Modern Bicycle 

In 1986 William Reilly was issued a patent for the two-speed internal gear hub which was added into deluxe bicycles in Britain.

In the early 1900s, refinements were made to the safety bike including changing materials and revamping the frame design and components. With this, the feature of speed gearing was revolutionary. 

French cyclists took the modern bicycle and investigated ways to make it better. In the 1920s gears which were moved by chain had become fully established within France.

Outgrowing the feature of 3 gears, next was 10-speed bicycles which became a huge hit and became a major market within the USA. Half of the bikes sold at this time are thought to have been 10-speed bicycles.  

Image Credit: DerWeg / Pixabay

The Mountain Bike

The next big thing in cycling was caused by the Mountain Bike. They were originally called Clunkers by their inventors in northern California during the 1970s. 

The Mountain Bike replaced the Safety bicycle and became the standard bicycle developed in the world. By 1993 this accounted for 95% of bicycle sales. 

Present Day Bicycle Types

Most present-day bicycles fit into six main categories; these are:

  • BMX
  • Hybrid 
  • Utility 
  • Racing 
  • Mountain
  • Touring  

The style of the Bike will dictate the weight, the frame, and speed. For example, racing bikes are usually more lightweight to allow riders to build up more acceleration.

Hybrid Bikes are usually made of components from road bicycles and mountain bikes, and are often used for commuting.  


Whether you’re looking to upgrade your bike or are curious about the history of Bicycles, Bobbin Bikes have a great selection of Bikes for all ages. 

We hope you have enjoyed this insight into bicycles.