Bicycling Beginnings- The Safety Bicycle

It seems people of the late 1800s were less than thrilled with having their heads smashed into the ground on a regular basis. The Penny-Farthing, the bike with the enormous front wheel and small rear one, was ridden almost entirely by young men—some might suggest out of courage, others would insist stupidity. Either way, in order to allow bicycles to be ridden by a wider range of ages and genders, improvements on safety were necessary.

Front wheel drive had to go. Sticking with the design of pedals on the front wheel hub would require even larger front wheels if top speeds were to be increased. That, of course, would mean an even larger distance to fall in a crash, probably face first, landing directly on one’s head. With helmets still nonexistent, that option wasn’t a popular one, and instead the design of bicycles made the transition to rear wheel drive through the use of a chain.

The change between the two designs was remarkable, and a push towards what we use today.

The change between the two designs was remarkable, and a push towards what we use today.

Some inventors tried attaching the chain to the front wheel, before realizing it would be best to have the front wheel unencumbered to steer. If you’re ever feeling distressed by your day job, just think about the daily tasks of someone trying to improve upon a bicycle. It is easy to imagine the test ride of a bike that has been outfitted with a chain that runs to the front wheel. Everything is going fantastic. You’re not five feet off the ground because you’ve figured out this fabulous mechanism, you feel safe, you feel healthy, you feel like you’re about to make a lot of money. Now, here comes a horse pulling a buggy.

I don’t want to upset you by detailing how a crash with these horses and their subsequent buggy might go. I wouldn’t want to illustrate that in attaching a chain to the front wheel, the steering wheel of your bicycle, you have hindered any ability to turn. So instead, let’s move on to when people figured out it was a better idea to attach the chain to the rear wheel. Don’t look at that fellow who just crashed into those horses, he didn’t realize his mistake.

A Spring Frame design of the Safety Bicycle from 1885.

A Spring Frame design of the Safety Bicycle from 1885.

John Kemp Starley was the gentleman to come up with the “Safety Bicycle.” It had equal sized wheels and a chain that went to the rear wheel. He did not patent his design, a poor choice if he had hoped to make any money from his invention. Soo, his design was being copied with a vengeance. By the 1890s, the bike had replaced the Penny-Farthing in most of Europe and North America. Because of the ease of pedaling and the reduced risk of splitting open one’s skull, the bike was used by all ages and both genders not just for recreation, but also for basic transportation needs. This design represented the first step towards the all-encompassing usefulness of the bicycles we see today.

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