By the 1890s, the bicycle was creating a social revolution in the United States. Nearly two million bicycles were being manufactured each year and were being sold throughout the country. People who previously had to walk now had a new means of transportation and this meant that millions of people were being given a new means of mobility.
What Came Before:
The history of the nineteenth century bicycle begins with the invention of a walking machine in 1817. Baron von Drais invented a machine that would help him get around the royal gardens faster. The new machine had two same-size wheels placed in-line with the front wheel being steerable. The rider simply straddled the frame and then pushed the machine forward with the feet. The machine, made of wood, enjoyed some short-lived popularity but it was not really a practical form of transportation. The machine was commonly known as the Draisienne or hobby horse.
The Velocipede, commonly called the Boneshaker, appears in 1865. Instead of pushing against the ground, the rider pedaled the machine. The pedals were applied to the front wheel. Like the Draisienne, it was made out of wood. Cobblestone roads made for a rather uncomfortable ride, hence the nickname Boneshaker. The name Velocipede, by the way, means “fast foot.”
The design for a woman’s Velocipede is shown above.
The first all metal bicycle was developed in 1870. Like the Velocipede, pedals were attached to the front wheel. But unlike the early machines, the front wheel was significantly larger than the rear wheel. While the high front wheel meant that riders could go faster—the larger the wheel the farther it would travel with a single rotation—it also meant that riders were higher off the ground. Riders would purchase a machine with a wheel as large as the length of their legs would allow.
With the high center of gravity of the high wheel bicycles, the concept of “taking a header” came into existence. When the front wheel hit a rock, a rut, or a dog, the entire apparatus would rotate forward, sending the rider unceremoniously toward the ground.
Riding a high wheel bicycle was viewed as being risqué for women and thus a high wheel tricycle was developed. This enabled women to ride in their long skirts and corsets. The tricycle also brought about many mechanical innovations, including handbrakes, the differential, and rack and pinion steering.
The Modern Bicycle:
The basic shape and configuration of the modern bicycle emerged about 1885 with the Rover which was manufactured in England by John Kemp Starley. The bicycle configuration returned to the original configuration of two same-size wheels. Power was not applied directly to the wheel, but with a chain and sprocket which allowed the same speed as the high wheel bicycle.
Hard rubber tires meant that the ride was still a bit rough. In 1888 pneumatic tires were introduced by John Dunlop which made for much smoother riding on paved streets. In the 1890s the rear freewheel was developed which allowed the rider to coast. The bicycle of the 1890s had two wheels of the same size, pneumatic tires, and an affordable price. Known as safety bicycles, they attracted both men and women and were considered a liberating device for women. It is reported that feminist Susan B. Anthony called the bicycle a “freedom machine.” Anthony wrote:
"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel...the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."Some historians feel that it was the bicycle that made the Gay Nineties gay. For working men, the bicycle was a practical investment in a form of transportation which gave him greater flexibility for leisure. For women, the bicycle killed the bustle and corset fashion and brought in more common sense dressing.
In 1880, the League of American Wheelmen (LAW) was formed in Rhode Island by Kirk Monroe and Charles Pratt. By the 1890s, The LAW was the largest cycling organization in the United States.
In 1894, the LAW voted to prohibit membership by non-white people. According to an editorial in Good Roads, the LAW magazine in 1894:
“It will some day come to be considered purely a political party and when that time comes there can be no doubt as to the advisability of admitting to membership any respectable person of whatever race. At present the League contains a number of young men who feel and not without reason, that the L.A.W. is a sort of fraternity, the different members of which are in some way definitely positioned with relation to each other. The existence of this feeling especially in the South, where the race prejudice is very strong, made the Southern white wheelman indifferent if not actually antagonistic to the organization so long as the black man was permitted to enjoy the same privileges as himself, while it does not appear that any considerable number of colored wheelmen really availed themselves of the advantages of membership.”However, a number of LAW locals simply ignored this rule. This included clubs in New Jersey and Massachusetts.
With the bicycle as one of America’s favorite modes of transportation, one of the concerns was the poor condition of American roads. In 1892, Major-General Nelson Miles addressed a meeting of the LAW and declared that the condition of America’s roads was wretched. In the East, political pressures by the LAW resulted in the development of better roads, but there was little improvement in the rural West.
With regard to military use of the bicycle, Italy had started testing bicycles as early as 1877 and by the 1890s many European countries (Italy, Belgium, France, Austria, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Netherlands, Russia, and the United Kingdom) had incorporated the use of bicycles into their armies. Bicycles were seen as being less expensive and less time-consuming to maintain than horses. They were used for reconnaissance and message relays. It was also felt that bicycles could move troops faster than marching.
A number of experimental bicycles were created for military use. For example, a folding bicycle weighing only 28 pounds was designed to be carried by the infantry in a backpack type of arrangement. It could be unfolded in less than a minute and put the soldier on wheels.
In the United States, General Nelson Miles became interested in the military potential of the bicycle in 1891. He felt that the bicycle was less tiresome to the rider than was the horse. He expressed the opinion that the bicycle would be better for military couriers than the horse. In 1892, he sent a message from his Chicago headquarters to New York City using relays of volunteer riders from the League of American Wheelmen.
In 1891, the Connecticut National Guard formed a cycling unit under the command of signal officer Captain Howard Giddings. Giddings explained military cycling drills in his book: Manual for Cyclists for the Use of the Regular Army, Organized Militia and Volunteer Troops of the United States. He felt that soldiers should ride bicycles 10 miles a day in training and that after two weeks they should be able to ride 50 miles carrying equipment. There was, of course, no Regular Army unit using bicycles at this time.
In 1893, the Toledo, Ohio Commercial reported:
“That the bicycle possesses advantages for military use cannot be denied, and it may come to pass that the bicycle will totally supersede the horse in time of war.”In 1895, General Miles gave a report on the extensive use of the bicycle in the European armies and recommended that the United States follow suit. He recommended that the U.S. Army be equipped with a full regiment of 12 bicycle companies. The majority of American military planners, however, viewed the bicycle as a frivolous fad suited only for civilian pastimes. Miles’ critics felt that the cavalry had greater shock power: there was much greater “shock and awe” in facing several hundred pounds of galloping horse than a flimsy bicycle.
In 1895, the United States Military Wheelmen held a conference in New York City on the future of the bicycle in the armed forces. This was the only time the group met.