Smithsonian Bicycle Collection The Development of the Velocipede




The origins of the bicycle are shrouded in mystery. It is not possible to attribute its invention to any single person. Still, what is clear is that the early ancestors of the modern bicycle were in use by the early 1800s.

The first known bicycle was shown by the Comte de Sivrac, who in 1791 was seen riding a two-wheel "wooden horse" in the gardens of the Palais Royal in Paris. Called a celerifere, the machine had two rigidly mounted wheels, so that it was incapable of being steered. To change direction, it was necessary to lift, drag, or jump the front wheel to one side. In 1793 the name was changed to velocifere, and, as these machines became increasingly popular among the sporting set of Paris, clubs were formed and races were run along the Champs Elysees.

Johnson's Pedestrian Hobby Horse Riding School

Aquatint by H. Alken, London, 1819

In 1817, Charles, Baron von Drais, of Sauerbrun, devised a front wheel capable of being steered. He also gave it a padded saddle, and an armrest in front of his body, which assisted him in exerting force against the ground. Granted a patent in 1818, he took his Draisienne to Paris, where it was again patented and acquired the name vélocipède, a term that was to continue in use until about 1869 when the word “bicycle” came into use.

The velocipede gained rapid popularity in France, and almost immediately migrated to England. There, one of its chief exponents was the London coachmaker, Denis Johnson. Riding academies were established, and soon many riders were seen on the streets of London. But the pastime declined almost as rapidly as it had risen, and after the early 1820s, velocipedes were rarely seen.

In the United States, W. K. Clarkson, Jr. of New York, was granted a patent for a velocipede on 26 June 1819, but it is no longer known what this patent covered, for the records were destroyed in the Patent Office fire of 1836. There is no evidence that the sport gained much popularity in the U.S. at the time.

In 1863, in Paris, an important milepost in velocipede development occured when pedals were added to the front axle. This happened in the workshop of Pierre Michaux, but to this day is cannot certainly be said whether he or his employee Pierre Lallement is entitled to the credit. Lallement moved to the New Haven Connecticut, and in 1866 he was granted a patent for “improvements in velocipedes.” In 1868, the Hanlon brothers of New York, improved Lallement's vehicle.

Velocipede Riding School, 1869

The New York Coach-Maker's Magazine, Vol. 10, 1869

Americans began to show an immense enthusiasm for the velocipede in 1868. By early 1869, a number of carriage builders were making cycles. Numerous riding schools were established in many eastern cities, and the sport of riding became suddenly popular, especially among the students of Harvard and Yale Universities. The craze ended as suddenly as it began. By the end of May in 1869 the sport was dying. The reasons for the decline were that the cycles were heavy and cumbersome. There was no cushioning and the rider had to steer and pedal the same front wheel. Riding a velocipede took a great deal of strength and coordination. Cities also began to pass ordinances against riding on pedestrian sidewalks. Further use and development in the United States remained nearly at a standstill during the 1870s.