Friday, May 10, 2024

Freedom on Two Wheels — By Suzanne Norquist

 Long summer days of my youth in the 1970s were spent riding up and down the dirt roads of our neighborhood on bicycles with friends. My bike had a banana seat, a plastic wicker basket, pink tassels, and a bell.

Only one hundred years earlier, bicycles were expensive and required the athleticism of a gymnast. Where did these handy, human-powered vehicles come from anyway?

Some of the history is fuzzy, but it seems to have all started around 1817 when a German baron named Karl Von Drais invented a running machine. It was known by many names, including swiftwalker, velocipede, hobby horse, draisine, and dandy horse.

Food shortages for people and animals followed the Year Without a Summer (1816), caused by a volcanic eruption. Many couldn’t afford to keep horses and found themselves without transportation.

Von Drais mounted a seat between two wheels. The rider would move his feet in a running motion, propelling the vehicle. There were no pedals or brakes. It required less effort than walking and didn’t require a horse. However, it was difficult and somewhat dangerous to ride.

London society experienced a dandy-horse craze in the summer of 1819 when many wealthy young men of the regency purchased them. The use of these devices wore out the riders’ boots surprisingly quickly. It wasn’t long, however, before they were banned from sidewalks and many roads, probably due to accidents.

The first true bicycle, known as the velocipede, came about in the early 1860’s. French inventors Pierre Lallement, Pierre Michaux, and Ernest Michaux are credited with attaching pedals to the front wheel. However, others claim this invention as well. Brakes hadn’t been added yet, creating the opportunity for accidents.

These heavy, stiff contraptions were also known as boneshakers. They didn’t have any shock absorption, and the roads were rough.

With the pedals on the front wheel, it wasn't easy to gain any speed. So, why not make the wheel bigger to give more movement with each turn? Several inventors used this idea. The new bicycle was known as the penny-farthing, the front wheel representing the larger penny and the back representing the smaller British farthing. The small back wheel was for balance. The rider sat high off the ground. Notice the seat in the picture below is near his shoulder. They were still called boneshakers because they were still very stiff.

These bicycles kicked off the velocipede craze in the United States in 1869. Carriage makers manufactured the devices and couldn’t keep up with demand. Velocipede schools and rinks popped up everywhere.

Only the very athletic could master these devices. An article in the Boulder County Pioneer, Boulder, Colorado, March 17, 1869 says,

Young Hobbles has been going to a Velocipede school and has had a rough time of it with the fiery bicycle. He has sprained his ankle twice, dislocated his shoulder, and raised several bumps not set down in the phrenological chart. (on his head)

Such things will happen to beginners.

But when you do understand the Velocipede, nothing is easier.

Even with that kind of terrifying learning experience, people kept riding. Here is an 1879 advertisement.

One hundred miles in seven hours? I can’t imagine sitting on that tiny elevated seat for seven hours. Yet, Englishman Thomas Stevens rode one of these around the world.

Riders competed against horses. Horses were faster in the short run, but bicycle riders could go longer at high speeds.

Of course, horses didn’t get along with bicycles. Several laws attempted to keep cyclists off the roads where they might frighten the animals. As with today's protestors, riders took to the streets anyway, got arrested, and took their cases to higher courts.

A couple of key developments moved bicycles from the realm of enthusiasts to that of the everyday man. The first was the creation of the safety bicycle. In 1885, Englishman John Kemp Starley designed a bike with two wheels of the same size and a chain drive. This eliminated the problem of riding so high up in the air.

Then, around 1890, the pneumatic tire was developed, creating a smoother ride—no more boneshaker. Patent applications for bicycle-related inventions took off. The US patent office had to develop a new division for them.

The time from the early 1890s to the 1950s is considered the Golden Age of Bicycles. Developments steadily improved them.

Around 1920, the kids’ bike was invented. More adults were driving automobiles, but there was still a market for kids. In the 1930s, Schwinn added a fat tire for teenage boys. This was the precursor to mountain bikes.

Troops used bicycles in World War II. There were bicycle infantry troops. And US planes would drop bikes for soldiers to use, often called “bomber bikes.”

Perhaps most important of all, in 1963, Schwinn introduced a bike with a banana seat and high-rise handlebars, giving me and my friends freedom to ride around the neighborhood.


”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection

Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.

Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist

Rockledge, Colorado, 1884

Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?


Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.



  1. This is a fun article. My youngest sister had the banana seat bike. I was in high school by then and riding bikes wasn't as cool. But the one I rode as a child often had a playing card positioned in the spokes with a clothes pin to create a sound that reminded us of a motor. Pretty lame, but we enjoyed it. During the summer, I would have street tar imbedded in my knee from falling as we raced around sharp curves.

  2. Thank you for posting today. I had a great bike but didn't ride it much once I got into high school.

    1. Once I started driving, I left my bike behind too.