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The History of the Bicycle



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The bicycle, one of the most potent symbols of our increasingly environmentally aware society, was quite a late arrival on the technological scene, being developed in Europe in the 19th Century. It now serves mainly to allow people to travel short journeys reasonably quickly using human leg power rather than using up fuel.

Precursors to the modern bicycle went by a variety of names including the velocipede, the pushbike, the Draisine, and the hobby horse. But the first true bicycle came along in 1839 when Scotsman, Kirkpatrick MacMillan, began to use a mechanical crank drive for the back wheel.

The design was modified in the mid 19th Century by two Frenchmen, Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement. They massively enlarged the front wheel to make the astonishing sight that became known as the penny-farthing or boneshaker, although officially it was called an ordinary bicycle'. This monster, with its high seat and steel framed wheels with iron tires, was difficult to ride and painful both for traveling and for falling off.

More advanced models later in the 19th Century decreased the diameter of the front wheel and placed the seat further back. Earlier models required both pedaling and steering using the front wheel. This awkward arrangement was solved by the introduction of the chain drive. This new breed of bicycle were originally called safety bicycles.

By the Golden Age of Bicycles in the 1890s the seat tube had also been added, thereby completing the modern diamond frame, recognizable today. The pneumatic tire was also introduced, by Scotsman John Boyd Dunlop, still a familiar name in the industry, in 1888. Another advance of around this time was the rear freewheel, allowing coasting without the pedals spinning around frantically. Derailleur gears and cable-pull brakes were also invented during the Golden Age.

In the 20th Century the technology continued to advance, particularly with respect to the materials used to make bicycles more lightweight and durable. Alloy steels were around as far back as the 1930s. Aluminum alloy frames became increasingly common from the 1980s and in recent years carbon fiber, titanium and advanced steel alloys have all been introduced.

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