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It is hard to trace the history of the modern bicycle back to its original origins, as no one seems to know exactly when that was!
Bicycles on Pavement
Archeologists have discovered bas-relief and hieroglyphic evidence of two-wheeled vehicles existing in ancient Babylonian and Egyptian societies, but no ancient relics have ever been found. Many people believe that the bicycle was invented by Leonardo da Vinci according to a drawing in a notebook; however, most experts believe that it was either done by his assistant or a fake that was drawn much later.
One thing that experts do not dispute is the creation of the draisine around 1817 by Baron Karl Drais de Sauerbrun of Germany. This machine was constructed of two wheels connected to a simple wooden frame with a steering mechanism and was patented as a walking machine, enabling riders to travel up to ten miles an hour. During the same period, in 1820, a similar machine known as the swift-walker was patented in the United States by W. K. Clarkson. These become popular in New York City but eventually disappeared due to city ordinances.
Around 1860, a French man named Pierre Michaux attached crank handles from an old grindstone to the front wheel of the swift-walker, creating the velocipede, a forerunner of the modern bicycle. One of his employees, Pierre Lallement, contended that he conceived of this idea first and took it to the United States, where he patented it in 1866 and introduced it to the public.
The 1870s brought such improvements as lighter steel frames, solid rubber tires, tension-spoked wheels, ball-bearings, brakes, and lights. It was during this time that the swift-walker or velocipede officially became known as the bicycle. Eventually the size of the front wheel was increased and it was not uncommon to see bicycles with front wheels up to five feet in diameter.
In 1884, John Kemp Starley invented the chain-drive mechanism, allowing the two wheels to be much closer in size. Tires with inflatable tubes became standard in the 1890s, as did caliper rim brakes, and multi-gear derailleur systems. By the turn of the century, over 10 million Americans owned bikes and bike racing had become a major international sport.
However, the industry declined heavily by 1903, in large part due to the automobile. It was partially revived during the gas rationing of the Great Depression and World War II, and then again in the 1960s and 1970s. BMX, triathlon, and mountain bikes came on to the scene in the 1970s and 1980s, further revolutionizing the bicycle industry.
Today's bicycles have continually become sturdier, more lightweight, and more aerodynamic. With an estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide riding bicycles for transportation or simply recreation, the bicycle is one invention that has profoundly affected our civilization.
Bicycle-related organizations include the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association, the National Bicycle Dealers Association, and the League of American Bicyclists, as well as other, more specialized or localized, organizations.
The following links include page titles and summaries for reference articles, directory pages, and captioned images about bicycles and cycling-related themes.
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