(First Presented at the South County Museum, Narragansett, RI, 7/16/2000 by A.C. Nunes and R. Vincent, URI PHYSICS DEPARTMENT)

(UPDATED: 4/11/02 - added link to Murphy's page, [Thanks, Hank Weiss!])



The evolution of the bicycle is a typical example of the technological evolution. The first bikes were cobbled together from pieces of horse-drawn wagons. As the designer also became the motor or draft animal, efforts to reduce weight, improve control, safety and efficiency were stimulated. Ultimately, in less than 200 years the bicycle and rider on a paved road have become the single most efficient land vehicle (greatest distance traveled per weight per unit of energy expended) of any and all land traveling vehicles or animals. When the overall economics are considered, travelling by bicycle is cheaper than walking!

As its beginnings stemmed from other vehicles, so the technology developed specifically to meet the unique requirements of the bicycle and rider (light-weight tubular frame, wire spoke wheels, low friction ball bearings, pneumatic tires which stabilize the ride and make it more comfortable, and ergonomic considerations) is now contributing to others. Modern baby carriages and wheel chairs are two examples of this, but the bicycle’s influence goes beyond such devices. Among the strongest voices lobbying for paved roads at the turn of the century were bicycling clubs such as the League of American Wheelmen. Paved roads contributed greatly to the success of the automobile. Early automobile inventors borrowed heavily from bicycle technology. Further, it is no coincidence that it was a pair of bicycle mechanics (Wilbur and Orville Wright) who invented the first successful powered airplane.


1812-1816 The ‘Hobbyhorse’ or ‘Draisienne’ - no peddles, no springs, no brakes. It used technology developed for horse-drawn wagons. It was developed by Baron Von Drais de Sauerbrun of Baden. (He studied Math and Mechanics at Heidleberg, and became Master of Forests for the Grand Duke of Baden.)

1863 The ‘Velocipede’ or ‘bone-shaker’ – first use of peddles (on front wheel), but suffered from having too low a ‘gear ratio’ (ratio of the distance moved by the Bicycle to the distance moved by the peddler’s feet). This, and its heavy iron frame and wheels (as much as 100 pounds) rendered it rather impractical. It was the first to have a hand brake (in this case, not very effective). Developed by Pierre & Ernest Michaux, Paris. The museum’s (South County museum) example dates from 1868. It's wheels are wooden wagon wheels with steel tires. Since its front fork and yoke are welded together (the front wheel cannot be turned to steer the bike) it is believed to have been hung outside a bicycle shop as an advertisement.

1867 Rubber tires nailed to wheels. Ball bearings first used.

1870 The ‘Ordinary’ or Pennyfarthing’ – Peddles on a very large front wheel provided a ‘gear ratio’ better suited to its rider than was the Velocipede. Developed by James Starley of Coventry, England, it used light tubular frame and wire spoke wheels. He and nephew John Starley are noted for several significant improvements in bicycle technology.

1876 Tangential spokes first used (in Ordinaries) by the Starleys. This provided a stiffer wheel and a surer ride. (Note that the museum’s ordinary has radial spokes, spokes that point directly toward the center of the wheel, suggesting it was built before this date.)


1885 Rover Safety Bicycle – the first modern bicycle with light weight diamond shaped tubular steel frame, ‘geared up’ chain and sprocket drive, tangentially mounted wire spokes. Developed by the Starleys.

1888 Pneumatic Tires developed byJohn Boyd Dunlop.

1902 Sturmey-Archer 3-speed gear hub developed (British).

1920 Derailleur first accepted for racing.

Tricycle development parallels that of bicycles. Bicycle manufacturers usually made them for both children and adults. Originally considered as recreational for girls or ladies (they could be ridden in a long skirt), they are now found in retirement communities, and used as light utility vehicles in different parts of the world.




1977 First human powered flight (around a 1.15 mile figure eight course) by Bryan Allen piloting Paul MacCready’s Gossamer Condor to win the 50,000 pound sterling Kremer Prize.

1980 Bicycle Speed records – at Ontario Motor Speedway. First to break 60-mph. 61.04 mph (White Lightning – two man racer built by Northrup University), 62.92 mph (Vector – two man racer built by Al Voigt, an engineer for General Dynamics)






Frank Rowland Whitt and David Gordon Wilson, "Bicycling Science", MIT Press, 1983.


Clarence P. Hornung, "Wheels Across America", A.S. Barnes & Co., 1959.

David Gordon Wilson, "A Short History of Human-Powered Vehicles", American Scientist, V. 74, pp. 350-357, July-August 1986.


Charles M. Murphy, "A Mile-A Minute Career", (Vivid account of an 1899 demonstration of how fast a bike can go when air drag is removed!)

S.S. Wilson, "Bicycle Technology", Scientific American, pp. 81-01, March 1973.

Peter S. Riegel, "Athletic Records and Human Endurance", American Scientist, pp. 285-290, May-June 1981.

AC Gross, C.R. Kyle and DJ Malewicki, "The Aerodynamics of Human-Powered Land Vehicles", Scientific American, V. 249, pp. 142-152 December 1983.


David E. H. Jones, "The Stability of the Bicycle", Physics Today, pp. 4-40, April 1970.

J. Liesegang and A.R. Lee, "Dynamics of a Bicycle, Non-Gyroscopic Aspects", American Journal of Physics, pp. 130-132, February 1978.G. Franke, W. Suhr and F. Reiss, European Journal of Physics 11, p. 116, 1990.


Jim Schefter, "Breaking the 60-mph Barrier with Man-Powered Racers", Popular Science, October 1980.


Jobst Brandt, "the Bicycle Wheel", 3rd Ed., Avocet, Palo Alto (1993).


Paul Wahl, ‘The Winner", Popular Science, pp. 56-58, January 1978.

James Joseph, "Peddling for 100,000", Popular Science, pp. 82-85, December 1978.


A.N. Brooks, A.V. Abbott and D.G. Wilson, "Human-Powered Watercraft", Scientific American, V. 255, pp. 120-130, December 1986.