Bike Week 2015

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This year Bike Week runs from the 13th-21st June.  You can find out more about the events taking place on the Bike Week website.

I thought I would take the opportunity of Bike Week to actually do some research into the history and development of the bicycle in the UK.  Given that I was born in Coventry (the home of the bicycle in Britain) and I work in Cambridge (cycle city!) it seems appropriate that I find out a bit more about the method of transport that has been a constant theme throughout my life.

The first "bicycle" was the Draisine which was invented in 1817 by German Baron Karl von Drais.  Now I say bicycle in the loosest possible sense of the word.  Whilst bicycles are "human powered", the Draisine took this term to the extreme.  There were no pedals and it was effectively powered simply by the rider sitting astride it and pushing it along with their feet.


Karl von Drais on DraisineKarl von Drais

In 1818 the Briton Denis Johnson invented an improved version of the draisine which was nicknamed the 'hobby horse' or 'dandy horse'.  There isn't much to differentiate it with the Draisine but you can see small tweaks to the original design.

Looking at both of these designs I think I would rather have been walking!.  It would of course have only been men who would have been riding these bicycles at the time.  Part of the reason for the nickname 'Dandy Horse' was because of the foppish 'dandy' men who would ride around on them.  Given women's fashion at the time trying to get on one of these would have taken a feat of engineering in itself!

The first popular bicycle, and one that was commercially successful, was designed in France in 1863 and was the first to feature pedals.  Unfortunately the design made for a bit of a shaky ride which led to the bicycle being given the nickname 'bone shaker' in England.



It was in 1868 that the first bicycle was finally manufactured in Britain; and where Coventry finally comes into the story.  James Starley (known as the Father of British Cycling) invented the 'high bicycle' (nicknamed the penny farthing on the basis of the difference in size between the front and back wheel as compared to the difference in size between an old penny and a farthing).  THe bicycle was called the 'Ariel' and this was also the name that he gave to the company where it was made and which subsequently grew into a major motorcycle manufacturer.

Penny Farthing

Penny Farthing

James' nephew, John Kemp Starley then kept up the family tradition for invention and in 1885 he invented the 'safety bicycle' which had two similar sized wheels, a diamond shaped frame and was chain driven.  The bicycle was named the 'Rover' which also became the name of his company and eventually, as bicycle manufacturing made way for car manufacturing, became the Rover car company.   

Rover Safety Bicycle

Rover Safety Bicycle

Through researching my family history I have been able to find out that a number of my ancestors worked in the cycle industry in Coventry. I'd like to think that perhaps they were part of the Starley workforce and contributed to the success of the cycling industry in Coventry.

With the invention of the safety bicycle and subsequently Dunlop's bicycle tyre in 1888, cycling started to become popular with women also.  This slowly started to lead to changes in fashion for women to make riding a bicycle easier.  This wasn't actually universally received (surprisingly enough) and in 1897, whilst protesting against the admission of women as full members of the university, the male undergraduates from Cambridge University hung an effigy of a woman on a bicycle in the main town square (oh how times have changed!).

The 20th Century saw developments in bicycles continue apace with the development of cycling as a sport rather than just as a means of transport.   Who knew that the humble bicycle had such and interesting history and who knows what the future development of bicycles might bring... hover cycles?







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