Smithsonian Bicycle Collection -- The Safety Bicycle and Beyond

The Safety Bicycle and Beyond

anatomy of a bicycle blow up

Because of the Ordinary's inherent danger, efforts were made to design a safer bicycle. Some people tried to modify the Ordinary to make it safer, others put their efforst into redesigning the bicycle. The latter path won out as “Safety” bicycles became more popular. These cycles had two small wheels of equal size, a chain driver, and gears. Soon after the advent of the Safety bicycle, John Boyd Dunlop patented a pneumatic tire (in both England and the United States). Brakes were also improved in the 1890s. The number of bicycles in use boomed as production rose from an estimated 200,000 bicycles in 1889 to 1,000,000 in 1899.

By 1899, only a few score automobiles had been built, horses and carriages were expensive to maintain in crowded cities, and urban public transportation was, with few exceptions, slow and frequently inadequate. The bicycle met the need for inexpensive individual transportation—much as the automobile has in recent times—for going to and from business, for business deliveries, for recreational riding, and for sport.

What seems to us a simple device of modest and limited performance was, in the relatively unmechanized 1890s, a swift vehicle and a fine machine. A nationwide bicycle club, the League of American Wheelmen, was formed on 30 May, 1880 at Newport, Rhode Island. Membership reached 150,000 in 1900.

Directly and indirectly, the bicycle had a decided influence on the introduction of the automobile. In addition to introducing thousands of persons to individual and independent mechanical transportation, the bicycle proved the value of many materials and parts that were subsequently taken over by the automobile designers. Ball bearings found one of their earliest uses in the bicycles of 1880 or earlier. The differential unit was employed in tricycles, and various forms of free-wheeling and gear-shifting devices were in use. Steel tubing, developed largely for cycle frame construction, was adopted by some earlie automobile builders. Pneumatic tires, previously mentioned, and wire wheels were also in use on bicycles prior to the introduction of the gasoline automobile in America.

Many pioneer automobile builders were at first bicycle manufacturers. Among these were Charles E. Duryea, Alexander Winton, and Colonel Albert A. Pope. Furthermore, Wilbur and Orville Wright were bicycle manufacturers in Dayton, Ohio, before they turned their attention to the aeronautical field, and Glenn H. Curtiss, another aviation pioneer, started out as a bicycle manufacturer.

A group of early safeties, ca 1889

A group of early safeties, ca 1889

From Abbot Bassett scrapbook

Between 1900 and 1905 the number of bicycle manufacturers in the United States shrank from 312 to 101. Interest in the automobile was only partly responsible for this. Additional factors were a switch to other forms of recreation, and the fact that a considerable number of electric railways took over the sidepaths originally constructed for bicycle use. Thereafter, for over half a century, the bicycle was used largely by children.

Recent cycle development has not involved significant changes in construction, but rather a refinement of earlier features. During the late 1960s there began a reawakening of adult interest in cycling as a non-polluting, non-congesting means of transportation and recreation. In 1970, nearly 5 million bicycles were manufactured in the United States, and an estimated 75 million riders shared 50 million bicycles, making cycling the nation's leading outdoor recreation.