The urban bike magazine

200th anniversary: How the bicycle changed society

The bicycle was invented in Mannheim over 200 years ago: the draisine, a velocipede. Since then the bicycle has experienced a revolution, also with regard to social development.

The bicycle – from a status symbol to a mass-produced product

It all started with the eruption of a volcano: the climate changed; harvests failed and many horses – which in those days were not only used in farming but also served as a means of transport for people and goods – starved to death. Without these animals life became even more difficult than it already was. Then Karl Freiherr von Drais had an idea: In 1817 he invented the draisine, which was supposed to replace the horse but was so expensive that the majority of the population were unable to afford one.

Draisine Technoseum

Illustration shows the construction by Karl von Drais, published in autum 1817. Photo: Technoseum

For a long while after the invention of the velocipede nothing much changed. Not until the beginning of the 1860s, when Pierre Michaux began developing bicycles with pedals. Michaux presented his invention in Paris at The International Exposition of 1867. It was an out-and-out success. Only the well-to-do bourgeoisie were able to afford bicycles. It was no different when the penny-farthing appeared on the market three years later with its large front wheel and small rear wheel.

Velocipede Technoseum

Vélocipède Michaux, 1868: The wooden wheels and the steel frame weigh 26 kilograms altogether. Photo: Technoseum

Hochrad Technoseum

The Penny-farthing which entered the market in 1885 – big front wheel, small back wheel – was mainly interesting for the bourgeoisie. Photo: Technoseum

This changed at the end of the 1870s with Harry John Lawson’s safety bicycle and John Boyd Dunlop’s air-filled rubber tyre, which he invented around 1888: equally sized wheels, a chain drive to the rear wheel and the previously mentioned tyres – that’s how bikes looked like then and that’s how they still look now. The beginning of the 20th century saw bikes being mass produced; they became affordable to all and evolved from a status symbol to an object of practical use for everyone.

safety bicycle Technoseum

Safety bicycle „Rover III“, around 1888. Photo: Technoseum

Bicycles saved workers time as well as providing them with freedom and greater independence, they could thus emancipate themselves from their employers and find a new job thanks to the mobility that bikes gave them. But it wasn’t only the workers who benefited from having more freedom: although the bike was primarily for men, women didn’t pass up the opportunity to ride either.

Women on bicycles

The first female cyclists didn’t have it easy: their role in society and the dress code at that time made riding bikes very difficult. Their puffy and at the same time restrictive clothing made it almost impossible for them to ride regular bikes. If they wanted to ride they either had to transgress the dress code and thus the ethical code – exposed legs were not proper and trousers were rather inappropriate – or they could opt for women’s bicycles, which were extremely unstable and which women were obliged to ride sidesaddle.

women on bikes 1910

Woman on bicycle in a photo studio, taken around 1910

Since the popularity of cycling as a sport was not confined to men, the first ladies’ race was held in Bordeaux in 1868 in spite of all conventions. With the rise of the safety bicycle, which was also produced with a step-through frame for women, more and more women began riding bikes. If the bicycle promoted the emancipation of the workers, it did the same for women; they rode bikes and continued to do so until the bicycle lost importance in the years following World War II.

Bikes overtaken by cars

For decades the bicycle was an important means of transport, though this changed with the economic boom of the 1950s: Motorbikes and cars quickly took hold and the only people who rode bikes were those who couldn’t afford a motor vehicle or those who didn’t have a driving licence. The former status symbol now bore the reputation of being merely a poor man’s car.

Bonanzarad Technoseum

Banana bike, 1970

original folding bike

The folding bike of the 1960s was seen as additional equipment for cars. Illustration from a catalogue, around 1970. Photo: Technoseum

The bicycle experienced a small boom at the end of the 1960s, when the banana bike and the fold-up bike were launched. Still, the focus remained on motorised transport and car-centric cities were the primary concern. This situation didn’t change until during the oil crisis in the 1970s. Ecological awareness developed and the bicycle began slowly to become important again, especially in an urban context. As a result of the rise of mountain biking in the 1980s and the emerging fitness movement, the interest in bicycle use continued to grow.

Commodities and luxury goods

Today, riding bikes has become an expression of lifestyle and the bicycle is a common lifestyle object – at least in large parts of Europe. At the same time, it is still a primary means of transport in many countries. Particularly in African countries where the distances are large; public transport often does not exist and without a bike people would have to walk miles. However, it is still not a given that everyone owns a bicycle, yet the bicycle is especially important for the emancipation of women due to its role in society.

Even in China, the erstwhile bike nation, many people still rely on their bicycle. The story of a Chinese migrant who wanted to go home to celebrate Chinese New Year but didn’t have the money for a train ticket was all over the internet this year. He set off on his bike to ride over 1,000 miles to visit his family and mistakenly rode 300 miles in the wrong direction before being stopped on the motorway.

The bicycle: It is and remains the most environmentally-friendly means of transport

Two hundred years ago a volcanic eruption set the invention of the bicycle in motion, today it’s a desire for a certain quality of life in cities that motivates people to choose the bicycle as a means of individual transport – what started off with modest production levels and as a status symbol is now a permanent part of city traffic.

The bicycle is taking on an increasingly important role in urban spaces. The huge variety of models can be seen on the streets; folding bikes, cargo bikes and e-bikes have all become more and more popular over the past years. Long distances can be travelled in comfort with the help of electric motors, small folding bikes save space on the train and cargo bikes are ideal for carrying shopping. A lot can now be done without problems by bike. It brings movement into our lives, gives us freedom and is environmentally friendly.

There are a number of different bike-related events every year, especially during the jubilee year in Baden-Württemberg, where numerous events, films, exhibitions and bike tours (German website only) are organised – including a large exhibition on the history of the bicycle in Mannheim in the Technoseum. All images in this text were provided by the Technoseum and other exhibitors.

Images: TECHNOSEUM