From tool to toy, the bike has served many roles over the course of history. Follow along on this two-wheeled tribute to learn how the bike came to be and what it’s doing for our communities and economies 200 years later.

History of the Bike

An early penny farthing bicycle. Photo Courtesy Library of Congress.

The first two-wheeled contraption was invented by German Karl Freiherr von Drais in 1817. After the historic 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, crops failed throughout Germany, making it nearly impossible to keep the country’s main transportation, horses, alive. The “hobby horse” was Drais’ solution. This early version of the bike looked not unlike something out of the Flintstones—made entirely of wood, the unwieldy “swift walker” had no pedals and was powered much like a present-day Strider kid’s bike.

Near the turn of the century, bicycles began to resemble those of today—two same-sized wheels with pedals attached to a rear crank. That bike, known as the “safety bike” (or Rover Safety), initially had tires made from hard rubber, but by 1894, pneumatic tires, that is tires with inflatable tubes, were being used. The modern bicycle was born.

That same year saw the bicycle becoming not only a utility tool but also a means of exploration. Annie Kopchovsky (aka Annie Londonderry) was a Jewish mother from Boston who became the first woman to travel around the world by bike. Her journey was inspiring, unconventional, and probably exaggerated. Nonetheless, Londonderry’s achievement became a symbol for women’s rights. Her subsequent fame helped bring about changes in women’s antiquated and restrictive fashion.

By the end of the 19th century, bicycles were a common sight in American cities. After an 1894 railway strike in California, young men were employed to deliver telegraphs and mail by bike, thereby introducing the first two-wheeled employment, that of a bicycle courier. To this day, bike messengers are still used in urban areas for delivering mail, food, and everything in between.

An early bicycle shop. Photo Courtesy Library of Congress

When Maurice Garin won the first ever Tour de France in 1903, his steel frame La Francaise weighed in around 39 pounds. It had wooden wheel rims and wonky drop bars.

Garin’s bike was a fixed-gear single speed, which meant there was no coasting on the downhills. Freewheels (which allowed coasting without pedaling) and multi-speed rear derailleurs didn’t come along for another couple of years, and early versions of the multiple-geared derailleurs required riders to dismount and manually shift the chain.

During the 1920s and ‘30s, some of the bike industry’s biggest names like Shimano, Campagnolo, and Schwinn entered the scene, bringing with them a host of innovations like the first quick-release hub and cable shift derailleurs. Bicycles, it seemed, were here to stay.

But as World War II came to a close, so too did America’s infatuation with bikes. Cars soon replaced bicycles as the symbol of freedom and fortitude. For decades, bikes were delegated as children’s toys, shelved as soon as the kids could drive.