100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview
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Year of Invention: 1885

What Is It? A two-wheeled personal transportation system powered by the
rider by means of foot pedals and gears.

Who Invented It? John Starley (in Coventry, England)

Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Bicycles were the first transportation system that provided personal mobility and speed for common folk. Bikes were cheaper than a horse and almost as fast as a train (in the late 1800s). Certainly bicycles were much faster and more convenient than walking. In many parts of the world, bicycles are still the primary mode of urban transportation.

Bicycles were also instruments of sweeping social change. Bikes promoted emancipation of middle- and upper-class women. Women riders had to abandon the corsets, hooped underskirts, and voluminous top skirts previously mandated as the only acceptable fashion.

Finally, bicycles led the way for many aspects of automobile design. Bicycle makers of the 1880s and 1890s became the early automakers at the turn of the century: Peugeot in France, and Humber, Morris, and Rover in Britain. What they learned building bicycles, they applied to early cars.

History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Ordinary people had always walked. Walking was the only available way to get anywhere. Most people experienced all travel at walking speeds—generally two to three mph. The rich rode horses (or horse-pulled carriages) and could cover the countryside at a sustained speed of around 8 mph. Trains (through the mid-1800s) averaged 18 to 20 mph.

How Was the Bicycle Invented?

The bicycle was not created in one brilliant invention. Rather it arrived piecemeal, one idea at a time, until, in 1885, John Starley added the final ideas and created a functioning bicycle.

The first step occurred in 1817 when German inventor Baron von Drais introduced his two-wheeled creation in Paris. The baron’s bicycle did not catch on in France, but it became popular as a plaything in England during the 1820s and 1830s, where it was commonly


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