Farm Machinery Manufacturers and the Great American Bicycle Craze

Let’s Talk Rusty Iron: Farm machinery manufacturers, including Deere & Co., played a part in the great American bicycle craze

| July 2012

Bicycles have been around for a long time. France’s Comte Mede de Sivrac may or may not have invented the first one in the 1790s. Called a celerifere, the comte’s creation featured a wooden horse with a wooden wheel between the front and back legs. The rider propelled it by pushing his feet against the ground and steered by leaning. Some sources suggest that the story of the comte and his celerifere was in fact invented by another Frenchman in 1891.

It does seem likely, however, that in about 1818 Baron Karl von Drais of Germany came up with a steerable walking machine that he could use to sort of ride around his palace gardens. The baron’s machine was introduced in Paris, where it was called a draisienne. This machine was later brought to Great Britain, where it became known as a hobby-horse or dandy horse.

In 1861 in Paris, Pierre Michaux and his son Ernest attached two cranks that could be rotated by the rider’s feet to the front wheel of a draisienne, allowing it to be pedaled. In 1866, French mechanic Pierre Lallement showed up in New Haven, Conn., where, with James Carroll, Ansonia, Conn., he was awarded the first U.S. bicycle patent.

In order to get more speed, the front wheels of these early hobby-horses kept growing bigger, resulting in the “high-wheelers” that gained such popularity by the late 1880s. Although millions of high-wheelers were sold, they weren’t very safe. The rider sat up high, over the large front wheel, and it was a long way to the ground in case of a fall. In addition, when the front wheel was steered right or left, it interfered with the rider’s ability to keep his feet on the pedals. The short wheelbase and rough roads of the day often resulted in the rider being thrown forward over the handlebars.

The first chain-driven bicycle appeared in 1879. Built by Englishman Henry Lawson, the machine had two medium-sized wheels of equal diameter. The rear wheel was driven by a chain from a sprocket wheel upon which a crank and pedals were mounted, similar to a modern bicycle. This so-called “safety bicycle” featured much better stability, braking and ease of mounting than the high-front-wheeled “ordinary” bicycle. In 1885, another Englishman, John K. Starley, introduced his Rover Safety model, which quickly became the standard.

By the early 1890s, the high-wheeled “ordinary” bikes were off the market. The early safety bicycles had solid rubber tires but in 1888, John Boyd Dunlop, a veterinarian in Belfast, Ireland, invented the pneumatic tire. The pneumatic (or air tire) on the safety bicycle resulted in a machine that anyone, even women and children, could comfortably ride, setting off a bicycling craze that swept America in the 1890s. By 1893, the bicycle had a modern diamond-shaped frame, with a roller-chain drive and pneumatic-tire wheels.