Boneshakers, High Wheelers, and Other Bicycles

“Boneshakers, High Wheelers, and Other Bicycles,” Friend, Apr. 1985, 6


Boneshakers, High Wheelers, and Other Bicycles

When you hear the words ten-speed or two-wheeler, you think of a bicycle. But how about boneshaker, or high wheeler? It is very unlikely that you would find either of these last-named vehicles in your local bicycle shop; however they are ancestors of our modern, lightweight bicycle.

Nearly two hundred years ago the first actual bicycle was invented in France. It was called a célérifère, and it resembled a horse made of wood. It had no pedals or brakes, and there was no way for the rider to steer it because the wheels traveled only in a straight line. Despite its crudities, some of the more dashing young men of Paris found that riding the célérifère was a great pastime.

The first bicycle that could be steered, the vélocifère, as it came to be called, was built in 1817 by Baron Karl von Drais of Sauerbrun, Germany, who is often called “the father of the bicycle.” The draisine, or dandy horse, as the high-priced machine was called in England, was a wooden scooter-type vehicle. It was patented in Paris, France, in 1818 as a vélocipède, a term that lasted until 1869 when the word bicycle came into use. The velocipede was pushed along by the rider’s feet kicking the ground, and the momentum gained was used to coast a short distance. It was like running while sitting down. The velocipede rider didn’t tire as easily as he did when running, because the bike supported the weight of his body. It is reported that when Baron von Drais first rode his unusual contraption through the streets of the city where he lived, the people and their startled horses fled in alarm.

About five hundred years ago Leonardo da Vinci, or one of his students, drew a design for a vehicle propelled by pedals and cranks with connecting rods. But it is believed that the earliest such machine was not actually built until 1839, when a Scottish blacksmith, Kirkpatrick Macmillan, added foot pedals, a comfortable seat, and elaborate armrests to the old dandy horse. Some claim that Macmillan was the true inventor of the bicycle because his vehicle was the first to meet today’s dictionary definition of one. Macmillan rode his bicycle for many years and was once prosecuted and fined for “furious driving” on the roads.

Twenty years later came the rotary-crank velocipede with its heavy wooden wheels, thick iron tires, and pedals attached to the hub of the front wheel like a tricycle. The rough cobblestone roads caused these heavy bicycles to jolt and shake in a terrifying manner. Thus they were dubbed “boneshakers.” Until there were smooth roads to ride on, these bicycles were not very popular.

The velocipede moved slowly because a complete revolution of the pedals produced only one revolution of the front wheel. Later the front wheel was made bigger and bigger—some up to five feet (1.5 meters) in diameter—while the rear wheel shrunk to twelve inches or less, so that the vehicle could travel farther and faster with each revolution of the crank.

Solid rubber tires were later cemented to the rim to make a somewhat softer, more comfortable ride. Because the seat was over the front wheel of these “high wheelers,” or ordinaries, the machines were hard to mount and balance. They were also difficult to stop safely. When a rider put on the brakes, there was the danger that he might go flying over the handlebars!

Many breathed a sigh of relief in the early 1880s, when the bicycle finally “came down to earth.” Bicycle makers began to use a sprocket and chain to drive the rear wheel. This “safety,” or “low,” bicycle had two wheels of equal size, and the pedals and sprockets were mounted between the wheels below the seat.

Until about 1890 the only cycle considered suitable for women was the tricycle. Although strict Victorian standards didn’t label the riding of a bicycle sinful, one magazine article in 1885 stated: “If it is the only means of reaching the church on a Sunday, it may be excusable.” It wasn’t until nearly 1900, with the introduction of the tandem, or “bicycle built for two,” that bicycling became widely acceptable for women. The woman sat on the tandem’s front seat, under male protection, and both riders pedaled in unison. The front handlebars controlled the steering. Tandem riding gave a great feeling of togetherness.

But what made the bicycle really popular was the invention of pneumatic, or air-filled, tires in 1888. By the 1890s, except for minor refinements, bicycles looked much like the ones we use today. In many parts of the world they are a major means of transportation. Bicycles don’t need fuel, they are quiet, and they don’t pollute the air.

Today you don’t see a dandy horse or a boneshaker rattling along the road. But now, as then, bicycle riding is a great way to go from one place to another, as many LDS missionaries throughout the world would agree. And bicycling is a fun, healthy recreation for the entire family.