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A Short Illustrated History of the Bicycle
By Carsten Hoefer - (contact)

The Rover: 1885 - The modern bicycle born in England

The penny farthing was a clear case of a new technology going in the wrong direction - dangerous, impractical, and - in the days of a very strict dress code - unridable for the female half of mankind. One might argue that the penny farthing fad delayed the breakthrough of more sensible designs by more than a decade. Ordinaries ruled the roads until around 1890 before they were finally replaced by the bike as we know it today.

One interesting aspect is that penny farthings became popular despite the fact that a better design already existed. The French watchmaker Andre Guilmet had come up with the idea to mount the cranks below the frame and connect them to the rear wheel by means of a chain in the late 1860s. This progenitor of the modern bike already featured equal-size wheels, but failed in the marketplace. For obvious reasons, chain-driven bikes soon became known as safety bicycles. Early safety bikes were often high wheelers with a smaller front wheel.

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The Cangaroo, manufactured by Hillman, Herbert & Cooper in Britain, was one of the earliest 'safety bicycles'. With a smaller front wheel, falling off the bike was supposedly less dangerous.

More than 130 years later, it is hard to imagine why the safety bicycle had such a hard time competing against the penny farthing, but one reason may in fact have been its improved safety. For young sportsmen, riding a non-lethal bicycle was somehow below their dignity - much like some cyclists today would rather suffer head injuries than be seen with something as undignified as a helmet. Several manufacturers tried to find a compromise between the stylish ordinaries and the dull safety bikes. Bikes with equally sized wheels soon came to be called dwarf safeties. In France dwarf safeties were no longer called bicycle, but bicyclette - literally 'little bike'. The Italians followed suit and called the dwarf safeties bicicletta. Thus the bike found its final name in both countries. The English language lacks a similarly convenient diminutive, and the dwarf safety remained a bicycle without an added -ette or -etta indicating its diminished size.

The first commercially successful dwarf safety was the Rover II, introduced in 1885 by James Starley's nephew John Kemp Starley (1854-1901). The Rover was the first modern bike, it was a rousing success, and the design was immediately copied by other manufacturers. The frame already bore an unmistakable resemblance to a modern diamond frame, but interestingly enough, the Rover still lacked a seat tube. The diamond frame became common a few years later, and thus the development of the bike had reached its final stage. The chains looked more like modern motorcycle chains and probably weighed about a ton.

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A German copy of the Rover, manufactured in the early 1890s by the firm of Marsch & Kretschmer. This version still lacked pneumatic tires, even though these had already been introduced in the UK

In 1888, the solid rubber tires were replaced with pneumatic tires produced by John Boyd Dunlop, which made for a much more comfortable ride. One of the first bikes that featured both pneumatic tires and a diamond frame was the Fire Fly made by the Victoria Cycle Works in Manchester. In an attempt to make the bike lighter, the British engineers came up with double tubes and a sloping geometry that gave the bike a startlingly modern appearance.

The Rover inspired a golden age of cycling, and by the end of the 19th century a bicycle craze held both Europe and the United States firmly in its grip. By the mid-1890s, in the US alone some 300 firms produced a million bicycles annually, and the League of American Wheelmen had more than 100,000 members. The American boom was short-lived, though. Demand in the US collapsed after 1898, and numerous firms folded. In the US, bicycles have mostly been used as recreational vehicles ever since.

In Europe, however, the bike remained the most common vehicle until the late 1950s, when the car finally took over. Like many other early bike manufacturers, the Rover Cycle Company had long before become a carmaker, Opel (Germany) and Peugeot (France) being two other well-known examples.

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A Fire Fly made in 1892. Note the carbide lamp and the heavy chain

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"A Short Illustrated History of the Bicycle" Copyright © 2007-2014 By Carsten Hoefer - (contact). All rights reserved.
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