A good idea doesn’t need
much tweaking. Take the humble bicycle, for example.
Perhaps the most enduring invention of the modern age, the bicycle has undergone many innovations over its near 200-year history – but in many ways it remains exactly the same.
The very first bicycle was invented in 1818 by German nobleman Baron Karl von Drais, who named his invention the Draisienne (‘dandy horse’ in French). It wasn’t really your standard pushbike – it had no crank and the feet were used to paddle it along.
“Kids these days have a similar bicycle that they use as a toy, but the original was for grown-ups,” explained Margaret Simpson, curator at the Powerhouse Museum specialising in transportation, and an expert in the history of the bicycle.
The next innovation came from France in the 1860s, when Pierre Michaux affixed cranks to the front wheel of the Draisienne, inventing the Velocipede.
Less than a decade later, an enterprising Australian was making a local version of the bicycle. “It first appeared in Australia in about 1868, when a professor of engineering at Melbourne University built a velocipede,” said Margaret. “It was called the Boneshaker.”
In the 1880s, the first real cycling craze swept the world with the invention of the Penny Farthing. Whilst it seems improbable today, the lopsided Penny Farthing actually heralded the birth of competitive cycling. People dressed up like football players and competed in teams with registered colours. But with its one enormous wheel and one tiny one, the Penny Farthing could be dangerous. “They were difficult to ride, of course,” said Margaret. “You had to be very fit and agile to leap on in the first place.”
The single biggest innovation in cycling came with the “safety bicycle” in the late 1880s. Using pedals, a chain, sprockets and two wheels of the same size, the design was pretty much the same as the bicycles of today, yet its invention was revolutionary. “It allowed everybody to ride, women included,” said Margaret. “It emancipated women, because they could get out and be independent and go around unchaperoned.”
From around 1900, the bicycle’s popularity exploded in Australia. Urban types bought one for cheap transportation, and even shearers out bush used bikes to ride between sheds. “Everyone from all walks of life were using bicycles,” said Margaret.
With the invention of the motorbike, and then the automobile, the popularity of the bike waned in the mid 20th century. “It fell enormously in the 1950s and 60s,” said Margaret. “You only had kids riding bicycles, and once they got their driver’s licence they were in cars.”
It didn’t take long, however, for the younger demographic to get hooked on cycling once again, with the advent in the 1970s of the Bicycle Motor Cross, or BMX. Developed in the USA using a chrome molybdenum frame, its introduction kick-started the renaissance of the bicycle.
With Australia’s greater urbanisation, Margaret believes the importance of the bicycle will continue to increase. “With the predominance of the car and the incredible gridlocks that happen in cities, people will just give up and commute by bike if they can,” she said.
Whilst there have been developments in design and materials, leading to ever-lighter, ever-faster bikes, Margaret believes their form is likely to remain unchanged. “People have tried different types of configurations with wheels and seating positions and they’ve never become popular,” she said. “The bicycle may already be in its perfect form.”