The Early History of Bicycles and Motorbikes


When I was in high school, I took a friend's brand-new (and I mean BRAND new) moped for a spin and, two minutes into the ride, crashed it into a mailbox. Suffice it to say, that little journey not only bruised my arm and leg, but cost me an arm and a leg to repair it, as well. The scars, both physical and mental, exist to this day and have kept me off any two wheeler with a motor since. But recently I became curious about the history of the moped, and did a little research. Their beginnings, of course, are all tied up with the invention of the bicycle, so let's start there.

In 1838, a Scottish blacksmith by the fancy name of Kirkpatrick Macmillan built the first bike with pedals. How'd they get around before that? By kicking the ground with their feet, of course! Some years later, in the 1870s, the famous penny farthing bike hit the streets. That's the bike with the enormous front wheel (the penny) and the eensy weensy rear wheel (the farthing).

But the penny farthing, while being quite the showpiece, wasn't much fun for couples, so someone had the bright idea to turn the wheel arrangement around, putting the farthing in the front, and two pennies in the back. The new bike was called a sociable and each rider had his/her own set of pedals much the way a paddle boat works. In 1885, the safety bicycle was invented, which was the first that looked very much like our bikes do today. It had two wheels of the same size, a diamond-shaped metal frame, pedals that turned the rear wheel using a chain, and brakes that worked by levers on the handlebars. During these years, the tricycle also became popular with adults. In fact, tricycle racing on wooden tracks was one of the first forms of bike racing!

Almost as soon as the bike was invented, people began sticking little engines on them--incipient motorcycles, you might call "˜em. The Michaux-Perreaux bicycle, which hit the market in 1869, had a steam engine under its saddle. Wood or coal had to be put in every few minutes to keep the water boiling though in order for the engine to run! In 1899, the Werner brothers in France built a motorized bike out of a safety bicycle using a gas-powered engine above the front wheel, in front of the handlebars. However, most people say that the official "first" motorbike was the German Daimler and Maybach, built in 1885. It had wooden wheels with metal rims and two stabilizing wheels (like training wheels!) to keep the thing from toppling over. All the early motorized bikes also had pedals for going up hills or in case of a breakdown--sort of like our modern-day moped.