Cycles - Then and Now

This page looks at some of the cycles produced in our time. The term "cycles" is used in the broadest sense, to refer to any transport device not intended for multi-passenger use.


Picture of first bike, the "boneshaker" velocipede
Picture of a penny-farthing bike
Picture of a typical bike a few years ago
Typical 1950's bike
Picture of modern bike with shock absorbers
Modern mountain bike

The first bicycle, the "boneshaker" was built around 1860. Bikes were referred to as velocipedes.
Around 1866 the "penny-farthing" was built, with a huge front wheel and a tiny rear wheel. The intention was to cover more distance per rotation.
In 1869, solid rubber tyres were fitted, giving a degree of comfort to riders.
In 1870 the unicycle (one-wheeler) was made. It mainly featured in circus acts as it was difficult to ride.
In 1879 chain-driven bikes were produced. Prior to this, pedalling was done on the front wheel only, in a similar manner to childrens tricycles today.
In 1888 inflatable tyres were fitted, giving much greater comfort.
In 1898 the "free-wheel" was invented, allowing the rider to cruise downhill without pedalling.
In 1937, derailleur gear-changing was invented. Prior to this, gears were changed manually after dismounting.
In 1994 disk brakes became available. These were more efficient than block brakes, and because they were inside the wheel hub, were less affected by rain.

Motorcycles and scooters

Picture of Roper cycle (1868)
1868 Roper
Picture of Butler petrol cycle (1884)
1884 Butler petrol
Picture of 1922 Triumph motor cycle
1922 Triumph H
Picture of Modern BMW motorcycle
BMW bike

The first "motorcycle" was Roper's steam velocipede, in 1868. Roper died of a heart attack while riding it a few years later.
Bernardi's 1882 motorized tricycle is reported as the first motorcycle powered by an internal combustion engine.
The British company Triumph Motorcycles sold more than 30,000 of its Triumph Type H model to allied forces during the war. With the rear wheel driven by a belt, the Model H was fitted with a 499cc air-cooled four-stroke single-cylinder engine.
Modern motorcycles are of course much more powerful and are designed for higher speeds. Wind-drag becomes significant and fairing is fitted to reduce this.
There are some designers now producing cycles that blur the distinction between bicycles and motorcycles. "Hybrids", with pedal-assisted electric drive, regenerative braking, lightweight fiberglass shell, and computerised control panel are becoming progressively more common.

Skates and skateboards

Skates come in four basic types: roller skates, inline skates, skateboards, and ice skates.

Roller skates and inline skates

Picture of Quad roller skate picture of inline skate

These are pairs of small platforms with three, four or five rollers or wheels underneath that can be attached, one to each foot, allowing the user to travel forward or backward by placing one foot perpendicular to the other and applying thrust. Inline skates are really a subset of roller skates (even though inline skates were invented earlier), but generally the term "roller skate" refers to "quad skates", those with the wheels in a square formation while inline skates refers to those with the wheels in a single line along the platform.
The first recorded skates were invented in 1760 by John Joseph Merlin. These were inline skates with small metal wheels. The first square-configuration skates did not arrive until over a century later, in 1863. These were termed "quad skates" and were invented by James Leonard Plimpton in New York. These were much easier to steer, by shifting the weight to either side on a rubber cushion.
In 1877, William Brown and Joseph Henry Hughes fitted ball-bearing races to the wheels, making them capable of higher speed and faster acceleration. In 1876 the front toe stop was produced, giving skaters the ability to stop quickly by tipping the skate onto its toe.
In 1979, Scott Olson and Brennan Olson of Minneapolis, created inline skates for off-ice ice hockey training, and later launched the Rollerblade company.
The design of both types of skate has been improved with softer, more comfortable shoes, more durable wheels and improved shaping.


The exact time of the appearance of skateboards is a bit unclear, but there are reports of French children in Paris riding on boards with roller skate wheels attached to them in late 1944. However skateboarding or "sidewalk surfing", as it was known, grew from surfers in California in the 60's who wanted an activity to pursue when surf was not running. It was performed barefoot and skaters used surfing style and maneuvers.

Picture of a skateboard

Modern skateboards generally consist of a board (deck) made of several layers of wood, coated with polyurethane, and fitted with two " trucks", each with two polyurethane wheels.
There is often an abrasive sheet of "grip tape" glued to the upper surface to assist with grip. The board is usually concave, to assist with tricky manoeuvres. Motorised models are now made, powered by an electric motor and battery.

Ice skates

Picture of an ice skate

The earliest ice skating is believed to have happened in southern Finland more than 3,000 years ago, using flat bone strapped to the feet. This allowed the wearer to glide over the ice, although steering would have been very difficult.
Adding sharpened edges to ice skates was invented by the Dutch in the 13th or 14th century, and these allowed steering, by lifting the feet and placing them at the required angle. Modern skates still use this technique.
There are two basic styles of ice skate: speed skates, and figure skates. The figure skate, used for dance routines etc. on ice, has a shorter blade that gives more flexibility to the movement of the skater.


Picture of a Zimmer frame

Walkers, or Zimmer frames provide more support than a cane and are lighter, less bulky and easier to propel than a wheelchair.

Picture of a RollatorPicture of a wheelchair

Wheelchairs may be manually propelled either by the user or by an aide, or electrically powered. The first recorded use of self-propelled chairs by disabled people in Europe dates to the 17th century, when Johann Hautsch made several rolling chairs in N├╝rnberg, and about 1655 disabled German watchmaker Stephan Farfler made a three-wheeled chair that he could propel by use of a rotary handle on the front wheel. In the 19th century, push-rims mounted on the outside of the rear wheels allowing self-propulsion became available. Wheelchairs progressively became lighter, more robust, more comfortable and easier to use, and battery-power and electronic controls became common features.

Picture of a Papaw Hybrid cycle

Hybrid designs now provide power-assistance to the push-rims from electric motors for moving and for braking. These are called PAPAWs, for Push-rim Activated Power Assisted Wheelchairs.


Picture of a Segway

I feel this machine warrants its own section, as its use is becoming progressively more common for "normal" transport.

The Segway PT (Personal Transporter) is a two-wheeled, self-balancing, battery-powered electric vehicle invented by Dean Kamen. It uses gyroscopic devices, sensors and electric motors to stay upright and drive forward or backward.

A basic gyroscope is a spinning wheel inside a stable frame. A spinning object resists changes to its axis of rotation, and a wheel spinning in the horizontal plane will try to stay level, even when forces are applied to change this.

The Segway consists of a small platform mounted above two wheels, and a vertical bar with handles at the top. The various motors, gyroscopes and sensors are mounted below the platform.

The rider stands on the platform, holding onto the handlebar. To steer, they shift the handlebar to the left or right, tilting the platform. Gyroscopic sensors detect this and respond by adjusting the speeds of the wheels, each with its own electric motor, in either direction.

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