The concepts of mobility and freedom are centuries-old, yet little has shaped their history more than the bicycle.
German Karl Von Drais created the first commercially successful, two-wheeled vehicle in 1818. He called it the velocipede and across Europe Drais’ design was copied and reinvented as fashionable. It was, however, confined to an aristocratic market by its high novelty and financial value. London dock-workers christened the velocipedes “dandy-horses” in reference to the type of men who rode them. The vehicle returned to vogue when an unknown French metal-worker added pedals to the velocipede frame. In 1868 velocipedes were produced on an industrial scale in Paris but its high price excluded workers from the craze.
It was the invention of the safety bike in the 1890s that marked a turning point in personal mobility. The unstable and dangerous high-wheel cycles of the 1870s were more likely to break your wrists than change your prospects but their successor was a big improvement. This gave way to the “golden age” of bicycle manufacture.
For women this transformation was particularly important. The safety bicycle was the “freedom machine” that gave women unprecedented mobility out of their homes and into society. It became a symbol of the “New Woman” even in its impact on clothing: restrictive corsets and dresses could not be worn while cycling. The influence of the bicycle on women’s emancipation was massive.
In western societies the vehicle boom of the early twentieth century turned cycling into a leisure activity. Different styles of bike emerged but with the primary function of exercise and enjoyment. Yet in Vietnam or China the initial value of bikes lives on. There are now more bikes than people in some major Chinese cities, many mobilising poor workers. Over two centuries the bicycle has been converted from the playboy’s toy to the working man’s carrier.