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Bicycle History - High-Wheels

After early bicycle-like contrivances with such colorful names as hobby-horse and bone-shaker rose and fell in popularity, great advances were made in the development of bicycles. The earliest advances led first to the high-wheel bicycle, a logical extension of the bone-shaker.

The bone-shaker was the first contrivance to add a rotary crank and pedals to the front wheel of what had previously been a push-bike. Bone-shakers, however, were aptly nicknamed as their heavy wood frames, iron-clad wheels and non-existent suspensions led to bone-shaking rides. In 1870, advances in metallurgy led to hollow steel frames. Manufacturers also utilized solid rubber tires and ball bearings to create lighter bikes with smoother rides.

The most visible change with these new machines was the size of the front wheel. Because the crank and pedals were still directly attached to the front wheel hub, developers logically determined that a front wheel with a larger diameter would lead to a faster ride. The only limiting factor on the wheel size was the length of the rider’s legs. The “Ariel,” built in 1870 by the British firm Starley and Company, was the first such rig; it had a 48-inch wheel. Others were built with wheels up to 60-inches in diameter. These “high-wheel” bikes typically had a much smaller rear wheel to decrease the total weight of the machine. In Britain, they became known as “penny-farthings” because the difference in wheel sizes mimicked the difference between the sizes of penny and farthing coins.

The problem with high-wheelers was that the rider had to sit very high to effectively pedal the bike, a quite unsafe position. The bikes went fast, but if the rider hit a rock or bump that stopped the front wheel, the bike frame would rotate forward around the front axle, flipping the rider over the front tire onto his head. This result is the origin of the phrase “taking a header.” It was common for a cyclist to end up with two broken wrists as he tried to stop his fall.

High-wheelers had their heyday in the 1880s, primarily amongst the wealthy. The cost of one equaled six-months pay for the average worker. While high-wheelers were popular among adventurous young men, women and older (more risk-averse) gentlemen rode high-wheeled tricycles. Models were built that had the higher wheels in either the front or back positions.

The popularity of high-wheelers in America was primarily due to the ambitions of Albert Pope of the Pole Manufacturing Company, maker of the Columbia brand of high-wheelers. During this time, the machines became known as bicycles (two-wheels). Pope knew that making bicycles was not enough; he also had to sell them. He focused on marketing through colorful advertisements and articles about his bikes. He had Charles Pratt write a handbook called The American Bicycler which Pope gave away by the thousands. He underwrote the first cycling magazine, The Wheelman, later called Outing. Pope also sponsored prizes for doctors who wrote articles linking bicycling to good health.

Pope is credited with introducing the mechanization and mass production processes which were copied by Ford and General Motors in the manufacturing of automobiles. Bicycle makers also adopted the practice of developing new models annually, thus initiating planned obsolescence. Even in the late 1800s, this practice was both very successful and very controversial.

As with the Draisine and velocipede, the inherent dangers of riding a high-wheeler, as well as further innovations in bicycle design, eventually led to its decline in popularity. The story behind the history of the bicycle continued with the development of the “safety bicycle.”

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