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Motorcycling – A Short History

It was well after the advent of the Industrial Revolution that the wheel came into widespread use as part of a personal vehicle. The first bicycles began to appear in the mid-to late-19th Century, although bicycling had begun much earlier, on a limited scale. There is some evidence, disputed, that Leonardo da Vinci had envisioned the concept of a bicycle, for a sketch of one appears in a manuscript attributed to him. But it was Karl von Drais, an inventor in Germany, who, in 1816-17, created the very first two-wheeled personal transportation device, which came to be known as a Velocipede, or Dandy Horse. His called his machine, which had no pedals, the Laufmaschine, or “running machine,” for obvious reasons. The Laufsmachine lost popularity as riders’ boots wore out, since all forward motion came from pushing with the feet.

The essential detail of this early machine, and all such two-wheeled personal vehicles, including motorcycles, was the vital human component of balance. Indeed, this early design drew heavily on the human-animal synthesis that riders had always experienced when riding horses. It was necessary for the rider to ‘become one’ with the horse, or the bike, and that feature has never left the art and practice of personal vehicle riding.

Another first attempt was the handsome but uncomfortable “Boneshaker,” which was popular for a brief decade until 1869 in France. Made of a stiff wrought-iron frame with wheels of wood and tires of iron, the Boneshaker lived up to its name.

The Penny Farthing which followed was very popular, and, despite the difficulty in riding one, where the rider is perched very high above a huge front wheel, with potential to topple helplessly over the handlebars, (“take a header”) even women found them a charming mode of transportation.

These vehicles were all of the ‘velocipede’ style, in which, if pedals were present, they were simply attached to the front wheel. This aspect limited speed of travel and distance covered by the wheels in each rotation. Such a limitation led to the development of gears and sprocket chains, as the art of metallurgy matured. Now, instead of needing a huge front wheel to cover distance, the wheels returned to the original, same-size design, with the pedals and chains providing a boost to human effort. Equality in wheel size (the Safety Bicycle style) enabled the rider to ‘flatfoot’ when necessary, bringing a new element of safety and freedom which only increased the popularity of this new mode of transportation.

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