The basic mechanics of the bike are pretty simple — it’s basically a triangle with wheels and a chain drive to propel it forward. No batteries or engines. It seems obvious in hindsight …. And that’s why most people guess the bike was invented a long time ago. Yet the ‘running machine,’ a kind of early proto-bike, debuted around 1817.
In the wake of the running machine, powered by feet actually running along the ground (with a saddle straddling above) came the “boneshaker,” which added wheels but still featured stiff tires, hence the rough ride. At first, bicycles like these were mainly seen as novelties, or the playthings of daredevils who accepted their dangers.
Early bicycles shared a common problem: each turn of the pedal corresponded to a turn of the wheel — there was no shifting of gears. So to get farther faster, styles like the “penny farthing” were invented with huge front wheels allowing increased speeds. Unfortunately, these were difficult to balance on and involved in a lot of accidents.
The introduction of a chain drive allowed pedals to move away from wheels and also decoupled the one-to-one turn issue that had led to large imbalances in wheel sizes. Coupled with a stable diamond-shaped frame, this innovation made bikes safer and spurred their adoption.
Now, a century or so later, e-bikes are becoming increasingly popular, marrying the simplicity and efficiency of a bicycle while allowing more people than ever to hop on board with an electric assist. For much more on the history of the bicycle, check out Jody Rosen’s book: Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle.