Cycling History: What Was The “Safety Bicycle”?

By the late 19th century, cycling’s popularity was booming.

However, the bikes of the day were far removed from anything that’d look familiar to a modern cyclist.

The penny farthing reigned supreme – and while it was a vast improvement on its predecessor, the “boneshaker”, it’s design still left a lot to be desired.

Before long, it was superseded by another pioneering design: the “safety bicycle”.

But what exactly was the safety bicycle – and why was it such an important step forward for bike design?

In this article, we’ll be covering:

  • When was the safety bicycle invented?
  • How was the safety bicycle different from the penny farthing?
  • How did the safety bicycle Revolutionize transportation?
  • How does the safety bicycle compare to Modern-Day Bikes?

Ready for the lowdown on the safety bicycle?

Let’s get into it!

What Was The Safety Bicycle: Title Image

When was the safety bicycle invented?

Though penny farthings were wildly popular in the 19th century, they had significant design flaws.

The height of the riding position meant that any fall was likely to result in injury, and they were susceptible to toppling over while mounting and dismounting.

They also had an alarming tendency to launch the rider head-first into the pavement if they hit a bump while riding downhill.

The term “safety bicycle” was first used in the 1870s to describe a bike with wheels of roughly equal size – a departure from the then-dominant penny farthing.

Harry Lawson was an English engineer who designed the first machine officially dubbed the “safety bicycle” in 1876. There were earlier versions developed in the 1860s, but they never shared the moniker.

In 1868, Thomas Humber designed a bicycle with wheels of roughly the same size. This allowed the rider’s feet to touch the ground, making it easier and safer to mount, stop, and dismount from the bicycle than with a penny farthing.

These bikes used a variety of drive systems including treadles, chain-driven front wheels, and chain-driven rear wheels.

It wasn’t until 1885 that the first commercially successful “safety bicycle” appeared on the scene.

John Starley created the Rover, a modern bicycle that was heavier and more expensive than the penny farthing – but crucially, it was also much safer.

In the United States, the Overman Wheel Company quickly capitalized on the success of the safety bicycle by putting their own model in production. Their first model made its debut in 1887.

The Overman Victor was an influential all-steel bicycle that was of higher quality and lighter weight than its competitors. By 1893, the company had brought the entire process in-house and could make and assemble all parts of the bicycle.

Diagram of a penny farthing next to a safety bicycle.

How was the safety bicycle different from the penny farthing?

The penny farthing featured a gigantic front wheel and a tiny rear wheel.

They were typically direct-drive, meaning the pedals directly turned the front wheel without the need for a chain.

The large wheel allowed for acceptable ride quality over the poor road surfaces of the day. It also meant that the rider could achieve decent speeds since the wheel rolled easily once the bike was in motion.

However, the large front wheel meant that the rider had to climb to a high position to get to the saddle. This made the bike difficult to mount and dismount.

In addition, the high center of gravity meant the rider was in peril of being thrown over the handlebars. This was known as “taking a header”.

Due to the expense and danger associated with riding the penny farthing bicycle, it was often ridden by affluent young men. They had the time and disposable income to take up biking as a recreational pastime.

The weight and impracticalities of the penny farthing meant that it would not be a major source of individual transportation like the bikes of today.

The safety bicycle was a vast improvement over the penny farthing.

Diagram of an Overman Victor safety bicycle.

The bike typically featured a chain drive (the system used by modern bikes) with a large front sprocket and a smaller rear sprocket. This meant that the bike could have smaller wheels and still achieve the same speeds as the penny farthing thanks to gearing ratios.

The smaller wheels initially compromised on the ride quality that the penny farthing was known for.

However, once pneumatic tires replace the solid tires originally used, the safety bicycle boasted a ride just as smooth as the penny farthing.

Since the safety bicycle had smaller wheels, the rider was closer to the ground and had a lower center of gravity. This made the bicycle easier to mount since the ride didn’t have to climb the front wheel to get in the saddle.

It also led to improvements in braking ability since the rider was less likely to “take a header”, flying over the handlebars.

The improved safety features help attract a wider audience interested in bicycles and riding them. With time, the practicality and increasing affordability of the safety bicycle saw their cycling’s popularity expand beyond the exclusive elite of aristocratic young men.

This led to a “bike boom” in the 1890s. At the beginning of the decade, the global yearly production of bicycles hovered around the 200,000 mark.

By the end of the decade, that number had climbed to over 1,000,000.

Newspaper clipping of an advert for a safety bicycle.

How did the safety bicycle Revolutionize transportation?

Before the safety bicycle, transportation in 19th-century cities was a challenge.

Horses and carriages were reserved for the rich who could afford to purchase and maintain them. Public transportation existed, but was mostly slow and unreliable.

It would be many years before the automobile filled the market of individual transportation. In the meantime, the bicycle took the place of affordable, individual transportation for people in the city and countryside alike.

Bicycles provided the populace with an individual mode of transportation that was cheap to purchase and easy to maintain.

It became the go-to mode of transportation for traveling to and from work, making deliveries, riding for fun, and also for sport.

While the bike might seem like a simple machine to us today, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was a revolutionary mode of travel around bustling metropolises and quiet countryside alike.

This fact is still apparent today in many areas of the world. In many developing and developed countries that lack the money, space, or appetite for large automobiles, the bicycle still serves as a major source of transportation for large portions of the population.

The bicycle became so popular in America that membership in a nationwide bike club, the League of American Wheelmen, reached 150,000 by 1900.

Many early automobile manufacturers started out building bicycles. Charles Duryea, Albert Pope, and Alexander Winton all began as bicycle manufacturers before moving to the auto industry.

Even pioneers of the aviation industry got their start with bicycles. Glenn Curtiss started in the bicycle industry before turning his attention to the aeronautical world, as did the Wright Brothers.

Cycling History: What Was The "Safety Bicycle"? 1Cycling History: What Was The "Safety Bicycle"? 2
Credit (Left Image): Jonathan CardyCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

How does the safety bicycle compare to Modern-Day Bikes?

Even though over a century of development separates the early safety bicycles from modern bikes, the safety bicycle is immediately familiar to a modern cyclist – far more so than the penny farthing.

Newer, lighter materials may be used in today’s bicycles, but the overall concept is much the same.

Safety bikes were also chain driven, via gears, and were powered by the back wheel. While our drivetrains have become far more sophisticated, they fundamentally resemble much of what was available at the turn of the 20th century.

Pneumatic tires, a fork supporting the front wheel, and a handlebar to steer all mark similarities between the safety bicycle and modern bikes.

While the penny farthing helped introduce cycling as recreation and a pastime, the safety bicycle did something else entirely.

It provided individuals with a reliable, cheap, safe means of individual transportation.

To this day, the bicycle is one of the most common forms of individual transportation around the world due to its affordability and ease of use and maintenance.

The safety bicycle started it all. 

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Adam Rabo has been running since junior high. He has coached high school and college distance runners. He is currently training for a marathon, the R2R2R, and a 100-mile ultra. He lives in Colorado Springs, CO.

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