The term was probably first coined by Karl von Drais in French as vélocipède for the French translation of his advertising leaflet for his version of the Laufmaschine, also now called a ‘dandy horse’, which he had developed in 1817. It is ultimately derived from the Latin velox, veloc- ‘swift’ + pes, ped- ‘foot’. The term ‘velocipede’ is today mainly used as a collective term for the different forerunners of the monowheel, the unicycle, the bicycle, the dicycle, the tricycle and the quadracycle developed between 1817 and 1880. It refers especially to the forerunner of the modern bicycle that was propelled, like a modern tricycle, by cranks, i.e. pedals, attached to the front axle before the invention of geared chains and belt and shaft drives powering the rear.
Among the early velocipedes there were designs with one, two, three, four, and even five wheels. Some two-wheeled designs had pedals mounted on the front wheel, while three- and four-wheeled designs sometimes used treadles and levers to drive the rear wheels.
The earliest usable and much-copied velocipede was created by the German Karl Drais and called a Laufmaschine (German for “running machine”), which he first rode on June 12, 1817. He obtained a patent in January 1818. This was the world’s first balance bicycle and quickly became popular in both the United Kingdom and France, where it was sometimes called a draisine (German and English), draisienne (French), a vélocipède (French), a swiftwalker, a dandy horse (as it was very popular among dandies) or a Hobby horse. It was made entirely of wood and metal and despite the condition of the roads at the time was sometimes ridden for long distances.
It was almost 40 years until “velocipede” came into common usage as a generic term, with the launch of the first pedal-equipped bicycle, developed by Pierre Michaux, Pierre Lallement and the Olivier brothers in the 1860s. The Michaux company was the first to mass-produce the velocipede, from 1857 to 1871. That French design was sometimes called the boneshaker, since it was also made entirely of wood, then later with metal tires. That in combination with the cobblestone roads of the day made for an extremely uncomfortable ride. These velocipedes also became a fad, and indoor riding academies, similar to roller rinks, could be found in large cities. In 1891 L’Industrie Vélocipédique (Cycling Industry) magazine described ‘La Société Parisienne de constructions Velo’ as ‘the oldest velocipede manufacturer in France’, having been founded in 1876 by M. Reynard, and awarded the ‘Diploma of honour’ at the Exposition Universelle (1878) (World’s Fair).
During the 1870s advances in metallurgy led to the development of the first all-metal velocipedes. The pedals were still attached directly to the front wheel, which became larger and larger as makers realised that the larger the wheel, the farther you could travel with one rotation of the pedals. Solid rubber tires and the long spokes of the large front wheel provided a much smoother ride than its predecessor. This type of velocipede was the first one to be called a bicycle (“two wheel”), and its shape led to the nickname penny-farthing in the United Kingdom. They enjoyed a great popularity among young men in the 1880s who could afford them.
While young men were risking their necks on the high wheels, ladies and dignified gentlemen such as doctors and clergymen of the 1880s favoured the less risky tricycle. Many innovations for tricycles eventually found their way into the automobile, such as rack and pinion steering, the differential, and band brakes, the forerunners to drum brakes.
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