Curator’s Choice – Early Bicycles

Posted: 24th March 2021

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice – Early Bicycles

The Streetlife Museum is home to 200 years of transport history, here you can enjoy all the sights, sounds and even the smells of the past. The museum has many forms of transport on display, but one of the most popular areas is the Bicycle Gallery where you can explore the history and the development of the bicycle. There are 34 bicycles on display in this space; an excellent collection of early bicycles, including an 1818 Hobby Horse.

The Hobby Horse was invented in 1817 by Baron Karl Von Drais. Unlike modern-day bicycles and early attempts at human-powered vehicle design, the Hobby Horse relied on the rider to simply push it along with their feet on the ground, which gave it the original German name Laufmaschine (“running machine”). Previous designs from as early as 1750 had used hand and foot cranks to drive the machine forward, but without this the Hobby Horse was easier to steer as the hands were free. The handlebar was attached to a pivoting fork and was used to turn the front wheel whilst moving, the rider’s elbows rested on the padded platform behind the handlebar, and this helped to balance the bicycle.

Although this early bicycle was an instant success, it was much too expensive for working class people. Additionally, it could only be easily ridden on level ground, not on cobbles for example, and so its popularity was short lived.

The Hobby Horse on display at the Streetlife Museum was probably manufactured by Denis Johnson of London. Johnson was a pioneer bicycle-maker, and previously a coachmaker. A popular and prolific cycle maker and designer, Johnson referred to his own design as a “pedestrian curricle” and even opened riding schools in London at the height of their popularity.

In the early 1860s in Paris, Pierre Micheaux and his son Ernest fixed pedals to an old Hobby Horse bicycle; this made it faster and easier to ride. It was much more comfortable to ride too, as this design also mounted the seat on a separate wooden or metal spring. However, the wooden wheels and iron rims caused the handlebars to shake, consequently this bicycle was named the Boneshaker.

Boneshakers were capable of reaching eight miles per hour but riding them was not easy. Mounting was a problem, early manuals advised running alongside and vaulting into the saddle. The size of the front wheel made the pedal action unpleasantly fast; to keep them on a straight course the rider had to resist the sideways movement of the front wheel as they pressed down on the pedals. However, some improvements were made during the late 1860s by, for example, fitting a step to the frame which made mounting and dismounting easier.

In the Bicycle Gallery at the Streetlife Museum we have two examples of this early bicycle on display, despite few Boneshakers still existing today as many were melted for scrap metal during World War I.

Written by Community Curator: Social History, Lauren Field

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