The Comte de Sivrac was seen in Parisian parks in 1791 riding a two-wheeled wooden hobby horse by an unknown maker; it was initially known as a célérifere and later as a vélocifere. The rider straddled a padded saddle and propelled the vehicle with his feet on the ground, much as a child of today rides a scooter. Karl Friedrich Christian Ludwig, Baron Drais von Sauerbronn, of Mannheim, Baden (in present-day Germany), added a steerable front wheel in 1817, creating the Draisienne, or dandy horse, also known as a vélocipede. It was patented in Baden, the United Kingdom, the United States, and France.
In 1839 Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a blacksmith in Courthill, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, attached iron rims to the dandy horse’s wooden wheels, added a forked frame, and installed a pair of treadles in front that transmitted foot power to the rear wheel, creating a machine that could travel up to 23 km/h (14 mph). This combination produced what is generally considered the first true bicycle, but it was not popular.
In 1861 pedals were added to the front wheel of a vélocipede in the workshop of Pierre Michaux and his son Ernst in Paris, France. This creation, which became immensely popular, was known by the apt name of boneshaker because of its rough ride. The French regard Pierre Michaux as the father of the bicycle, but his credit for the invention was contested by Pierre Lallement, one of his employees.
Bicycle design was sidetracked in the 1870s as manufacturers pursued the notion that larger wheels made for faster bicycles, since each rotation of the pedal caused a larger-diameter wheel to roll farther than it would a smaller-diameter wheel (thus giving rise to the custom, still observed by expert cyclists, of specifying bicycle gears in gear-inches). In modern terminology, larger wheels produced the equivalent of a higher gear.
This concept led in 1872 to the development of the Ariel highwheeler. Created by James Starley in England, the Arial highwheeler had a huge front wheel. Pedals were attached to the hubs of this wheel, and a much smaller wheel was located in the rear for stability. Starley’s aim was to increase the speed of the vélocipede by giving it a large front wheel but to reduce the weight by using a small rear wheel and several other innovations, among them making the wheels of iron with wire spokes under tension. Starley’s Ariel highwheelers typically weighed about 23 kg (50 lb), less than half of what some of his competitors’ bicycles weighed.
The highwheeler was hard to mount and dismount, however, and it could throw riders from their high perch if the front wheel encountered a stone or pothole, making “take a header” a household phrase for a crashing head-first. The fastest variety that was still relatively practical and safe had a front wheel about 1.5 m (about 5 ft) high and a rear wheel at least 41 to 46 cm (16 to 18 in) high. The highwheeler became widely known in England as the penny-farthing, after the large and small coins in circulation at that time, and in the United States as the ordinary, because it rapidly became the most common bicycle in use there. Colonel Albert A. Pope, the first major American bicycle manufacturer, first produced a model called the Columbia highwheeler in his Connecticut factory in 1876.