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The Velocipede - Cranks Make the Difference

The next major development in bicycle design was the velocipede. It was initially developed in France and achieved its greatest popularity in the late 1860s. The artifact on exhibit was produced around 1869 by Michaux et Cie of Paris, France (810204). The velocipede marks the beginning of a continuous line of development leading to the modern bicycle. Its most significant improvement over the hobby-horse was the addition of cranks and pedals to the front wheel. This allowed riders to propel the machine more easily and provide more power to the wheel, which meant that substantially greater speeds could be attained.

Velocipede, Michaux et Cie, ca 1869. (CSTM)

The use of metal frames on the more expensive models reduced the weight of the new bicycle and provided it with a sleeker,more elegant design. Different types of braking mechanisms were used, depending on the manufacturer; in the case of the velocipede on exhibit, the small spoon brake on the rear wheel is connected to the handlebar and is engaged by a simple twisting motion. The velocipede was not perfect. The rigidity of its frame and iron-banded wheels resulted in a bone-shaking experience for riders on the cobblestone streets of the day, earning it the name of "boneshaker" in England. Also, the wheel would chafe the rider's calf when turning. Consequently, many riders wore riding boots, as can be seen in the photographs of this period.

The velocipede enjoyed considerable popularity in Europe and North America. The design was patented in the United States in 1866 by Pierre Lallement, who is credited by some as being the true inventor of the velocipede. However, Pierre Michaux and his family, Lallement's former employer, were certainly producing velocipedes by that date in France. On both sides of the Atlantic the popularity of the machines spread quickly among a growing urban and rural middle class. In Canada the velocipede craze hit full stride by 1868-69 and riding schools opened in many major centres. By early 1869, Halifax boasted at least five velocipede rinks. There is no evidence of any Canadian commercial velocipede manufacturers; however, we do have evidence of home-built machines in the form of visual and written records as well as actual Canadian examples of simple velocipedes constructed out of wood in the 1860s and 1870s. In the end, one of the major contributions of the velocipede was that it created a market for bicycles that led to the development of more sophisticated and efficient machines.