203 Years of the Bicycle

This may be the most famous photo with a bicycle ever made. 
Albert Einstein riding a bicycle in Santa Barbara, CA in February 1933.
The theoretical physicist Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany in 1879. 
He developed the theory of relativity and received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics. 
Einstein immigrated to the United States in 1933 and died in Princeton, NJ in 1955. 

It is hard to know where to start when singing the praises of the bicycle. After all, riding a bike is not only healthy but also environmentally friendly. Bicycles are relatively easy to handle, need not be expensive, and are fast into the bargain – in fact, they are the fastest way to get around within a five-kilometre radius, beating not only buses and trams but also cars.

Once upon a time

The history of the bicycle begins in the year 1817. Baron Karl Drais introduced the first two-wheeled self-propelled vehicle in the summer of 1817, calling it the "dandy horse." Two hundred years later, that same concept has democratized travel like no other means of transportation, granting women new-found freedoms and offering ordinary people an affordable means of travel all over the world. The mechanically powered velocipede took off in the 1860s, followed by the iconic penny-farthing, but the golden age of cycling arrived with the late 19th century, as people relished the freedoms afforded by self-powered travel, and cycle touring became a popular pastime. 

Two wheels, a saddle and moveable handlebars – the first bicycle looked fairly similar to today’s model, though one important thing was missing from the version designed by German forestry officer and inventor Karl von Drais: pedals. This was why Drais had to use his feet to propel his invention along the ground on his maiden trip in the city of Mannheim, a ride of 14 kilometres. Even without pedals his machine met with an enthusiastic response, though it was not until 1867 that the next milestone came when the "Velocipede" was presented at the Paris World Exposition. It featured pedals on the front wheel that allowed a circular pedalling movement, just like on a modern bike. The high-wheeler – also known as a penny-farthing – followed in 1870. Featuring a much larger front wheel than rear wheel, it required quite a bit of athletic prowess as even a simple fall could prove fatal. Today cycling is a global phenomenon both in professional sporting and non-professional spheres.

Bicycles for the masses

1885 saw the prototype for today’s bicycle patented, equipped with two wheels of equal size and a chain drive: the safety bicycle. When this model went into mass production, the bicycle finally became a must-have for everyone. Postmen, soldiers, lorry drivers and farmers were all able to make good use of the bike. Cars began to reduce the popularity of the bicycle, from the 1920s in the USA and from the 1960s in Germany, though bikes began even in the 1970s in Germany to experience a renaissance that continues to the present day.

Faster and lighter, and once around the world

The popularity of the bicycle can be seen from some statistics, as can its ability to set records. Here are five examples:

  1. The highest speed ever achieved on a bicycle is 268.8 kilometres per hour. 
  2. Once around the world by bike? The Scot Mark Beaumont was the fastest, taking just 195 days to complete the 30,000 or so kilometres – averaging 154 kilometres per day. 
  3. The lightest bicycle weighs roughly 2.7 kilograms. 
  4. Germany has almost as many bicycles as inhabitants. 
  5. 98 percent of Germans can ride a bike.
Current bicycle research

Even 200 years on, bicycles are continuing to evolve. Examples include bamboo bikes, cargo bikes and the increasingly popular electric bikes. Bicycles are studied from all kinds of different angles at German universities and research institutions. The development of lighter bicycles is one area, while others include safety and mobility research.

Making electric bicycles safer

Researchers at Technische Universität Kaiserslautern are hard at work to make electric bicycles safer. To this end, scientists from the Department of Civil Engineering have teamed up with colleagues from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering on the project Safety-Oriented Driver Assistance Systems for Electric Bicycles (SIFAFE) (only in German). The assistance systems are designed to alert cyclists to potentially hazardous situations in good time. The researchers in Kaiserslautern analysed accidents and plan to come up with prevention concepts on this basis, including sensor-based concepts for monitoring the cyclist’s surroundings based for example on cameras, radar or ultrasound. The goal is to develop bike-friendly functionality that can help the rider switch lanes or warn of a possible collision.

Bicycles in society

Sociologists are also conducting research into the bicycle, for example at the Institute of Social Sciences at Technische Universität Braunschweig. A project entitled "Future of the Mobility Chain: the Bicycle as a Hinge" (only in German) is underway there until September 2018. In the greater Braunschweig area, the sociologists are studying the interplay of all different types of environmentally-friendly locomotion, including bicycles, pedestrians, public transport and car-sharing schemes. The researchers are keen to find out how bicycles can best be combined with other means of mobility. To this end, they are first analysing movement patterns of people in their everyday lives. The project’s objective is to find answers to the following question: Which incentives are needed to encourage people to use their bicycles more often?

200 years bicycle

Karl von Drais, the inventor of the bicycle, came from Baden-Württemberg, which was reason enough for this German state to celebrate the anniversary of the bicycle with a dedicated website. As well as charting the history of the bicycle, information about upcoming events is provided – including bike races on the original machines invented by Drais.