Retrospective bicycle tour

The bicycle is one of the most useful inventions of mankind: everybody uses it from children to elderly people, in cities and in the country. You can ride it anywhere, it is environmentally friendly and it keeps you fit. Great deals of artworks were inspired by the bicycle. Just think of the famous film of the Italian neorealism The Bicycle Thief, the classic Queen song Bicycle Race or Pink Floyd’s Bike. But of course the bicycle was not built in a day; you can find its predecessors on the battlefields of ancient times. Bicycle history traces back its ancestor with transporting function in the beginning of the 19th century.

Festetics kastély, részlet - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

The ancestor of bikes is already two hundred years old. It was a German baron, Karl Drais who created this ‘running machine’ or ‘Draisine’ in 1817. The device had two wheels running behind one another on an axle. It was not a new thing, because similar vehicles were used for transport or in battles in the antiquity as well. It did not have pedals; it had to be pushed forward by legs, which explains the name ‘running machine’. Karl Drais’s innovation was putting a helm on the first wheel, thus making the device suitable for transportation. But the public opinion of the period had the invention in derision.

In 1839, Scottish blacksmith Kirkpatrick Macmillan equipped the machine with pedals, and it became the ‘Hobby Horse’. The first wheel was turned by bars, similarly to the steam engine. The problem of braking was not solved yet. Macmillan was the first to be fined for causing a (running)bicycle accident: he hit a child by his invention. He was not aware of the importance of his invention and did not popularize it either.

Szentgály Aurél: Sárgulás, frakkba öltözött cilinderes férfi velocipéden - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

In 1861, Pierre Michaux developed the machine further and introduced it at the International Exposition of Paris in 1867. It was called ‘velocipede’, and it was different from the modern bicycle, because the pedals were on the first wheel. The expo brought about fame to the vehicle that was used for sporting and going on excursions as an alternative to horse-riding. Velocipedes were already mass-produced at the end of the 19th century, but still remained unaffordable to the lower classes. In order to achieve higher and higher speed, the diameter of the first wheel was made bigger and bigger – this is how its typical (almost funny) form developed. Due to that, it became more dangerous, because it was difficult to brake and one could slump with it.

In 1885, the chain-driven safety bicycle appeared, owing to John Kemp Starley. First he equipped the cycle with a brake and gave it the name ‘Rover’. The modern bicycle was born then practically. It was already called ‘bicycle’ on English-speaking areas. The vehicle shook riders very much on dirt roads or cobbled roads, thus its popularity increased when John Boyd Dunlop made it more comfortable with inflatable tubes that he put on the wheels accidentally in 1888. His son used to plough up the garden with his tricycle and the father tried to save the grass this way. A few years later, cycles wheeled along on tyres instead of tubes, because fixing a blow-out tube was rather problematic, while changing a tyre was easy. The latter story is related to the Michelin Brothers – André and Edouard.

Mocznik cég biciklije - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-NC

The innovation was so successful that the factory mass-production of cycles began as of the 1910s. This time, it was affordable for everybody, and functioned as a means of transportation besides sports and excursions. War cycles were also used for sending messages or moving infantry during the Second World War. The popularity of cycling remained unbroken due to the WW 2 and the oil crisis of 1973, because the population of defeated countries and impoverished people could afford only this vehicle.

The story of bicycle competitions started back in the ‘velocipede era’. The first one was organized in Paris in 1869. A bit later, velodromes were built for bicycle racing, which grew one of the most popular sports. Besides horse-racing, most people were interested in cycle races. The first velodrome of Europe was the Millenáris of Budapest, built for the millennial celebrations in 1896. The idea of Tour de France – the most famous bicycle race in the world – emerged in 1903. Henri Desgrange (editor in chief of the magazine L’Auto) invented it in order to popularize its newly-launched paper. It was Maurice Gagin (chimney-sweeper), who won the first stage 2428 kilometres. Nowadays, the event is not limited to France. As of the 1960s, the Tour visits new places as well.

The velodrome of Millenáris in 1924, you can see a velocipede for a few seconds:

Tandem cycling in Paris in 1938:


Hungarian bicycle history panorama

Csepel női kerékpár (1960-as évek) - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

During the 20th century, bicycles Csepel became legendary in Hungary. The factory was originally the Weiss Manfréd Munition Factory (since 1886) and Weiss Manfréd Steel and Metal Works (since 1897). It started producing bicycles in 1929. Before that date, cycles were imported to Hungary. The Corporation Weiss Manfréd purchased licence from the Puch Factory of Graz in 1928, and the first Csepel bicycles were also made in Graz (Austria). Despite the short shutdown caused by the world crisis in the ‘30s, they could already boast with several cycle models – the road bike ‘Fecske’ (swallow), the tour bike ‘Ballon’ (balloon) and the successful ‘Csoda’ (miracle). The factory was socialized in 1948. The Csepel bicycle factory operated further separately since 1950 (and only later fused with the rag-trade machine factory and the sewing machine factory in the 1960s). The most popular Csepel product ‘Camping’ appeared in the 1960s. Its success is proven by the fact that 1 million items were sold until 2000. The factory was bought by the American Schwinn in 1988 and it ran under the name ‘Schwinn-Csepel’ until 2012. The successor company uses the brand ‘Csepel’ again nowadays.

The Hungarian word for bicycle ‘kerékpár’, which means ‘a pair of wheels’, is the creation of Kálmán Szekrényessy (1846-1923). He was a real polymath: he founded the first Hungarian sports magazine ‘Sport’ and the sport club MTK. He also introduced branches of sport, swam across the Strait of Gibraltar, the Bosporus Strait, the Suez Canal, several times Lake Balaton and he wrote plays as well.

Corvin Áruház, Budapest (1977) - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

Riding the bicycle is still a popular activity. You can reach your destination quicker by bike in a busy city. It belongs to vehicles that do not pollute the air, it can be part of your daily routine and it gives you identity. The infrastructural background favours bike riders more and more: with bike roads and the public bike system. The iron horse also enjoys an increasing public attention through publicity and exhibitions.


(Source of the cover image: Europeana. bicycle from "Through a Continent on Wheels ... Illustrated, etc". The British Library, London. PDM)