In 1863, a pivotal moment in transportation history took place in the workshop of Pierre Michaux in Paris. Either he or Pierre Lallement, one of his employees, added pedals to the front wheel of a velocipede and thus was born the earliest form of what was to become the modern pedal driven bicycle.
Lallement moved to the U.S. not long after, and settled in New Haven Connecticut. In 1868, the Hanlon brothers of New York made further improvements to the velocipede and Americans, especially university students at Harvard and Yale caught the cycling bug. By the end of 1869, however, the novelty of riding velocipedes had died out. They were heavy, slow, and uncomfortable to ride. Then, the first high-wheelers or ordinary bicycles started to arrive from Europe. They were fast, light, and dangerous to ride. The joy of riding an ordinary far outweighed the dangers and American men took to riding them in droves.
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American Made Bicycles Timeline
Columbia Becomes the First American Bike Manufacturer
In 1878, Albert Pope established the first bike manufacturing company in the United States and started to build Columbia branded ordinaries in Connecticut. He also bought the patent for the bicycle from Pierre Lallement and before long no one else could build a bicycle in the U.S. without paying Pope a royalty.
The Safety Sparks an Boom
The safety bicycle with pneumatic tires and front and rear wheels that were the same size came along during the 1880's and cycling boomed in Europe and America. A bike building industry sprang up in New England around the centers of sewing machine production. Sewing machine manufacturing provided the metal working and engineering knowledge needed to build American made bicycles and initially the two industries went hand in hand. The League of American Wheelmen was formed in Newport Rhode Island in 1880, and by 1900 had 150,000 members.
From Bikes to Automobiles
Bike building proved the value of and refined many materials, designs, and components that proved to be indispensable to the American automotive industry that began to develop at the turn of the century. Ball bearings, welded steel tube frames, freewheels, sprockets, and differentials all became essential components in car making. Many bicycle manufacturers began to build cars as well. Ironically, in the U.S., the cars that bicycle innovations helped to make possible began to replace the bicycle as the preferred mode of transportation among adults.
Decline, Rebirth, and the Rise of the Cruiser
Between 1900 and 1910, bicycle use in the U.S. dropped dramatically and the number of American bicycle makers fell from over 300 to just over 100. For the next 50 years, the American bicycle industry focused on bicycles for kids which in turn spawned one of the most beautiful and hotly collectible types of bicycle in the world - the American balloon tire cruiser. Cruiser bikes, of which the Schwinn Black Phantom and Sears Elgin Bluebird are prime examples, combined motorcycle, automobile, and spacecraft styling into rolling, human powered works of art. Every kid wanted one more than anything else in the world. They were a uniquely American phenomenon, and couldn't have happened anywhere else in the world.
The Return of Bikes for Grown-ups
Bikes for adults finally came back into vogue in the U.S. during the bike boom of the 60's and 70's, driven by a desire to be more active, and by an energy crisis that made cars too expensive to operate for many Americans. In 1970 alone, nearly 5 million American made bicycles hit the streets, and there were 75 million riders. It had taken 70 years, but bicycling had once again become the most popular form of outdoor recreation in the US.