Coventry Rotary No. 4, The Folding Excelsior



We are told we are in the grip of a cycling revolution however, this is not the first such bikers revolt. A cycling craze in the late nineteenth century was responsible for improved manufacturing techniques, the movement of urban slum dwellers to the suburbs, improved road surfaces and even increased freedom for women. The first bikes looked like ours but beyond that could not be more different, they were made from wood and you pushed them along with your feet! They did not take off.

50 years later Starley manufactured the pedalled-bicycle (or velocipede) which soon became known as the boneshaker.  The high-wheeler (or Penny Farthing) soon followed: without gears wheel size determined speed, this increased by up to 1.5 metres to achieve higher speeds.  But with speed came danger, ‘tipping’ of the bike was common and of course female delicacy meant women couldn’t ride them.

The solution was the ‘safety’ bicycle, popularised by the Starley’s Rover: featuring gears and equal sized wheels it would be recognisable to us.  The final major development came in 1888 with the patenting of pneumatic tyres by John Boyd Dunlop.  Women could now cycle, people could travel distances and manufacturing (through companies like Starley’s) was honed. The crazy was such even the Queen had tricycles made by Starley’s; William Starley’s membership record states that his company supplied ‘Her Majesty’ with four tricycles and received a Royal Warrant. So we can thank our engineering forefathers that we do not have to endure a commute on a boneshaker!

Archive, Institution of Mechanical Engineers

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