The first contraption that can realistically be said resembles a bicycle was constructed around 1790 by Comte Mede de Sivrac of France. Called a celerifere, it was a wooden scooter-like device with no pedals or steering. A similar model, improved with a steering mechanism attached to the front wheel, was created in 1816 by German Baron Karl von Drais de Sauerbrun. He called it a Draisienne, after himself, though popular parlance also dubbed it the hobby horse.
1839 - First pedal bike, invented by Kirkpatrick MacMillan.
Some historians credit the invention of the pedal bicycle to Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a Scottish blacksmith who lived from 1812-1878. One day back in 1839, MacMillan was out watching people riding bikes, which at that time were driven by kicking the ground with your feet. Thrilling, eh? Seemed to him that there must be a better way. . .
1867 – Fast Foot
Many historians credit Pierre and Ernest Michaux as being the true inventors of the modern bicycle. This father and son duo operated a company that made carriages in Paris when they first assembled a two-wheeled vélocipède around 1867. This bike was was propelled like a tricycle, with its cranks and pedals connected to the front wheel.
The design soon came to the U.S. when a Michaux employee named Pierre Lallement who also claimed credit for the idea, saying he developed the prototype in 1863, set out for America. He filed for the first bicycle patent with the U.S. patent office in 1866.
The vélocipède ("fast foot") was also known as the "boneshaker" thanks to its rough ride, caused by its stiff iron frame and wooden wheels wrapped in an iron rim.
1870 - The High Wheeler, or "Penny Farthing" Bike.
By 1870, metalworking had improved to the point that bicycles began to be constructed entirely of metal, an improvement in both performance and material strength, and bike design began to change accordingly. The pedals were still attached directly to the front wheel but solid rubber tires and long spokes on a much large front wheel provided a greatly improved ride. Also, the bigger the wheels, the faster you could go, and the Penny Farthing as they were called enjoyed a great popularity in the Europe and the United States in the 1870s and 1880s.
The main hazard to this design was its (un)safety factor, as the riders (usually young men) sat so high up that they were very vulnerable to road hazards. The braking mechanism was almost more symbolic than functional, and there was really no way to slow the bike. And, if something were to stop the front wheel suddenly, such as a rut or object stuck in the spokes, the rider was immediately bucked forward as he rotated up over the front wheel to land squarely on his head. Hence the origin of the term “breakneck speed,” since a crash often produced truly devastating results.
1885 - The Rover Safety Bicycle, as created by J.K. Starley, circa
Recognizing the design limitations of the high-wheeler bicycles, tinkerers continually looked for ways to improve the bike's basic form. A major breakthrough came in 1885 with John Kemp Starley's the creation of (or maybe "return to" is more accurate) a bike design that featured a rider perched much lower between two wheels of the same size, coupled with a sprocket and chain system that drove the bike from the rear wheel. This was the same basic "diamond frame" design still in use in today's bikes.
Cyrille Van Hauwaert was a dominant early rider in the Paris-Roubaix Classic from 1908-1911. During that time he won the race twice and took either second or third place in the others. Note how similar his bike appears to bikes of today.
Over the years, bicycle design, materials, components and manufacturing processes have improved to create bikes of today, increasingly sophisticated and efficient machines.
And while the basic frame design has stayed the same for over a hundred years, the use of space age material like titanium and carbon fiber have created bikes far lighter and stronger than creators of the early iron and wooden models could ever have imagined.
Other innovations like shifters and derailleurs allow riders to work themselves through a range of gears that allow bikes to go far faster as well as to climb much steeper hills than a single speed bike would ever have allowed.
Bike styles have morphed too, to allow the incorporation of design features that specifically enhance and embrace one particular style of riding to the exclusion of others. This specialization means that you can go into any given bike shop and select from mountain bikes, road bikes, hybrids, cruisers, tandems, recumbents, and more, all based on where and how you plan to ride.