Author: Dr. Eugenijus Keras, Patent Consultant at METIDA
The wisdom of the Lithuanian people says “Don’t Reinvent the Bicycle”. Looking at the upbringing and education traditions of our time which allow to be wrong and learn from mistakes, such expression is not very motivating. And how the first bicycle inventions which determined improvement of this vehicle look like? Would we really have such a bicycle as we have today if no one had tried to invent a bicycle one hundred years ago?
Something similar to a bicycle was invented already around the year 1818 when two in-line wheels were attached to a frame, one behind the other which could be freely driven as the “Hobby horse” as it was called then by straddling it and kicking off from the ground with legs.
Another name of this vehicle is Draisienne which, as it is told, derived from the surname of its inventor Karl von Drais. The mode of operation is identical to the mode of operation of a modern children balance bike and the both vehicles could be considered as equal in terms of speed: at that time the first speed record was 14.4 km/h. Today similar speed could be reached by a children balance bike. Often in the history of inventions identical inventions emerge at a very similar time in different parts of the world and are discovered by not interrelated inventors; the situation with bicycle invention was the same: although the invention of Draisienne is attributed to K. von Drais from Germany, the general consensus on whether he patented the invention has not been reached; the more especially as there are opinions that around the same time a similar vehicle was patented in the USA.
Low speed impelled to improve the bicycle structures. The legs of the cyclist (or “velocipedist” as they were usually called at that time) were not used for kicking off from the ground, but were placed on some devices which would transform movements in one or another way so that the vehicle reached the highest speed possible. The main patents for such improvements were registered in 1860–1870. At that time, such vehicles weighed around 40 kg (today the average bicycle weighs 14–18 kg), had no rubber tyres; thus, bicycles were referred to as “boneshakers”.
One of the simplest and most common inventions discovered with a view to increasing the speed is a larger front wheel. Driving the high front wheel allows travelling a rather long distance and if the person threads quickly, he may overtake the bicycle with a smaller front wheel. Such vehicles could already reach 30 km/h speed. However, as the speed was high, the cyclist would have to backpedal quickly and such backpedalling would often result in the cyclist falling down due to high centre of mass. Such bicycles were most popular around 1873–1885; however, they quickly disappeared due to a new wave of safer bicycles.
In 1885, John Kemp Starley introduced a new design bicycle: the diamond frame, the chain-driven rear wheel are the elements characteristic of the bicycle today. The author of patents J. K. Starley is more well-known due to his patented bicycle-tandem (the USA patent 415072, 1889). In 1891, J. B. Dunlop (the USA patent 453550) introduced pneumatic tyres. The two-wheeled vehicle became more comfortable, not so dangerous; thus, suitable nearly to everyone. The bicycle developed by J. K. Starley in 1885 is deservedly considered as a prototype of the modern bicycle. No significant changes in the shape, appearance and overall mode of operation of the bicycle have been made. So, maybe it is not worth it to “reinvent a wheel”? The inventor of Segway (two-wheeled vehicle) would argue against it. The number of inventions related to bicycles is far away from being in decrease: US8781690 – a bicycle seat position sensor, US8781663 – a bicycle stepless gear shifting apparatus and thousands of other patents related to bicycles are issued every year.
The inscription “The Bicycle Has Already Been Invented. It Unplugs Cities and Brain” seen in some streets in Vilnius is much more in line with the spirit of today than encouraging not to reinvent the bicycle any longer.