Research Rabbitholes: The Safety Bicycle

A Rover Safety Bicycle designed by
John Kemp Starley

Every once in a while I come across something in a book that piques my interest and I go researching to learn more about it. The Safety Bicycle is the lastest research rabbithole I have fallen down and I thought I would share my findings! This journey was inspired by The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee.

The bicycle has been around in various forms since the early 1800s, but the early ones were extremely heavy (wooden frames!) and often awkward and difficult to mount, stop, and dismount (velocipedes with giant front wheels!). By the 1880s, it had became clear that there was a market for a more manageable and safer form of the bicycle.

John Kemp Starley is generally considered the inventor of the modern bicycle and developed the Rover, the most accessible and popular early Safety Bicycles (see the image above). This version of the bicycle had wheels of more similar size, a frame easily mounted, the feet could reach the ground which made for easier stopping and dismounting, and generally the pedals only controlled the back wheel, which meant the users legs weren’t as likely to get caught in the front wheel.

An early Rover Step-Through Framed Bicycle

But it wasn’t quite what women needed yet. Notice that bar across the middle that turns the center section of the frame into a trangle? That bar made the bicycles really stable, but they also made riding them in long skirts incredibly impractical at best and dangerous at worst. Early women cyclists actually found ways to ride sidesaddle, which was not remotely safe, as you may imagine!

So the next improvement for women was the “step-through frame”, which dropped the top bar either down at a steep angle or removed it altogether, thereby leaving room for skirts to stay reasonably modest on riders sitting astride. I was unable to find a date for the earliest step-through frame, but I find it amusing that “girls” bikes of today still have this slanted bar design while “boys” bikes use the more stable triangle shape!

1910 photograph of a woman with her
Step-Through Safety Bicycle

The Safety Bicycle and the step-through frame, along with improvements in the materials used, the tire design, and the pedal mechanics, made bicycles much more comfortable and practical. This meant that they could be used by people of all types as practical personal transportation vehicles that did not require the feeding and expense of a horse. College kids with no access to stables, maids without the income to feed a horse, and anyone simply wanting easier ways to move around cities by themselves all found Safety Bicycles to be the best solution.

The Safety Bicycle is more or less the first modern bicycle as we know them today. Obviously a lot of improvements have been made to the design and mechanics in the almost century and a half since they were invented, but look at the images of the bicycles in this post and you’ll see something remarkably like what you may have in your garage right now!

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