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The History of the Bicycle

Historical Player's Cigarettes Card - Pedestrian Hobby Horse

A series of improvements to a humble walking machine led to the development of the bicycle we know today.

In the late nineteenth century the cost of bicycles in Ireland meant that cycling was an activity mainly for the wealthy classes. However, by the 1950s almost every household had a bicycle and cyclists were a common sight on Irish roads. 

The Hobby-Horse

The pedal-less dandy-horse was first seen in Paris c.1816 and it enjoyed only brief popularity. It was used by fashionable young men (‘dandies’) for striding in parks rather than as a practical means of transport.         

The Velocipede

The first commercially successfully pedal-driven bicycle was called the velocipede. From the Latin for ‘fast foot’, the velocipede was developed in France c.1865 by Pierre Michaux. It became known as a boneshaker as cycling this machine was extremely uncomfortable over bumpy road surfaces. 

The Ordinary

The year 1870 saw the development of the ‘highwheeler’ or ‘ordinary’ bicycle. It quickly superseded the ‘boneshaker’ in popularity as it was a more comfortable ride. The large wheel meant that less physical effort was required to travel faster and to cover longer distances. 


The development of the tricycle occurred alongside the bicycle and early models included bone-shakers and ‘ordinaries’ with three wheels. The Irishman, William Bindon Blood, patented his practical and lightweight ‘Dublin tricycle’ in 1876. Tricycles were used by women and older men who found them safer, easier and more comfortable than ‘high-wheelers’.

The Safety Bicycle

The 1880s saw the introduction of the chain-driven ‘safety bicycle’ which was an alternative to the oftentimes dangerous ‘high-wheeler’. Cyclists experienced less accidents with ‘safety bicycles’ due to their pedal positioning, wheel size and overall height. The modern bicycle is based on minor improvements and alternations to this design. 

The Pneumatic Tyre

In 1888, to make ‘safety bicycles’ faster and more comfortable over long distances, the Belfast based John Dunlop (1840 - 1921) invented a pneumatic tyre. These rubber tyres filled with compressed air quickly replaced all other wheel coverings.

Women's Clothing for Cycling

The bicycle gave women greater mobility and led to a dramatic change in ladies fashion. The first female cyclists rode tricycles, as ‘velocipedes’ and ‘penny-farthings’ could not be ridden while wearing the long and cumbersome dresses of the period. Victorian dress reform encouraged women to wear suitable attire for activities such as cycling. New designs of practical clothing, such as ‘bloomers’ and divided skirts, allowed greater freedom of movement.                         


John Player & Sons cigarette Cycling cards, 1939. This set of 50 cards chart the history of the bicycle from the hobby-horse through to cycle racing in the 1930s. NMI Collection (F:2014.213).

Further reading

Brian Griffin, Cycling in Victorian Ireland, (Dublin, 2006).
John Woodforde, The Story of the Bicycle, (London, 1970).
Who Invented the Bicycle? []

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