Looking back at the history of the bicycle for its 200th birthday

HISTORY: Penny Farthings at Evandale. The Northern town hosts its Penny Farthing festival every year. Picture: Neil Richardson
HISTORY: Penny Farthings at Evandale. The Northern town hosts its Penny Farthing festival every year. Picture: Neil Richardson

A bone-shaker does not sound like the best form of transportation.

However when you were forced to choose between your legs or a push bike, the bicycle was still far quicker – even when it was made of wood and had no tension in the metal tyres.

The humble bicycle has definitely made its mark on transportation around the world and even made its mark on some other not so logical pursuits, such as fashion and aviation.

This year marks the 200th anniversary the idea of a human powered push bike was conceived and to celebrate, Launceston’s Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery opened up their collection of historic bikes.

The collection traces the lineage of the bike and has iterations of most of the bicycles major forms, from tricycles, bone-shakers, penny farthings and ones that feature technological advancements such as gears, lights and chains.

ORDINARY: Penny Farthing bicycles were also called ordinary bikes and were invented to improve speed for riders.

ORDINARY: Penny Farthing bicycles were also called ordinary bikes and were invented to improve speed for riders.

QVMAG history curator Jon Addison said the oldest bike the museum had in its collection was an example of a draisienne bicycle.


The draisienne was invented by the French and had many nicknames such as a ‘hobby horse’, the ‘dandy horse’ or a ‘balance bike’

A distinct feature of the draisienne bike was while it was still human-powered, there were no pedals. The bike was essentially like an old-time scooter.

“They were also known as a dandy horse because no one but dandies used to ride them,” he said.

The draisienne was used by eligible young men who would stride the balance bike and propel themselves by their feet – mostly in an attempt to gain the attention (and possibly affection) of a similarly eligible young lass.


The next evolution of the bicycle was the velocipede and was known colloquially as the “bone-shaker.”

The bone-shaker did not have tension in its wheels so it was often a pretty bumpy ride for the gentleman bicycle rider.

There are several claims from across the world, from France to Scotland, about who was the inventor of the “bone-shaker” and that case is still in dispute among historians.

However, most of them were made in France or Britain, according to Mr Addison.

The “bone-shaker” had iron tyres and was made of wood, it was basically the same as the draisienne, with one major difference – the velocipede type of bicycle had pedals.

The invention of pedals gave riders a distinct speed advantage and they fast become a popular mode of transport among all class levels. The bike also had wooden spokes and wheels similar to a horse carriage.

Picture: iStock

Picture: iStock

The oldest bike in the QVMAG collection is an example of a bone-shaker, which was donated by Launceston identity HJ King.

“He used to own a bike shop and was the first Indian [motorcycle] dealer in Launceston,” Mr Addison said.

“He used to ride his bike everywhere, he used to take them places like Lake St Clair, all the places you wouldn’t think you should take a bike,” Mr Addison said.

Launceston’s Kingsway is named after HJ King to honour his contribution to the city.

Mr Addison said people had memories of the bone-shaker being on display in King’s shop and it was donated to the museum as part of a large collection donated by the family.


Most people are familiar with the penny farthing as a pre-cursor to the modern bike.

They have a strong history in Tasmania and are the feature of a festival held at the historic town of Evandale each year.

Penny farthings offered another speed advantage for bicycle riders – because of the distance between the pedal and the outer circumference of the wheel.

“The speed you go is relative to the distance between the pedal and the rim, with the penny farthing that distance is greater than an average bike so it made it easier to go faster,” Mr Addison said.

The penny farthing was known by the community as the “ordinary bike” or the “high-wheeler.”

The size of each wheel is supposed to be relative to the size difference between a penny and a farthing.

Penny farthings also had one other technical advancement, they had rubber wheels.


From the penny farthing, various incarnations of the modern push bike we know today was born, with racing bikes, mountain bikes, enduro bikes and even motorbikes stemming from this pool.

The modern push bike had electrical lights, pedals, rubber tyres, wheel tension, bike chains, leather seats and even brakes for speed control. The bike has undergone various forms over the past 200 years.


It took about four months after the invention of the bone-shaker for it to make a splash on the streets on Launceston.

“Tasmania was not the backwater that many people believe it to be. They were very on-trend and influenced by fashion, so the bicycle did have an impact.”

Mr Addison said there was one misconception most people believed about the bicycle.

“Roads were built for bikes and not for cars, cars just took over them eventually,” he said.

The advent of the bicycle also had a great impact on fashion – particularly for women.

Women did not often ride bicycles because they could not get on them with their long skirts. However as bicycles became more popular and more effective than a horse for transport, fashion designers developed bloomers in order for them to be able to ride. In addition, Mr Addison said bicycles could also be thanked for air travel – with the famous Wright Brothers using the technology from their bicycle shop to develop their idea for an aeroplane.