Someone asked me the other day, what came first, tricycles or bicycles? They were looking at the lovely Victorian child’s trike we have on display at the Museum and I have to say I did not know. However, after a little research, I was surprised to find out that it was actually the trike by a long shot.
The very first tricycle was invented in 1680 by a disabled, German, watchmaker, Stephan Farffler, to be used as a wheelchair to enable him to get around. It was not operated by pedals but by a series of gears and hand cranks. It was over 100 years before a pedal power version was invented by two Frenchmen named Blanchard and Maguier in 1789.
In contrast, the first bicycle was invented by another German, Baron Karl von Drais, in 1817. This version, known as a Laufmaschine, had no pedals and the rider had to scoot along until they had gained enough speed to coast, similar to the balance bikes some young children use today. The Baron’s device had a wooden beam to straddle and wooden wheels with iron rims and leather tyres.
By 1879 over twenty variations of tricycles were being manufactured in Coventry and, due to their popularity, by 1884 over 120 models were being made by 20 manufacturers. They were particularly popular amongst women whose long dresses made it difficult to ride a conventional bike and also, they were safer for elderly people and children. Another plus was being able to carry luggage on the back which led to the invention of rickshaws which could carry passengers.
During the late 1800’s more tricycles were made due to the upper classes considering them more genteel. Queen Victoria purchased a pair in 1881 which made them even more fashionable and soon there were magazines and clubs in honour of the three-wheeler and some brave riders even raced them.
The development of the chain driven safety bicycle led to a sudden change in the market at the end of the 1800’s. High wheel bicycles and tricycles became obsolete when everyone saw the new cheaper, safer, faster and more rideable bicycles which were not too different from the ones still popular today. Tricycles then mainly became the vehicle of choice for lucky toddlers. But recently, with the revival of cycling as an environmentally friendly mode of transport and the opening of many cycle routes such as the Granite way, tricycles for adults are once more becoming popular. What goes around, comes around!