InTrans / Mar 25, 2016

Two wheels: A history

Segways on sidewalkposted on March 25, 2016

Transportation has been balancing on two wheels for centuries, but where did it all begin?

Two-wheeled transportation originated thousands of years ago! Then, those inventions grew and changed into the transportation we use today.

Throughout this series, it’s important to remember that each vehicle we’ve come to know and love started out as a single invention that developed over time; modernizing transportation has been a constant effort.

Now, we’re going to throw it back to the 19th century, where some of the boldest and most daring inventors began working on our modern bikes and motorcycles.

Ancient inventions

As we discovered in our first article, the earliest evidence of wheeled vehicles originated from around 3500 B.C.E.—specifically in Southwest Asia and Northern Europe. The design of a two-wheeled cart was illustrated as early as about 3400-2800 B.C.E., at the end of the fourth millennium, in Germany.

One of the first, most useful, inventions to see two wheels was the chariot. The chariot was a lighter-weight vehicle, drawn by one or more horses.

Usually on two wheels, the chariot was used as the “supreme military weapon” in Eurasia, from about 1700 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E. The first use of war chariots date back to 2400 B.C.E.—almost 4.5 thousand years ago—in Mesopotamia.

War chariots often carried a driver, along with a fighter, who fought with bows and arrows or a javelin. The chariot—where soldiers could shoot at their enemies from a distance—acted as a moving platform. The tactic was to use constant movement to weave in and out of battle.

The chariot was also used for hunting purposes and sporting contests, such as the early Olympic Games and in the Roman Circus Maximus. Want to know more about ancient Rome? Check out Let’s go: One day in Rome.

Bicycles: The beginning

The origin of the bicycle has long been in debate.

Many people claim to have invented the first bicycle. It varies depending on whom you ask, for example, the French will say it was a Frenchman. The current understanding of the bicycle’s history is that many people made contributions and developments to its existence and advancement.

Let’s start in the year 1816, when Karl Drais, a German baron, crafted a sort of bicycle-like contraption in response to the widespread starvation and slaughtering of horses. It was called a “laufmaschine,” a German word for “running machine,” as well as a Draisienne and a dandy horse.

Riding on two wheels, the vehicle had a steerable front wheel but no pedals. The running machine was made entirely of wood, and the rider was responsible for getting a walking or running start to push-off from the ground and then glide on the contraption.

The laufmaschine was renamed “velocipede,” meaning “fast foot” in Latin. The term “velocipede” became the favored term for all bicycle-like inventions to come in the mid-1800s.

A man named Pierre Michaux worked as a blacksmith during the 1850s and 1860s. It’s said that he or his son, Ernest, is responsible for inventing the first bicycle in the early 1860s, when mounting pedals on the front wheel of a velocipede.

Pierre Michaux’s velocipede model
Pierre Michaux’s velocipede model. Photo from Wikipedia.

In 1868, Michaux founded “Michaux et Cie” (Michaux and Company) and it was the first company to commercially manufacture velocipedes with pedals on a large scale. These early velocipede inventions would soon develop into early “bone-crushing” motorcycles.

“Bone-crushing” velocipedes

Perhaps one of the boldest inventions balancing on two wheels is the motorcycle.

The motorcycle has come a long way. The earliest motorcycle, the steam velocipede, was fashioned in the 1860s. It was like a regular velocipede but was propelled with a steam engine.

There’s speculation as to whether the first steam velocipede was invented by Pierre Michaux or Roper Sylvester Howard (an American inventor who would also develop a steam-driven car).

Then, 1885 would prove to be a huge year for the advancement of transportation. Nearly two decades after the development of the steam-powered velocipede, both practical gasoline-powered cars and gasoline-powered motorcycles would come into play.

Gottlieb Daimler, from Germany, invented the earliest design of a gasoline-powered motorcycle. It was mostly wood. This “bone-crushing” contraption, again, was like an engine attached to a wooden bike. “Bone-Crushers”—or motorcycles with iron-banded wagon wheels—were coined for both their jarring ride and a tendency to toss their riders.

From past to present… and into the future?

Looking from ancient origins of two-wheeled vehicles to today’s inventions, everything has changed. Afforded with modern technology, we now see chariot-styled technology riding into the future.

(However, in the 21st century, there’s no horse attached).

Take a look at Segways. A Segway (or Segway PT) is a two-wheeled, self-balancing, battery-powered vehicle invented by a man named Dean Kamen. The rider stands upright, steering the scooter-like contraption with subtle shifts in body movement.

Segways in the ciity
Segways in the city. Photo from

Segways seem to have a mind of their own, reading their user’s most subtle body commands. But it’s not magic… it’s science; Segways use gyroscopic sensors and fluid-based leveling sensors to detect any shift in weight to the center of their mass. Segways balance travelling either forward or backward by establishing and maintaining a corresponding speed to shift in weight.

Segways can reach up to 12.5 miles per hour. Though they may not be travelling at the speeds of ancient, horse-drawn chariots, these two-wheeled inventions make up for their lack of speed with modern technology. One thing is for sure: Segways are trailblazing a path for the future of transportation.

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer

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