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Velocipedes from an 1887 German encyclopedia


1880 Velocipede

File:The American Velocipede.jpg

The American Velocipede, 1868, a wood engraving from Harper's Weekly

Velocipede (Latin for "fast foot") is an umbrella term for any human-powered land vehicle with one or more wheels. The most common type of velocipede today is the bicycle.

The term 'velocipede' is today, however, mainly used as a collective term for the different forerunners of the monowheel, the bicycle, the dicycle, the tricycle and the quadcycle that were developed between 1817 and 1880.

Among the early velocipedes there were designs with one, two, three and four wheels. Some two-wheeled designs had pedals mounted on the front wheel, while three- and four-wheeled designs sometimes used treadles and levers to drive the rear wheels.

The earliest usable and much copied velocipede was German Karl Drais' Laufmaschine (German for "running machine"), the world's first 'push bike' or balance bicycle (sometimes also called 'swiftwalker' in English), patented in January 1818 and very popular for a short while both in France and the United Kingdom (where it was nicknamed dandy horse, as it was very popular among dandies). It was made entirely of wood and had no practical use except on a well-maintained pathway in a park or garden.

The term 'velocipede' first came into use with the launch of the first pedal-equipped bicycle, developed by Pierre Michaux, Pierre Lallement and the Olivier brothers in the 1860's. The Michaux company was the first to mass-produce the velocipede, from 1867 to 1870. That French design was sometimes called the boneshaker, since it was also made entirely of wood, then later with metal tires. That in combination with the cobblestone roads of the day made for an extremely uncomfortable ride. These velocipedes also became a fad, and indoor riding academies, similar to roller rinks, could be found in large cities.

In the 1870's, advancements in metallurgy led to the development of the first all metal velocipedes. The pedals were still atttached directly to the front wheel, which became larger and larger as makers realised that the larger the wheel, the farther you could travel with one rotation of the pedals. Solid rubber tires and the long spokes of the large front wheel provided a much smoother ride than its predecessor. This type of velocipede was the first one to be called a bicycle ("two wheel"), although their shape led to the nickname penny-farthing in the United Kingdom. They enjoyed a great popularity among young men in the 1880's who could afford them.

While young men were risking their necks on the high wheels, ladies and dignified gentlemen such as doctors and clergymen of the 1880's favoured the less risky tricycle. Many innovations for tricycles eventually found their way into the automobile, such as rack and pinion steering, the differential, and band brakes, the forerunners to drum brakes.

In railroad use[]


'Velocipede' designed for railroad use.

Railroads in North America often made use of a three-wheeled handcar designed to be operated by a single person. This came to be known as a 'velocipede'.


  • Template:US patent -- Velocipede (reissued as RE7972)

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Template:Human-powered vehicles Template:Cycling-stub

ca:Bicicle es:Velocípedo fi:Velosipedi fr:Vélocipède it:Velocipede nl:Vélocipède ja:ベロシペード pl:Welocyped