The year 2017 marks 200 years since the invention of the bicycle, a mode of transport that revolutionised personal travel. The Museum has an eclectic collection of bikes, some of which are currently exhibited in an impressive wall display at the Museums Discovery Centre at Castle Hill in north-western Sydney. It’s really a snapshot of the history of the bicycle from its beginnings in 1817 and includes some fascinating Australian examples.
Starting at the top left there’s a reproduction of Baron von Drais’ running machine, now better known as a Draisine, the first type of rudimentary bicycle invented in 1817. Known originally as a hobby horse, this German bike has no pedals, the rider just pushed it along with their feet.
Next along, the red wooden-framed one is a reproduction of the treadle and lever-action bike made by the Scottish blacksmith, Kirkpatrick Macmillan in 1839. This was the first two-wheeled cycle with a mechanical means of propulsion.
The advent of pedals and cranks came about with the Velocipede or boneshaker. This one is the genuine article, made in about 1869 and known as a Michaux type after Pierre Michaux who made the first commercially-available crank-operated bicycles in Paris in 1864.
The next row features the famous big and little wheel bikes, a farthing penny, kangaroo type and penny farthing. The first on the left is an American Star or a farthing penny style. It was a US-patented attempt in 1881 to make the penny farthing a safer and steadier machine to ride and was achieved having the big wheel at the back and little wheel at the front. Having the rider sit further back over the rear wheel meant that falling forwards over the handle bars was less likely.
Another bike developed to make riding safer than on the pennies was the Kangaroo type, which had nothing to do with Australia but was commercially developed in Coventry, England, in 1884. It features an early bicycle gear system with independent right and left chain wheels driven by their own chains from the front wheel.
On the right is the famous penny farthing or more correctly termed ordinary bike. From 1870 to 1885, the penny farthing had a brief, but visually lasting, effect on the development of the bicycle with its very large and distinctive front-driven wheel and small rear wheel. It was called a penny farthing after two British coins of the period. They were difficult to mount and dismount, unstable because of their high centre of gravity, and could pitch the rider at speed over the handle bars from braking too hard, swerving or hitting small obstructions on the road. Despite only being ridden by the young, fit and athletic, they were very popular both on the road and in racing.
In the third row from the top on the left is a safety bicycle, of the style we know today, which came about in 1885. This one’s fitted out with gear typically used by Australian shearers to ride from shed to shed in the early 1900s and has a swag, ‘tucker bag’, billy can and roll of canvas tied to the luggage carrier.
Next along is the bike with a strange hammock-style seat made of woven cord suspended from the handlebars and rear frame. It’s a Dursely Pedersen and features a lightweight triangular frame of thin diameter tube which is duplicated to give extra strength. The bike’s name comes from its Danish inventor, Mikael Pedersen, and the Gloucestershire town in England where it was made from 1896 until about 1914.
The last in the third row is a bicycle made for two. Called a lady front tandem, the lady rode in the front while the gentleman was at the back with his own set of handlebars. This was in case the woman had a case of the ‘vapours’ and he needed to take control of the bike.
The last row shows more contemporary bikes. The little red one on the left is an innovative design made by Acrow in the Sydney suburb of Guilford in 1987. It’s got no chain but instead has a two-speed gearbox built directly into the hub on the front axle. This bike’s design is reminiscent of the boneshaker over 100 years earlier with its pedals and cranks attached to the front axle.
The impressive black and gold bike next is an Italian Colnago C35, one of the first road bikes made with a carbon fibre frame. It was launched in 1989 to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the company founded in 1954 by Ernesto Colnago at Cambiago near Milan. The bike’s a limited edition with monograms and lettering highlighted in gold leaf and some gold-plated parts but its sculpted frame is its most striking feature.
Next along is the 1996 Australian Olympic ‘Superbike’. This bike took the racing fraternity by storm with its lightweight carbon fibre frame designed by a collaborative project team from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and the Australian Institute of Sport.
Finally, we have the Museum’s most quirky bike, a miniature tandem made in Sydney by the Edworthy Cycle & Motor Works with re-spoked pram wheels for monkeys to ride in the animal circus at Taronga Park Zoo in the late 1930s.
Video courtesy of the NSW Department of Transport
These bikes, and another 5,000 objects from the Museum’s vast and impressive collection, together with some from the Australian Museum and Sydney Living Museums, are on display at the Museums Discovery Centre, 172 Showground Road, Castle Hill, open Monday to Friday, 10-5.
Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, October 2017