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Stories about the lives we've made

Icon:Rover safety bicycle, 1885

related ingenious images © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library

Until the introduction of this type of bicycle, with its diamond-shaped frame and similar-diameter front and rear wheels, cycling was a comparatively risky sport which appealed mainly to the enthusiast. During the 1870s, when cycling first became popular, the standard bicycle was the Ordinary or 'Penny-farthing'. These bicycles had direct, pedal-driven, large front wheels, the rider sat high and was at risk in an accident. They were also unstable and difficult to mount and dismount. By contrast, the diamond-frame bicycle with chain drive to the rear wheel was much lower to the ground and so changed the experience of riding that it became known as the 'safety bicycle'.

The Rover safety bicycle was designed by J. K. Starley of Coventry and was first exhibited in London in early 1885. His design made the bicycle a universal mode of transport and established a basic form which has changed remarkably little since then. By the early 1890s the Ordinary bicycle was obsolete.

Cycle-making became concentrated in Birmingham, Coventry and Nottingham, where mass-production techniques had already been applied to the manufacture of textile and sewing machines, clocks, watches and handguns. Output soared and, at the outbreak of the First World War, Britain was a world leader in cycle exports. Many of the cycle companies also went on to become noted motor-vehicle manufacturers.

Inv. 1901-6