Cars and Bikes Are Pretty Much the Same Age

You might be as surprised as I was to find out that the bicycle as we know it today came out just a little bit before the first car.

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An illustration of the first bike and the first car next to each other.
What came first, the bike or the car?
Image: Universal History Archive (L) and Universal Images Group (R) (Getty Images)

When you think about the timeline of personal transportation, what does it look like to you? In my mind, it goes something like horseback riding, then some kind of animal-pulled carriage before everyone took to bikes and eventually cars. There would, of course, have been a pretty long gap in between each new development.

But, imagine my surprise when it transpired that there actually wasn’t a glorious era when everyone rode ‘round on bikes while they gave their horses a rest! It turns out that by the time the bike as we know it was invented, the gas-powered car was only a few years behind.

According to a podcast called 99 Percent Invisible, while there were two-wheeled vehicles for people to enjoy long before the chain-driven bike, these were far from widespread around the world.

A sketch of an old running machine, which was like a bike but with no pedals.
Pedals? Where we’re going we don’t need pedals.
Image: Archiv Gerstenberg/ullstein bild (Getty Images)

These bizarre looking devices, called “running machines,” were around in 1817 and comprised a frame with two wheels and a seat low enough so that the rider could push themselves along with their feet. It’s basically a grown up version of a child’s balance bike.


The bike began to evolve from there and pedals were added in the middle of the century, giving rise to creations like the penny farthing.

The next big innovation was the chain drive, which meant riders could power the rear wheel via pedals and steer with the front wheel. This, according to bike blog Evelo, was created in 1879 before it made its public debut on the Safety Bicycle.

A photo of the Rover Safety Bicycle from 1885.
Image: SSPL (Getty Images)

That machine was developed by British inventor John Kemp Starley, who showcased his new creation in London in 1885.


Sadly, this revolutionary machine wasn’t given long to win the hearts of the masses. Just a year later, some old German guy came out with “vehicle powered by a gas engine” that was soon winning favor among the world’s rich and famous.

So, instead of an idyllic period where everyone traveled around via bike or train, the Safety Bicycle had just a few short months in the limelight before everyone made the switch to four-wheeled, gas-powered monsters. And, just look where we are now!