The First Bicycle Is Introduced In New York City, 1819: History Of The Velocipede

By Roger Goode | May 29, 2024

Two Wheels and a Dream

Step back in time to 1819, when the bustling streets of New York City witnessed a curious and revolutionary new mode of transportation: the velocipede, often dubbed the "dandy horse." This early bicycle, with its wooden frame and two wheels but no pedals, captured the imagination of the public and sparked a craze that would lay the groundwork for modern cycling. This article takes you on a delightful journey through the history of the velocipede, exploring its invention, the public's reaction, and the whimsical charm that made it a sensation in the early 19th century. Discover how this quirky contraption, with its innovative design and spirited riders, paved the way for the bicycles we know and love today. So, hop on and join us as we pedal through the fascinating origins of the velocipede and its impact on urban mobility and recreation!

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In 1819, the bicycle rolled across the Atlantic into the Big Apple all the way from Europe. Known as "velocipedes" or "swift walkers," these strange contraptions created by Baron Karl von Drais were a sign of coming change and a new way of getting from place to place. Though there were plenty of early adopters, many New Yorkers were unsure if these new two-wheeled vehicles could really provide ample transportation or if they would just create clutter. Ultimately, they did neither: They were banned in New York City mere months after their release and fell out of fashion in favor of better means of transportation.

The Dandy Horse

The first version of the velocipede was initially ridden on June 12, 1817 and patented in January 1818. Von Drais's creation was much like the modern bicycle, it was just propelled by the rider's feet rather than cranks or pedals. Upon its introduction in Europe, the early bicycle was immediately picked up by dandies, earning it the nickname "dandy horse." According to the May 31, 1819 edition of the Connecticut Mirror, the dandy horse could move at speeds of "eight or nine miles an hour" on dry, firm roads, and "on a descent, it equals a horse at full speed."

Velocipedes In New York

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In May 1819, the velocipede made its debut in New York City. Only about 100 of them were available, so New Yorkers practically fought each other for them. Those who got their hands on one of these bad boys rode them over the bumpy roads of the Big Apple alongside horse-drawn carriages and carts, weaving in and out of pedestrians however they liked.

Those who declined to commit to a purchase or just couldn't find one in stock paid $0.50 to rent one, although renters were limited to scooting around a specially created rink. Riding "downhill at high speed was a particularly enjoyable activity," according to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.