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The first tricycle was built in 1680 for a German paraplegic named Stephan Farffler, who lived near Nuremburg. He was a watch-maker and the tricycle had gears and hand cranks.

Two Frenchmen, named Blanchard and Maguier invented a tricycle in 1789, which prompted the Journal de Paris to coin the words ‘bicycle’ and ‘tricycle’ and publish them on July 27th to differentiate between the two types of machines. Denis Johnson patented a tricycle in England in 1818, and a three-wheeled swiftwalker was introduced in 1819.

On November 18, 1876, James Starley introduced the Coventry Lever Tricycle, a side-driven two-track, lever-driven machine, and that started the tricycling craze in Great Britain. It had two small wheels on the right side, that both steered simultaneously. A large drive wheel was on the left side. In 1877, he introduced the Coventry Rotary, one of the first rotary chain drive tricycles.

In 1879, twenty types of tricycles and multi-wheel cycles were produced in Coventry, England, and by 1884, there were over 120 different models produced by 20 manufacturers. Tricycles were used especially by those who could not ride high wheelers, such as women who were confined in the long dresses of the day, and short or unathletic men.


From 1881 to 1886 in Great Britain, more tricycles were built than bicycles, but this was primarily a class phenomenon, since tricycles were more expensive, perceived as more genteel, and the upper classes had the disposable income to buy them for the women in the family. As a result, tricycling remained popular in Great Britain long after riders turned away from them elsewhere. They even had regular racing.

By the 1990s, that was no longer true, and many British manufacturers stopped making them.
In the United States, tricycles are used primarily by older persons for recreation, shopping, and exercise. In Asia and Africa, tricycles are used primarily for commercial transportation.


The tricycles produced from 1876 to 1884, of which Starley’s Coventry Rotary is the most famous example, are considered first generation tricycles, and showed a wide variety of inventiveness as the best design was sought. There were many two track tricycles with side steering built to operate on rutted doubletrack roads.

By 1885, the second generation of tricycles had appeared. The Humber Cripper, named for professional racer Robert Cripps, was typical. It had the modern pattern of two rear wheels with a front wheel bisecting their track. Front wheels were usually about 18 to 24 inches in diameter, the rear wheels were usually about 40 inches. The wheelbase was about 32 inches, as was the track width, and they weighed about 75 pounds, although racing models were about 40 pounds.

The third generation of tricycles are like today’s, and the 1892 Starley Psycho was one of the first. All of its wheels were of equal size, in this case, 28 inches. By 1900 however, the pneumatic tired safety bicycle took away most of the tricycle business since it provided an adequate amount of stability for most riders. Except for having modern bicycle components added, the tricycle has not really evolved in any substantial way since the turn of the 19th century.




It’s interesting to note the social competition between bicycles and tricycles in the late 19th century because, of course, these two modes of transport, though closely related at the beginning, soon developed separately into vehicles with an even greater social divide – motorcycles and cars.

Bicycles in this era were ‘high wheelers’ (penny farthings), and to ride them required some athletic ability. They were the preserve of fit, adventurous rich men. When tricycles first came onto the market they were considered suitable only for old folks or timid cyclists. But, within only a few years, tricycle design had developed sufficiently to compete with the high wheeler, and tricycles had become extremely fashionable. As well as being much safer on the road, the advantage of being able to carry luggage (and, in later models, a passenger) on a tricycle certainly contributed to the development of the car.

Says David V. Herlihy in Bicycle: By the late 1870s, the speed gap between two- and three-wheelers had narrowed to only about two or three miles per hour, and the fashionable circles of Britain took note. Under the headline ‘Tricycles Coming to the Front’ The World of London reported in 1878: “There is quite a rage for tricycling this season at Brighton. Owing to the marvelous perfection attained in steel work, tricycles are now produced, combining great strength with extreme lightness. The mode of propulsion having also been greatly improved, they have become a fascintaing and exhilarating means of exercise and locomotion. Ladies have taken to them, doctors do their visits on them, and tradesmen circulate their goods by them.”

In 1881, Queen Victoria purchased a pair of tricycles, increasing their popularity further, particularly among ladies, and tricyclists soon had their own magazines and clubs. The front-steering lever-drive tricycle was the most popular of various designs available. You can clearly see how women could ride them without the need to amend their costume, perhaps the most important consideration of the time.


Whereas bicycle clubs and runs tended to focus on competition, tricycling events were a social affair, often involving a parade around town followed by tea. Tricycles were more expensive, so tended to a more upmarket clientele. Tricycle enthusiasts soon started to look down on cyclists, especially as secondhand high wheelers were by now in the hands of lower-class youths, removing their snob appeal.

Promoted as touring machines, tricycle manufacturers were keen to demonstrate their practicalities. In 1882, Mr A. Bird rode a Humber tricycle from Birmingham to Cambridge. The distance quoted is 222 miles, so I assume this must have been a return journey, and Mr Bird completed it in 24 hours, only 20 miles less than the bicycle record of the time.

The chain drives of these tricycles inspired inventors to innovate further. Development of chain-driven ’safety’ bicycles led to the display of the Rover Safety at the 1885 Stanley Show, and bicycles suddenly changed – that design remains more or less the same today. High wheel bicycles and tricycles soon became obsolete, and enormous demand ensued for the revolutionary new, cheaper, safer, faster, and much more ridable bicycles.

During their brief reign high-wheel tricycles had an enormous influence on society, capturing the public imagination not only in Great Britain where they flourished but around the world too. As a result, bicycles, tricycles and, within 20 years, motorcycles and cars, were firmly implanted on the roads of the world. These tricycles are still considered to be the ‘aristocrats’ of the veteran cycling world.





[Thanks to Bicyclopedia for the history of tricycles –