Many people think of the folding bike as a modern invention. I mean, they are less common than their larger siblings, and with storage space at a growing premium it just makes sense for the modern bicycle to be a compact folding bike. So with that in mind, would you be surprised to hear that folding bikes have been around since the earliest days of cycling? It's true! Folding bikes have always had a niche in the bicycling world, albeit somewhat less well known. The early history of folding bikes is a fascinating mish-mash of sometimes outlandish designs, all struggling to fit the feel of a regular bike into a package small enough to fit in a train car or car trunk.
Folding bikes before the safety bicycle
The earliest folding bicycles were around in the infant days of cycling, even before the advent of the modern day "safety bicycle." The safety bicycle was safe in that you wouldn't necessarily die if you crashed. Two wheels of the same size, pedals situated mid-frame, and a geared drive train made it a vast improvement over the high-bicycle. The so called "high-bicycles" of the time had one very large front wheel and a smaller rear wheel to stabilize them. These odd looking machines could go very fast, but had a tendency to crash rather violently. This often left the rider severely injured, if not dead on impact.
The first folding bike was the Grout Portable. This is a great example of the value of a compact bike. In order to deal with the awkwardly large front wheel of the high-bicycle the Grout's wheel actually folded the into quarters. After a tedious 10 minutes of folding the bike was reduced to a quarter of its size. It was then loaded into a case and could be carried, although it must have weighed a ton. The design never had much of a chance to flourish, since the modern "safety bicycle" was invented a few years later.
Military heritage of folding bicycles
Although a portable and fast means of transportation would have been perfect for any working commuter, the cost of early folding bikes prohibited them from becoming a popular mode of transportation. As a result, some early folding bikes were actually designed for military use, where speed and portability were crucial. One such folding bike, produced during the Second World War by armament manufacturer BSA, was used by paratroopers as a means of rapid transit once they had landed. The BSA design placed 2 hinges, secured by wing nuts, midway on the bike's frame. This semi-rigid design was very popular among early folding bikes.The success and extent to which these folding bicycles were used is not well documented, but unlike modern folding bicycles, the intent of these military folders was not to be easily unfolded and folded, but rather to be compact before deployment and sturdy thereafter.
Folding bikes get smaller wheels
It was not until the 1960s that folding bikes became a practical and accessible mode of transportation. With the rise of their popularity the race for the most compact and portable folding bike began to heat up. Here is where the modern folding bike, with its smaller tires and odd form, began to take shape. A bike that folds can never fold up smaller than the diameter of its wheels. As a result, smaller wheels seem a natural choice for a folding bike. However, there were both advantages and drawbacks to going with smaller wheels, and much of the evolution of folding bikes has been shaped by these traits.
Modern folding bikes learned from their ancestors
The folding bikes you see today are often far superior to their ancestors. The Brompton folding bike for example, is the most compact folding bike, and you can see in the design the lessons it has taken from those who came before. They fold quickly and easily into compact, lightweight packages which can be taken on trains, planes and automobiles with ease. The best folding bikes have learned from what has come before them. They take the best of the past and leave the mistakes behind. Like any really useful product, folding bikes have evolved to fit their purpose and our needs. Their modern incarnation, an incredible feat of engineering, can sometimes be baffling when first experienced. "How the heck did they think of that?" is often the reaction one has upon seeing their first folding bike, as if the entire invention was thought up in one night with lots of coffee and scribbling on napkins. The truth is, folding bikes have been around since the first high-bicycles careened down streets towards certain death. Yet despite their long history, the golden age of the folding bicycle is just beginning.