The History of the Folding Bike
There have been many who have laid claim to the invention of the folding bike. Humorously, a bike manufacturer (who shall remain nameless so as to not unduly embarrass them) audaciously claims on their website to have produced the world's first folding bike in 1973. Wishful thinking by their marketing department I suppose. The truth is that the folding bike has been around for considerably longer than one might imagine and most claims of being the first are erroneous.
First things first though, you can't have a folding bike without the invention of the bicycle itself. So a very short history lesson on the bicycle is in order. Here again we have some disputed claims of invention and historians will probably never be able to identify the exact moment of invention. For a while some had claimed that Leonardo Da Vinci invented the bicycle based on a sketch found in his Codex Atlanticus. However, this sketch was later determined to be a forgery, though many historical accounts written before this forgery was discovered still credit Da Vinci as the inventor of the bicycle. There were a few "pre-bicycles" invented before the appearance of what one would recognize as a bicycle. The first of these was probably the "Celerifere" developed by a French count named Mede de Sivrac in 1790. It consisted of two wheels connected by a beam and was decorated to look like a horse or a lion. There was no steering mechanism or pedals and it was basically a whimsical novelty meant to entertain the idle rich. In 1818, Baron Karl von Drais of Germany showed his "Draisienne" to the world in Paris. The Draisienne (below) had steering but still no pedals.
In 1860, Frenchman Ernest Michaux and his brother Pierre added a crank and pedals to the front wheel of their "Velocipede" (below) and we have what starts to look like a bicycle that we all would recognize.
In the years that followed, the English were instrumental in moving bicycle technology forward culminating in the so-called "safety bike" (below right) in 1885 which resembles today's bicycles in form and function. The safety bike was so named because it was safer and easier to use than the large wheeled bikes that proceeded it, most notably the penny-farthing (below left). These large wheeled bicycles were also called "ordinary bicycles".
Which brings us to the folding bike, and this is where history gets a bit murky for a couple of reasons. First, there is the issue of what exactly constitutes a "folding" bicycle. There are a few historical references to so-called folding bicycles but the descriptions of them sound more like "separable" or "break-away" bikes rather than true folders wherein the frame collapses in some manner while actually still staying attached to itself. Secondly, there are competing claims from many inventors in different countries vying to be called the original inventor of the folding bike. Most of these claims can't be documented in a convincing manner but that's not to say that they aren't necessarily true. The actual first inventor of the folding bike may never be known with absolute certainty, but there are a few contenders. Interestingly, perhaps preceding the folding bicycle, was the folding tricycle since there are a few references to them dating from the 1880's from such companies as Bayliss Thomas in England and The Pope Manufacturing Company in the U.S.
Englishman William Grout is often given credit for inventing the first folding bike in 1878 but from most accounts, his bicycle (a penny-farthing design pictured below) had a folding front wheel and a frame that disassembled. It has been more correctly referred to as a "portable" bicycle rather than a true folding bicycle.
One of the first, if not the first, credibly documented inventions of a folding bike is by an American inventor, Emmit G. Latta. He filed a patent in the U.S. on September 16, 1887 and it was issued on February 21, 1888. An excerpt from the patent reads "The object of this invention is to provide a machine that is safe, strong, and serviceable, and more easily steered than the machines now in use, and also to construct the machine in such a manner that the same can be folded when not required for use, so as to require little storage-room and facilitate its transportation." Latta sold this patent to the Pope Manufacturing Company who bought dozens of bicycle related patents during the dawn of the bicycle age in America, including the first U.S. pedal-bicycle patent issued to Pierre Lallement in 1866. Pope sold bikes under the Columbia brand name. It is not known if the Latta bike was ever marketed by Pope since no existing examples have yet been found. Latta also invented a couple of folding tricycles around the same time as his folding bike and sold those patents to Pope as well. Drawings from the Latta folding bike patent are shown below.
Another early documented invention of a folding bike is by an American, Michael B. Ryan in his U.S. patent filing dated Dec. 26, 1893 and issued on April 17, 1894. A excerpt from the patent reads "The principle object of my present invention is to produce a bicycle, so constructed that it can be easily folded and thus take up less space in length when not in use or when transported or stored." Drawings from the actual patent are below. The significance of this bike will be explained a bit later.
The first folding tandem bicycle was probably invented by Julien Simon and Victor Dussault, both of Paris, France. In their patent application dated May 10, 1895 they described a regular folding bike that could be converted into a folding tandem with the addition of another frame and connecting parts. Drawings from the patent are shown below.
Quite a few historical texts claim that the French military invented the first folding bike. In particular, a French military officer named Captain Gérard is given credit. This simply was not true but there is an fascinating story behind this misnomer. A complete telling of the story is in a book entitled "Charles Morel - constructeur dauphinois sous la troisième république". Since it is in French, here's the short version: Charles Morel, a wealthy French industrialist, became enamored with the relatively new bicycle craze and devised of a folding bicycle and built a prototype in 1892. Independently, in 1893, a French army lieutenant named Henry Gérard imagined the use of a folding bike by the army and filed a patent for one through his father-in-law Henri Noêl on June 27, 1893. The problem was that this bike was deeply flawed and basically didn't work. While looking for help to fix the design flaws he was introduced to Charles Morel. Mr. Morel showed his prototype bike to Gérard and suggested that he meet with one of his mechanics named Dulac and get his help in perfecting a working folding bike design. Dulac was successful in this endeavor so on Oct. 5, 1894 Charles Morel and Lieutenant Gérard entered into an agreement to manufacture and commercialize a folding bike. Morel would finance and oversee the manufacturing and Gérard would promote it. Production of the bike began in April of 1895 and it was an immediate success with orders quickly exceeding production capacity. In October of 1895 a retail store was opened in Paris to sell the bike to the public. Gérard was tasked to market to the French military which were subsequently supplied with 25 test bikes. The Romanian and Russian armies placed orders as well. Lieutenant Gérard was successful in selling the idea of using folding bikes to the army and was ultimately put in charge of a regiment of folding bike equipped soldiers and was eventually promoted to the rank of Captain, largely because this folding bike. Charles Morel let Gérard become the public face of their folding bike joint venture, leading everyone to believe that Captain Gérard was the father of the idea when in fact Mr. Morel had the idea first and completely financed the venture. After a while Captain Gérard started to believe this hype himself and sued Mr. Morel for what he though was his fair share of the profits. This caused a falling out between the two men culminating in the dissolution of the partnership. The patents for the folding bike were eventually sold to a consortium of Peugeot, Michelin, and the French army and they took over production of the bike in 1899. This folding bike first appeared in the Peugeot sales catalog in 1899, which has led some historians to erroneously believe that it was invented by Peugeot.
So what became widely known as the "Captain Gérard folding bike" was not actually the first folding bike, since Emmit Latta's bike preceded it by a number of years, nor was it actually invented by Captain Gérard. However, it probably was the first folding bike manufactured in relatively large volume. I was able to find a patent application made in England for the "Captain Gerard folding bike" dated January 18, 1896 (two years later than the French patent mentioned). Henry Gérard is listed as the co-inventor on the patent along with Charles Morel. The first image below is a drawing from the English patent, the second is a photo of the bike, the third is an illustration dated 1897 from Revue Militaire Suisse depicting Gérard's men conducting military maneuvers with their folding bikes.
Another early folding bike (pictured below) that is incorrectly credited in some texts as the first folding bike was the Faun Folding Cycle produced in England in 1896. While it was not the first folding bike, the bike's novelty was that it featured folding handlebars that integrated a brake mechanism. This innovation was invented by William Crowe who was issued a patent for it on March 18, 1899.
France wasn't the only country to recognize the potential of military use of folding bikes. A New York Times article dated February 7, 1897 reported on military folding bicycles being displayed by the Dwyer Folding Bicycle Company of Danbury, Connecticut at the Third National Cycle Exhibition held at the Grand Central Palace of Industry in New York City. A clipping from the paper is shown below.
Photos from the sales brochure of The Dwyer Folding Bicycle Company's are below. The first is the military folding bicycle (though it was also sold to the public) and the second is the ladies' version of the bike mentioned in the article above. Note that the ladies' version is virtually identical to the Faun folding bicycle mentioned earlier. The third photo is from an article about the Dwyer folding bicycle in the Scientific American magazine dated March 13, 1897 showing a soldier demonstrating the folding operation of the bike.
The Dwyer folding bicycle was most likely designed by Michael B. Ryan who was mentioned earlier in this historical timeline. The evidence is that on October 13, 1896 he filed a patent for a folding bicycle that was an improvement on his earlier design and the figures from the patent shown below bear a striking resemblance to the Dwyer bike. Also, in a Dwyer sales brochure it mentions that the Dwyer bikes are fitted with the "Ryan Adjustable Handlebars" of which Michael B. Ryan was found to hold the patent. Both Ryan and the Dwyer Folding Bicycle Company were based in Connecticut. Ryan continued to make improvements and file folding bike patents, one of which may have been the basis for other military folding bikes that appeared in Europe since they are quite similar in design.
Many other countries made military use of folding bikes and there were several manufacturers of them starting in the 1890's such as Styria (Austria), Dursley-Pedersen (England), Faun (England), Seidel & Naumann (Germany), Fongers, Burgers (Holland), Peugeot (France), Bianchi (Italy), Leitner (Russia), Katakura (Japan) among others. The most widely known military folding bicycle manufacturer was notably the English company BSA (Birmingham Small Arms). They produced folding bikes by the thousands for use in WWI and WWII. Below is an early example of a BSA military folding bike that was used by paratroopers.
In the U.S., Columbia produced a bike around 1942 called the Compax for military use by paratroopers. This bike, seen below in the first image, was sometimes referred to as a folding bike. However, it didn't actually fold, rather the frame disassembled into two parts, as shown below, second photo, in what was the civilian version of the bike.
Towards the end of WWII, Raleigh in England also designed a military folding bike but only a prototype was made and it never went into production.
More recently, folding bikes have been used by the U.S. military who deployed the Montague Paratrooper in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Few folding bikes were produced during WWII for consumer use. However, there is one bike worth mention, the Le Petit Bi from France shown below in a magazine advertisement. Some texts, primarily in France, erroneously claim that this was the world's first small-wheeled folding bike. The fact is that the frame didn't actually fold, only the handlebars folded down much like they do on the Japanese Katakura Porta-Cycle, the frame actually separated. This actually corresponds to what it says in the ad in French, Démontable, or "can be taken apart, dismantled" in English and Pliable, or "foldable" in English. The exact date and length of manufacture is unknown but this bike was based on a design patented in 1939 and a few variations of the bike are known to exist. This bike's significance was that it was an early small-wheeled bike that may have inspired other designs perhaps in England since a few were imported. Further reading about the fascinating history of this bike can be continued here.
What may truly have been the first small-wheeled folding bike was developed in the early 1920's by an enigmatic inventor. Its story deserves its own page so follow the link to learn about the C.H. Clark folding bike then return to continue reading.
The 1930's, 40's and 50's were a seemingly quiet period in folding bike history since during these decades, cycling started to decline worldwide due to the popularity of the automobile and to some extent motorcycles plus there was the depression, WWII, etc. If anyone has any information regarding folding bikes from these decades, please contact us since there are scant examples.
The 1960's saw the rekindling of an interest in folding bikes. Much of the impetus for this interest has been credited to the introduction of the Moulton bicycle in 1962. While not a folding bike per se, the Moulton (pictured below), with its small wheels, served as an inspiration for many folding bicycle designs that followed. However, an even larger influence on future folding bikes came with the introduction of the Italian Graziella in 1964, the design of which was widely copied even to this day. Its simple U-shaped frame was designed by noted Italian designer Rinaldo Donzelli. The significance of this frame shape becomes evident in the 1970's.
By the 1970's, interest in folding bikes had really picked up steam with dozens of manufacturers in many countries producing folding bikes. Probably the best known and very popular folding bike from this decade was the Raleigh Twenty made in England and New Zealand. Initially introduced as the Stowaway model in 1971, it was produced until 1984. This bike was notable since it was made in relatively large numbers and also because it helped popularize internal hub gearing, specifically the Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub. A catalog photo of a 1974 Raleigh Twenty Folder is shown below.
Another English folding bike of note was the Bickerton Portable designed by inventor Harry Bickerton. The bike had a lightweight aluminum frame and folded fairly compactly so it could be transported with relative ease, attributes not typically found in previous folding bikes. This bike was significant not only because it was an innovative design (though of somewhat questionable function) but it also served as one of the inspirations for Andrew Ritchie in creating his Brompton folding bike some years later since he was known to have seen the bike and thought he could do better. The Bickerton Portable was produced from 1971 until 1991 with approximately 150,000 being sold. A brochure photo of the Bickerton with its included carrying bag is shown below.
The 1970's saw a proliferation of folding bike models coming from France (Astra, Peugeot, Motobécane, Motoconfort), Italy (Bianchi, Carnielli, Cinzia, Formicone, Rizzato), Austria (Dusika, Puch), West Germany (Heidemann Werke, Hercules, Jobafa, Kalkhoff, Kettler, Kynast, Panther, Rixe, Schauff, Staiger), East Germany (MIFA), Netherlands (Batavus, Gazelle), Poland (Romet, ZZR), Japan (Bridgestone), Spain (Beistegui Hermanos, G.A.C., Torrot), Argentina (Aurora, Bergamasco), Brazil (Caloi, Monark), U.K. (Raleigh, Dawes, Elswick Hopper), USA (Schwinn), USSR (Салют - "Salute" in Russian), Yugoslavia (Rog), etc. In fact, most bicycle companies had a folding bike offering during this decade leading some to call it the "Golden Age of folding bikes". There were also a flood of cheap Eastern European so-called "U-frame" folding bikes (so named because the frame was shaped like the letter U) during the 70's, many sold via mail order or at department stores and service stations. Most of them carried contrived brand names that gave little indication of their true origin of manufacture. Many of these U-frame folders were based on the design of the Puch Pic-Nic folding bike shown below. Johan Puch actually pioneered the single tube U-frame (non-folding) in the late 1800's while working at the Syria Bicycle Company in Austria. The Puch Pic-Nic was significant not only because its design was widely copied (Graziella, etc.) but also because its flaws were what inspired Harry Bickerton, among others, to design what they considered better folding bikes.
The 1980's began with two very significant events in folding bike history. First, Andrew Ritchie began producing his Brompton folding bike in 1981. Then in 1982, Dr. David Hon, a physicist, began production of the first Dahon folding bike. Both Brompton and Dahon are still among the most popular folding bike brands today. Dahon has gone on to become the world's largest folding bike manufacturer with a wide product range and an estimated 60% market share. The first photo below is Dr. Hon with his first folding bike simply named "Da Bike". The second photo is the Dahon Mu XXV Limited Edition folding bike produced to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the company. In 1987 Montague Bikes was founded by Harry and David Montague, father and son, to produce full-size folding bikes that have become quite popular.
The popularity of folding bikes has been relatively slow in developing over the years but has accelerated in recent times because of their utility as a constituent part of multi-modal transportation especially in Europe, Asia, and the larger cities in the United States. Today there are over 175 folding bike manufacturers producing a myriad of folding bike models and their number continues to grow. Electric folding bikes are increasing in popularity and many traditional folding bike manufacturers are starting to offer electric models, particularly in Asia and Europe.
In conclusion, this historical account of the folding bike has been relatively brief and was not meant to be entirely comprehensive, though more will be added over time as new facts are discovered. This is a research project in progress and comments, additions or corrections are quite welcome and appreciated. Actually any help offered from professional historians and authors would be gladly accepted as would contributions by visitors to the site who may know some interesting historical facts or have rare photographs.
See also famous folding cyclists.