After folding knives, combs and camping tables, it didn’t take long to design a bicycle that was easy to fold in half for transport or storage. Similarly to many great inventions, the army was responsible for spreading the idea.
It was the French military and their folding bikes that aroused a huge interest back in the 1890s. Inspired by the successful usage of folding bikes in France, the British Army followed suit and deployed a folding version of the Pedersen bicycle in the Second Boer War.
The bicycles equipped with 24-inch wheels weighed 8 kilograms and included a rack for a rifle. The benefits of such bicycles for the army were disputable, though, as we can read in a review submitted by Captain A. H. Trapmann serving in the 25th Cyclists Battalion to his superior in December 1908: “I can assure you that for half a dozen excellent reasons nothing would induce me to take one on service or if I did, it would never be folded except when the spring got out of order and it collapsed automatically, which is one of its unexpected habits.”
Bikes were regarded quite differently from how we see them today as we must understand that MTBs weren’t to be invented for the next seventy years. Back in the 1900s, folding bikes were considered useful by the war planners because, in a moment of need, they could be folded and carried on the back of the soldiers – for example, while climbing and proceeding through the rough mountainous terrain.
Captain A. H. Trapmann also criticized the overall weight, the lack of rigidity and plenty of time needed for folding and unfolding of the early B.S.A. bicycles. According to him, the worst part was that when the bike was folded and strapped onto the back of a soldier, it could not be unstrapped without the assistance of a fellow brother in arms. “The advantages claimed for it, even if real, would hardly compensate for these drawbacks,” summed up captain Trampann.
Unfavourable individual experiences, however, didn’t stop the army from acquiring large quantities of B.S.A. bicycles and using them throughout WW1 and in the early years of WW2, until the new B.S.A. Airborne model was introduced in 1942.
Even though it’s horrible to imagine holding a heavy folding bike and preparing to leap out of a Dakota plane into the war zone, it is exactly what British paratroopers did on the D-Day and many other operations during WW2. Over 60,000 Airborne Folding Paratrooper Bicycles were made by the Birmingham Small Arms company between 1942 and 1945. They were intended to give paratroopers a light and discreet mean of transport behind the enemy lines.
Two enormous wingnuts on the top and bottom part of the frame could be loosened to fold the bike, swinging the front wheel around so it ended up parallel to the rear one. The bike was set up in such a way that the seat and handlebars were the first to hit the ground after a landing as bent rims would disable the bike altogether.
The idea of the folding bike was abandoned in the years of abundance following the end of the war but the 1970s saw an increased interest in the once-handy folding bikes again. Raleigh Twenty and Bickerton Portable became iconic folders of the decade. It was, however, the early 80s that gave birth to modern folding city bikes as we recognise them today.
In 1976, Cambridge engineering graduate Andrew Ritchie conceived an idea for building a folding bike, which he named after the Brompton Oratory in London. The design of the bike was based on a hinged frame and small 16 inch wheels. The original concept remained almost unchanged till today and Brompton now belongs among the biggest bicycle manufacturers in the UK with approximately 40,000 bicycles produced each year. Ritchie was awarded the 2009 Prince Philip Designer’s Prize for creating the bicycle.