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The History of the Bicycle

The development of the Bicycle played an important role in the development of our early manufacturing, as well as in shaping the coming American culture based on "automobility." The controlling purpose of this paper is to examine the historical development of the bicycle and its technologies, and their effect on society.
Pic: Orient Bicycle Company 1896 Oriten
The Orient Bicycle Company 1896 Oriten

The bicycle craze of the late nineteenth century allowed Americans a new concept of mobility that opened the door for the coming age of Automobility. The bicycle of the 1970's allowed growing numbers of people, especially in urban areas, a form of transportation free from pressures imposed by the OPEC oil embargo. Bicycles of the 1980's became highly specialized pieces of equipment efficient on various types of terrain, from manicured roads to rocky fire roads and debris-strewn trails. Whether or not the bicycle is fully developed as personal transportation in a step toward solving some of the problems of urban life in the 1990's -- pollution, congestion, and economic and ecologic expense, depends mainly on our level of committment.

With proper community planning, like the efficient interface of local-bicycle traffic with public mass transportation systems, and conversion of railroad rights-of-way to bicycle paths, the use of the wasteful car could be dramatically reduced, while the basic structure of our ridiculously mobile society could be preserved. Conversion of Railroad rights-of-way, and the opening of public lands to Mountain Biking is only more firmly entrenching the Bicycle into the American way of life.

Websters Third New International Dictionary defines a bicycle as:

"... a vehicle that has two wheels one behind the other, a steering handle, and a saddle seat or seats and is usually propelled by the action of the rider's feet upon pedals."
This is the definition used in this paper, and so the only machines not covered by this definition that will be mentioned are directly related to the development of the bicycle.

One such machine was the four-wheeled vehicle built by Giovanni Fontana of Padua in 1418 that utilized an endless rope connected via gears to the wheels. This appears to have been the first man powered vehicle(1).

Another four-wheeled man-powered vehicle was built in France in 1779 by M. Blanchard and M. Masurier. It was powered by one man, (ostensibly a servant) and steered by another. It appeared much like a horse-drawn carriage, with reins brought back to steer, but with a man in back who operated a treadle-driven ratchet that drove the back axle. Clearly, this was not the vehicle for the common man(2).

The first known vehicle with two wheels in line as they are today was introduced by Comte de Sivrac in 1791, in the form of a wooden horse. This early bicycle was not very sophisticated- it had no steering! Can you imagine what it would be like to try to balance something like that? Despite the lack of sophistication the velocifere (as it was called), became quite popular in the 1790's(3).

Pic: Original Draisene at Breslau museum The year, 1816. Baron Karl von Drais raised havoc in Karlsruhe, Germany, when he dashed into town on his Draisine. It seems the Baron was responsible for patrolling the forest paths of the Duke of Baden, but wished to spend his time tinkering with mechanical objects(4). His answer, the Draisine. The Draisine was built of wood, with iron "tires". It weighed around 50 pounds(5). It was propelled by the rider by pushing with the feet while resting their weight upon the rather uncomfortable-looking saddle. Utilizing this precursor to the modern bicycle, the Baron was able to cut down the time it took to do his rounds(6).

Whether or not the Baron had the vision to see the implications of his new gadget is not certain, but the bicycle eventually played no small part in setting the stage for the personal mobility that was to become the herritage of people only a few generations away. In the words of Eugene Sloane "...he started a love affair with man-propelled wheels that has persisted to this day."(7)

The effects of the early bicycle were greater reaching than just starting a love affair with man-propelled wheels. For the first time, a new sort of mobility was offered. A person could walk out of their house, jump on a bicycle, and be over the hills to the next township without the expense and hassle of caring for and hitching-up beasts of burden.

In addition to the new ease of mobility, the bicycle industry literally paved the way for the introduction of the automobile, in the form of concern for better roads, and the areas of technology the bicycle pioneered. Some of the early names in automotive development were just a few years earlier honing their technological and manafacturing skills on the bicycle. Names worthy of note are the Duryea brothers and Henry Ford. Also worthy of mention were the development of the pneumatic tire in 1888 by Dr. J. B. Dunlop, and the development of improved types of bearings in the 1870's. Can you imagine trying to design a car utilizing soft metal bushings, and conical friction-bearings, and running on solid tires ... I should think not!

After the introduction of the Draisine, the next chronological major event in the development of the bicycle didn't appear until the late 1830's. Despite a few somewhat pathetic attempts at a more efficient means of propulsion, the late 1830's saw a successful attempt by Kirpatric Macmillan. In it, power was supplied to the back wheel via rods connected to treadle type pedals in front and cranks fixed to the rear axle. Although the rear wheel drive was similar in concept to what we use today, the principle was not used until the advent of the safety in 1885.

Why so many years elapsed between Macmillans design and the adoption of the front wheel fixed pedal design remains unclear. Perhaps people were so busy playing with three and four wheeled pedomotive vehicles, no one thought of the obvious, just put cranks and pedals on the front axle of a Draisine.

Eventually this became the basic design for the first pedal-driven bicycle to go into production, in the shop of Michaux in the 1860's. There is debate over who exactly is responsible for this development. Both Michaux and one of his mechanics, a Pierre Lallement claim to be responsible, and there appear to bo no records to substantiate either claim in entirety. What is clear is that shortly after the production of Michaux boneshakers began, Lallement left for the United States and in conjunction with James Carrol, obtained the first patent anywhere for a rotary-action crank-driven bicycle(8).

In 1869 Michaux boneshakers were introduced in America. Here is where the idea of mobility really begins to take shape. Although the price for one of these machines was very high, around three hundred 1870 dollars, (around 2400 1970 dollars), they still became very popular. This was undoubtably because of the mobility they offered(9).

Since the pedals were fixed to the front wheel, the only option available to the designer to increase speed was to increase the size of the driven wheel. This was precisely the idea behind the Penny Farthing introduced in England in the early 1870's. Wheel sizes of up 4 or 5 feet were common. These machines were notorious for their instability. The combination of having the riders weight almost directly over the front axle, hard rubber tires, and riding conditions of the day, made for frequent tumbles from that four to five foot perch at speeds of ten to twelve miles an hour.

Despite the danger and expense of this type of machine, its popularity grew by leaps and bounds. By 1878 the American version of the Penny Farthing, the Ordinary, was being produced by Colonel Albert A. Pope in Boston. Pope's Ordinary weighed about seventy pounds and cost 313 1880 dollars.

In addition to the instability and lack of gearing mentioned above, the Ordinary also had other problems. The construction of wheels in the early days of spoked wheels left much to be desired. The combination of radial spokes and lack of a way to tension them made for rather flimsy wheels. In a radially spoked wheel, the spokes take the shortest path from the hub to the rim, along the radius. Most wheels today are laced tangentially, that is the hub is rotated in relation to the rim by as much as ninety degrees, and the spokes are moved to a tangential line, so that they cross each other. Although radial spoking is a good way to get an exceptionally stiff and light wheel, today it is used almost exclusively for front wheels. A radially spoked drive wheel is mushy and weak, and various schemes were tried to stiffen them up. Reynold and Mays in 1869 designed a hub that had flanges that could be moved apart to tension the wheel. In 1871, W. H. J. Grout introduced the threaded spoke we use today. In 1877 James Starley introduced the tangent system we use today(10).

A group of prominent citizens similar to the 'Jet Set' of today, in the 1880's consisted of cyclists who pedaled these behemoths for long distances. Trips were made from Chicago to New York and New York to Boston. One enterprising gentleman Thomas Stevens, 'rode' an Ordinary from Oakland California to Boston Mass. in 1884. Rode might not be quite the right word. In the 104 days it took him, he had to negotiate territory that he had no maps for, brave unimproved roads, and the attitudes of incredulous people he met on the way.

Pic: American High Wheelers ca 1890 In 1878 the first bicycle organization of national scope was formed in England: The British Touring Club. America followed suit in 1880 with the creation of the League of American Wheelmen. Through these organizations the cyclists of the day were able to exert some pressure on the powers that be to improve roads, and to avoid some of the hostility of the non-cycling public, by cycling in numbers. The LAW played an important part in cyclists gaining access to both NY state roads, and the New Jersy turnpikes, (which were at that time used primarily by horse-drawn vehicles)(11).

As the bicycle became a part of American life, American life adapted to its use. The extreme mobility offered allowed young people to stray from the protective eye of their parents. Womens fashions changed to suit cycling, they became looser and less restrictive. Eugene Sloane asserts that "the impact of the bicycle was almost as great, in fact, as the advent of the Model T Ford"(12).

In 1885 James Starley introduced the Safety. This unlikely looking bicycle truly revolutionized the bicycle. Although the frame was peculiarly curved and as such was weak, the rest of the Safety of 1885 looked remarkably like the bicycle of today. The wheels were of a reasonable thirty inches in diameter, power was supplied to the back wheel through a continuous chain via cranks mounted in the frame between the wheels. This allowed the rider to sit lower and with his weight more evenly centered between the wheels. In addition, the chain drive allowed the designer to modify the gearing independantly of the wheel size. The steering was direct, that is the handlebars were fixed directly to the top of the fork, rather than through some sort of linkage which was still in common use at that time. The tires would remain solid rubber for the first years, but by 1900 virtually all bicycles would have pneumatic tires.

Now with a more sensible machine, bicycling became even more popular. No longer was cycling a sport mainly for people man enough, (or fool enough) to risk the trauma of the infamous 'header'. By 1896 there were over 400 bicycle manafacturers in the US, and related industries, steel, wire, rubber, and leather, were booming as well. Not all effects were so positive though. According to Sloane-

"By 1896 the watch and jewelry business had fallen almost to zero, piano sales had been cut in half, and book sales had dropped disastrously. Apparently, no one stayed home and played the piano or read, and instead of buying jewelry, people bought bicycles"(13).
And buy they did. Between 1890 and 1896 over 100 million dollars were spent on bicycles. American production in 1897 was two million bicycles for a poulation of 65 million or 1 bike for every 30 people. By contrast, in 1968 7.5 million bikes were produced for a poulation of 200 million, or 1 bike for every 350 people(14).

Before the Safey was even fully established enterprising folks were trying to design multiple gear systems. By 1890 various epicyclic hubs and bottom brackets had been built. The most successful epicyclic hub was patented in 1902 by Sturmey Archer, and made by the Raleigh company. The derailleur system as we know it today originated in France around 1910(15).

In 1895 there were over 600 professional bicycle racers in the United States. As the automobile took over, the greater thrill of high speed auto racing stole away the spectators and the sponsors, (probably in that order), and without so much as a whimper, professional cycle racing in the US was extinct(16).

Although there is renewed interest in this galant sport, most americans that are really serious about racing wish to retain their amateur status so they can compete in the olympics. This was the strategy of one of my high school buddies, (George Mount) who turned professional after attracting much attention riding as an amateur for quite a few years. Even as an amateur, he never had any trouble getting free equipment to try out, and every time I saw him he was on a new machine. The sport can not support very many, but a few still get to enjoy the romance of man and machine, striving for physical and mechanical perfection...

In the last sixty years, the improvements in the bicycle have been mostly in materials and processes rather than the gross mechanics of the machine. With the possible exception of full-suspension bicycles for off-road use, the bicycle of today is simply a lighter, stronger, more efficient and dependable one, based on the early twentieth century bicycle.

According to the Bicycle Institute of America, bicycle sales almost doubled between 1960 and 1966, in 1960 3.8 million bikes were sold and in 1966 6 million were sold. By 1970 60 million americans owned bicycles(17).

With all those people on bicycles out on the road with all those other people in cars, something was bound to happen. It did. In 1964 34,000 american cyclists were injured in non-fatal accidents. There were almost seven hundred fatalities. According to a National Safety Council survey at that time, eighty per-cent of these auto-cycle collisions were the fault of the motorist.

In the early 1960's a movement began, to separate bicycles from the cars, trucks, and busses out on the street, in the interest of bicycle safety. By 1970 more than 175 american cities had special bikeways, with as many more in the planning stages(18). The continuing question of safety and the oil embargo of the early 1970's put even more pressure on the municipalities to develop bikeways.

Today most larger communities have some sort of provision for cyclists, although they seem to be more of a patch on a symptom than a solution of a problem. Too frequently 'bike lanes' are nothing more than another use for the space left between traffic and parked cars so that motorists could open their doors without looking and not have their doors torn off by traffic. Now the cyclist has the option of getting struck by the traffic that expects him to stay in the bike lane, or striking the door of a careless motorist. Parking for bicycles at public transportation seems to usually be inadequate. Provisions for bicycles on trains and other types of mass transit are usually neglected, and quick fixes are tried at too late a date to really do much good.

If public mass transit were designed to work better for bicycles, bicycles could be used for local traffic and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, reduce the ammount of air pollution, increase the health of the people in our communities.

In the 1970's a new type of bicycle, based on the off-road motorcycle became popular. These motocross bicycles were designed for children, and they were designed to take the abuse they were bound to get when the kids took them out in the dirt. Motocross bicycle racing became another expensive sport for the middle class. Families would spend their weekends traveling all over the state to maintain their childs point standing. Those lucky enough would go to the Nationals. As these riders grew too big for their machines without loosing their interest, their sponsors realized they could open up a whole new market for their parts and accesories, if they just built larger frames and wheels. Since these bikes were usually custom-built of similar parts, the rest of the components would be interchangeable.

Today there are a growing number of cyclists who have forsaken the paved roads for the firetrails, fields, and trails on their Mountain Bikes. These can be adult versions of the motocross bicycle mentioned above, or they can be expensive, full-suspension bikes of exotic, and expensive, materials, or anything in between. Although other materials are used, the frame is usually made of Aluminum, or Chrome Moly Steel. As many of the components are of aluminum alloy as can be afforded, financially and structurally. Equipment snobs buy $40 titanium bolts to save a couple grams. Japanese versions of these bikes can be had ready-built for a couple hundred dollars. Custom ones range from five hundred up, although seven to eight hundred is common, I've seen them for as high as four or five thousand dollars, with two thousand being about right for a really good bike. The wheels are twenty-six inches in diameter, and tire widths vary, from 1.75, 1.95, and 2.125 inches. These bikes generally have a minimum of five gears, and some have as many as twenty-four, or more. Sealed precision ball bearings are used as much as possible, usually in the hubs and bottom bracket. Properly built, these machines are (almost) indestructable.

Santa Cruz Heckler A whole new class of mountain bikes are becoming available that work incredibly well off-road. Although some forgo front suspension to save weight or money, most have telescopic front forks with or without oil dampening, that are very similar to the familiar motorcycle fork. Rear suspension designs vary widely, however; downhill racers enjoy the constant traction, and smooth ride of rear suspension, while cross-country riders frequently prefer the efficiency of a hardtail. Everyone is trying to be the first to come up with the best trade-off between function and complexity of design on the rear suspension. Single-pivot, multiple-pivot, and unified designs are common, and arguments continue about pivot location, suspension-induced pedal movement, pedal-induced suspension movement, traction, brake-induced suspension lockout, and packing down; much superficial analysis has taken place, and it appears we will have to wait a few more years to see who the victors will be.

In the future will the bicycle play an increasing role in personal transportation as it did at the end of the nineteenth century, or will it become just another passtime of the monied class as it had been before the bicycle boom of late nineteenth century? Only personal committment and community planning will tell...

Note: This paper was originally written for a History of American Science and Technology class at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, in 1983. It has only been slightly modified to keep abreast of technological changes in the Bicycle Industry in the last 15 years. Originally written December, 1983; last updated 11-26-97, ©1997, Robert Bedard

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