Recognize this? It’s almost a bicycle. No pedals, though – just a wooden frame and wheels. The ‘velocipede’ had to be customized to the height of the rider, and could only be ridden without losing your ability to reproduce by sticking to well-maintained garden paths or other flat, soft-but-not-too-soft ground. The kind not found most places.

It was also pretty tricky to turn. You had to lean, firmly but subtly. Crashing not only hurt, but dramatically reduced whatever level of ‘suave’ you’d managed to retain while straddle-running on the damned things. 

The natural limitations on who could thus enjoy such a contraption led to the derogatory nickname “dandy-horse” – although if you spent your days frolicking on one of these, you probably didn’t care what the proletariat called you.

Sometime in the mid-19th century, pedals were added. There were no chains or gears; they were connected directly to the center of the front wheel. Variations added a third or even a fourth wheel for balance, but doing so increased the amount of work necessary to propel the beast any direction but straight downhill. 

The BoneshakerIn keeping with their love of all things dainty, the French introduced the metal frame, lighter and sturdier. Unfortunately, the large wooden wheels and lack of any sort of shock-absorbing mechanism led to another unflattering moniker: the “bone-shaker” - less foppish than ‘dandy-horse,’ but still unlikely to facilitate worldwide acceptance and marketability.

Then someone tried rubber tires. Once successful, they seemed so obvious it was hard to imagine why they’d not been used before. It had only taken a few centuries, but mankind was finally producing a bicycle that didn’t painfully rearrange your bowels every time you rode it. 

It was almost… comfortable.

This allowed riders to finally begin complaining about something new – the speed. Sure, pedals were exciting for a generation or so, but now that the frame and tires could handle – without causing permanent physical injury - velocities greater than grandma hustling to the loo, there stirred a need… for speed.

Need For Speed

Add some #STEM, and the solution once again seemed retrospectively self-evident:

Bicycle Race

The ‘Ordinary’, later known as the ‘Penny-Farthing’ (due to the disparity in wheel-size, not the cost), altered the elitism of the ride. They were difficult to mount, required great athleticism to balance and propel with any authority, and even minor ruts or obstacles could stop the giant front wheel instantaneously – while the rider and the rest of the machine kept going forward over the now-motionless ginormous front wheel. 

Riders were expected to practice ‘taking a header’ in the same way other athletes practice falling correctly or reality stars practice shame and regret. Those less-interested in pain and bone-breaking could still find recourse in tricycles or quadracycles, but the cool factor was completely absent. It may have been in the negatives. 

In 1885, an Englishman by the name of John Kemp Starley transformed the centuries of absurdity and (literal) butt-hurt into a proper bicycle. He made the wheels the same size – keeping those nice rubber tubes – and based propulsion around a chain drive attaching the pedaled gears to the back wheel, leaving steering to the front wheel.

Starley Safety BicycleThe ‘Safety Bicycle’ allowed an even greater top speed than the ‘Ordinary’. More importantly, it suddenly made the bicycle easy to ride, fairly safe to steer, easier to control, lighter, and – as production increased to accommodate the wider customer base – less expensive than anything comparable prior. 

By the 1890’s, bicycles were a thing. It’s hard to imagine today, when most everyone seems to have one hanging in their garage or collecting dust in the barn. But the craze was real. It was a big - and sometimes strange - deal. We’re talking MySpace levels, or Sigue Sigue Sputnik, even. Social media when any of the half-dozen variations of The Bachelor are on – THAT level of madness. 

Because now EVERYONE could ride - yet it was still cool. The feeling of movement, and speed, was unlike anything most had ever experienced – and without the need to purchase a ticket or build a barn. The ‘Safety’ was so accessible even WOMEN could ride – and ride they did. 

It really kinda got outta control.

Bicycle Riding

Forsaking long, bulky skirts for practical attire – in some cases even PANTS – women discovered a sense of freedom beyond what they’d believed possible. In addition to fueling a push for better roads, feeding economic growth, promoting health and the outdoors, and simultaneously increasing a sense of community and mobility without apparent irony, the insane popularity of the bicycle also propelled the women’s movement in a way nothing intentional could have.

Suffrage was likely inevitable, but that chain drive and those symmetrical tires shaved the wait by a generation or two.

Kids' BicyclesThere are bicycles to suit pretty much any type of rider today – any gender, race, nationality, or income level - but by and large they’re all traceable back to that first ‘Safety’.  I suppose we should pay appropriate homage to its ancestors as well – but many are rather awkward to consider. 

How could it have taken THAT long to come up with… the bicycle? It doesn’t seem so complex… two wheels, a seat, and a pedal with a few gears? Oh – and that chain. The parts matter little if we lack the proper connections between them – if we can’t transfer our energy and effort into productive motion in our chosen direction. 

Education in the modern use of the term can be traced back to a wide variety of sources, depending on how you figure it. It’s safe to say, however, that most iterations – while presumably the best anyone could come up with at the time – seem rather awkward in retrospect. Most look rather painful, actually.

The incarnations with the most potential – and thus those whose popularity lasted the longest – served only those most able to afford the ideal conditions necessary to enjoy them: the right socio-economic status, a proper upbringing and mindset, and, well… being a smarmy white guy. 

The vehicle changed, but each revolution solved one problem by creating another... until J.K. Starley. 

In a way, he created an entirely new machine. At the same time, it was undeniably based on all that rolled by before.  

Horse CycleSuddenly something of great potential but limited use, realistic only for a few, became accessible. The experience reached for by a select minority in prior generations was suddenly not only possible, but intoxicating. It was fun. It was freeing. And it was so good for you – body, mind, and soul.

It’s an analogy, you see – bicycles and education. (I point that out because not all of you have had the same bicycle.)

No one had to be required to ride, and certainly no one was denied the opportunity – the seats adjusted easily and variations abounded for whatever your personal styles or needs. You still had to work to make it go; the more you pedal, the further you get. But with a few gears, anyone can get anywhere with a little effort and patience – even if it takes some a bit longer than others.

The modern bicycle changed something for almost everyone, and everything for some. It offered unlimited opportunity for anyone willing to pedal – and for a while, EVERYONE wanted to pedal.


This... Green Thing

RELATED POST - Women on Wheels: The Bicycle & The Women's Movement of the 1890's (from AnnieLondonderry.com)

RELATED POST - Bicycle History & Invention (from BicycleHistory.net)


This piece really connected to me. We are pretty big into the bicycle riding. I think I will actually print it and make a lesson out of it. Great work.


Add new comment