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« Picasso’s Bull’s Head | Main | Does a riderless bike prove anything? »

More questions than answers 

After my last article about Cornell University’s bicycle experiment, I started thinking “What if” the bicycle had never been invented in the late 1800s, would engineers come up with a similar design today?

Even if they did, I doubt it would be taken seriously as a viable form of personal transport.

The bicycle came into being at a time when the only other form of personal transport was the horse. These animals were not only expensive to buy, they needed feeding and housing; working class people could not afford horses.

However, once the bicycle had been invented, and a few years later mass production put this new machine within reach of the poorer classes it became a revolutionary form of personal transport. Many forget that the automobile came later and eventually replaced the horse as the wealthy person’s transport of choice.

So what if the automobile had come first. The poorer working classes would have continued living in cities where they could get to work either on foot or by rail or other form of public transport.

The bicycle had less of an impact on America’s history, because there it was the automobile that became affordable due to mass production, and the luxury of plenty of space led to urban sprawl, and the suburbs.

In the UK and other smaller European countries, it was viable for a working class man to live in a rural area, and cycle 5 to 10 miles to work each day. The humble bike was the working man’s wheels all the way up to the late 1950s, early 1960s. 

Even though commuting to work by bicycle is a hard sell today for the majority, think how much harder it would be if engineers were only just developing the bicycle now. Almost everyone can at least ride a bicycle, and most households have at least one bike in their garage.

Look what happened in Japan recently after the earthquake and tsunami? People took to bicycles to get where they needed to be. How high will gas prices need to go before some people in the UK and the US start to realize their choice might be eating, or putting gas in the car, and bicycles will start to be dragged out of garages?

Would today’s engineers even think of a two-wheeled vehicle? If there were no bicycles there would be no motorcycles, only four wheel vehicles; don’t forget the first autos were “Horseless Carriages.”

Above: A German Draisine or Laufmaschine, circa 1820. I have always called this a Hobby Horse.

In my last article I referred to the Cornell experiment as a “Push Toy.” I realized later, had it not been for a push toy, the bicycle would have never come into being?

The bicycle’s predecessor, the Hobby Horse came on the scene in the early 1800s as a rich man’s whimsical plaything,

It only needed two wheels because its rider kept his feet on the ground.

No doubt it was soon discovered that its rider could lift his feet clear of the ground and remain balanced when coasting downhill. 

What has always amazed me is that it took until towards the end of the 1800s for someone to attach a simple foot crank to the front wheel and it became a bicycle.

I started out by mentioning that before the bicycle the only form of personal transport was the horse. I am sure ever since men rode horses, children pretended to ride horses with a stick between their legs.

When the wheel was invented, model horses with wheels were made as children’s toys, from this came the adult version in the 1800s, and from that the bicycle. The bicycle evolved, rather than it was invented; it was certainly not invented by any one person. 

It is one of the simplest and most efficient machines that humankind has ever made. What I find surprising is that today almost 200 years later, engineers are still asking, “How does its rider balance, and how does it steer?” The bicycle still raises more questions than answers.

I for one doubt very much that today’s engineers, even knowing about gyroscopic precession, caster action and such, would even think of building a two-wheeled vehicle for personal transport. So I am glad that the bicycle came first and then the automobile, it may not have even happened the other way round.

What do you think? Just a little food for thought for you to munch on.



Reader Comments (13)

there are a lot of other what-ifs related to an auto came first scenario:

would we have pneumatic tyres? or at least of the same sort as we know today? Thomson may have invented the thing, but it was Dunlop's re-invention for bicycle use that led to the modern tyre.

would trucking have superseded rail transport (in the USA)? without early cyclist agitation (in the form of the Good Roads Movement and LAW), how quickly would have roads beyond city boundaries been upgraded from gravel, dirt and timber surfaces?

bicycle technology and adoption has fostered much of what makes modern life comfortable.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjhota


As usual, good food for thought. The first alternative that popped into my head was the rollerskate but then that mode of personal transport requires a smooth pavement as the wheel diameter is quite small. It's totally useless on any other surface.

I will respectfully disagree with the idea of the bicycle being invented, offering instead the notion that it was developed. Most inventions are merely a refinement of something that already exists. Your mention of the hobby horse with a steerable front wheel is merely a refinement of an earlier version with a fixed front wheel.

For those interested, an out of print book, sometimes available through a used book search or dealer is a gold mine of bicycle history. The title is Wheels and Wheeling: The Smithsonian Cycle Collection by Smith Hempstone Oliver and Donald H. Berkebile. It was published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1974 and available through the US Government Printing Office for the measely sum of $1.90. The stock number was 470-00268. I hope I am correct in the ISBN as it isn't listed as such but here is what I have: TL410.043 1974 388.34'7'09034 73-16103 The original publication date was 1953 under the title Catalog of the cycle collection of the Division of Engineering, US National Museum. I would highly recommend this book to any cycling afficionado.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJim

we live in Christchurch, New Zealand and with our earthquakes the best way to travel is by bike. For the months after, lots of roads were blocked, under repair or just uneven. In parts, still the speed limit is 30kph and so especially the mountain bike (sorry Dave) has been king. In fact the sense of freedom we have biking on closed roads, taking short cuts and traveling faster than the motor car has been a wonderful experience. My boys have enjoyed the ready made jumps so much that my 8 year old gets upset when the council starts to repair a section!

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNoel

If the bicycle was invented today, the government would be quick to regulate or outright ban it. Imagine a device this dangerous and marketed to children. I'm glad it was invented 200 years ago.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermike

Jim's post suggesting that there was a non-steerable predecessor (célérifère) to the hobby horse (Draisine) is incorrect. There has been reams of incorrect cycle history published. The Draisine and the concept of balancing on two wheels had no precedent. There has been speculation that the concept of balancing on a moving ice skate may have led to that innovative approach.

April 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLWaB

Interesting that you should mention an ice skate. It would be difficult to stand still and balance on a single ice skate, yet once you start to move it becomes easier. There are no gyroscopics involved, or caster angles and steering; it is simple momentum that enables an ice skater to balance.

In my view, the single most important discovery was that a person can balance on two wheels with such ease that even a child can do it; it is what makes the bicycle such an efficient machine.

There is the mechanical advantage, with the rolling resistance of only two wheels instead of three or four. And the frontal area of a bicycle and rider is little more than a man walking or running.

April 22, 2011 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

If the bicycle had only been invented last year we can be certain that motorist lobby groups would be very quick to ensure that this new device was kept off the roads and out of the way of motorised vehicles.
On a slightly different note, I would be interested to discover what were the 'rules of the road' for traffic interactions between horses, horse-drawn carriages, and pedestrians in, say, 1850.
Were pedestrians expected to concede right of way to carriages, was there an established ´speed limit' for urban roads, and how was signalling achieved? And did practices vary from city to city or between nations?

April 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Rawlins

A good source for older books and probably lots of books is Abe Books.

This is a consortium of independent sellers and handle new and used books. If used they give a reasonably accurate description of the book's condition.

I've had pretty good luck with them.

Growing up in Canada I thought skating was remarkably easy. It was an easy task to switch from ice to rollerskating and blades. I remember having more trouble learning to ride a bike. I never got to use training wheels. I'm hoping there will be data forth coming about the transition to pedal bike riding from the latest craze for young children and push bikes.

April 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRalph

I have a book that is well worth the read, David Herlihy 'Bicycle' Chap#1 says that a Jacques Ozanam said "in which one can drive oneself wherever one pleases, without HORSES!' going on says "without having to care for an animal and might even enjoy a HEALTHY EXERCISE in the process!" This sums it up in my mind. Have to go now GOING for a bloody bike ride! John Crump

April 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjohn crump

@ John Rawlins, search William Phelps Eno. That should help offer the insight of how the "rules of the road" came to be. Ride Big and Ride On!

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRodney

[This is a summary of some eloquent prose that I had typed, but then lost in a browser crash! I hate when that happens....]

Dave, I am very pleased to see your questions and historical references.

We tried hard to uncover relevant history, but we are not historians, and our priority was the science. The history report we wrote (also available on the website http://bicycle.tudelft.nl/stablebicycle/ ) immediately stimulated responses from people more immersed in the history than we.

The first comment was a strong reinforcement of our position that Drais knew about feet-up riding. Apparently there is much more documentation than we knew; and a recent book on the hobby-horse adds confirmation by showing footrests.

The next related to our assertion that Klein & Sommerfeld believed that gyro effects were necessary for self-stability. That discussion has not been resolved yet!

I wanted to add some historical notes: Propulsion was incorporated in the Draisine concept within 3 years of its appearance, by the prolific inventor Gompertz, but his clumsy arm-power did not take off. Meanwhile, there was a lot of experimentation with pedal power, but only on multi-wheel vehicles. The addition of pedals to a bicycle seemingly occurred just after 1860, and ability to ride lying down and hands-free was noted shortly thereafter. We are quite proud that many of the historical citations are accompanied by internet links (through Google Books) that allows readers to immediately view the books we refer to. (Unfortunately, it seems that Google Books links do not always work outside the U.S.) Not every citation is accompanied by a link, but we may be able to rectify that in an eventual re-issue of the report.

One of the most interesting observations to me came from looking at early bicycle patents on Google Patents. By the end of the 1860’s, virtually every illustration showed a tilted steering axis. I also found it interesting that technical explanations for self-stability started appearing in the 1880’s, although the full proof that Newton’s laws predicted self-stability had to wait until 1899. By that point of course, the fully modern bicycle had already evolved. I will re-state an opinion that we quoted in BICYCLING SCIENCE: “Science has learned more from the steam engine than the steam engine has learned from science.”

My big question is: “How much of easy riding is due to the bicycle helping in the task of stabilization?” I always want to bring up the work of Tony Doyle, which we quote in the history report. He made a rather complex bike with canceled gyro effect, canceled trail, vertical steer axis, mass symmetry of the front assembly, etc. This bicycle, when falling over, would not steer itself in any way. [I think a simplified version of this would be a scooter-like design (Razr, etc.) with a tiny wheel, no trail, no steer axis tilt. ] It’s not that it was so hard to ride, but the rider needed to give constant attention. I imagine, but don’t know, that what we perceive as nice-riding properties of a regular bike have at least something to do with its tendency to help us correct a fall…. A topic to be pursued in future!

Lastly I want to pick up a bit about skates. I am working with Michael Coleman on a paper about self-stable devices that is as yet unpublished. We were able to show that a rigid body on a single skate is not self-stable. But why, then does a skater feel stable? One possibility is that a person makes minor adjustments to their posture to cancel a very slow falling-over (a body on a skate can be ALMOST stable, as I recall, so only slow, small corrections should be needed). Another possibility is that skates (at least hockey skates with convex blades or ‘rocker’) exert some steering effect when leaned. In other words, then the vertical projection of the blade edge on the ice is a curve, which would tend to make the skate turn toward the falling side. An ongoing interesting question!

Sincerely yours,
Jim Papadopoulos

May 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJim Papadopoulos

Dave ,about a year ago there was a survey/poll by an English university which placed the bicycle first and the internet second as the inovations which had the greatest benefit to the general public during the 20 th century.

The bicycle also combines some of the most efficient engineering concepts albiet refined to the max. They are pneumatic tyres, tangentlly wire spoked wheels, adjustable cup and cone bearings, roller chain transmission, traingular frame elements of light steel tubes . Some combination eh? Add geometry and we have what I believe has been proven to be the most efficient machine ever.
Regards JIM

May 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames Reilly

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August 6, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermotonetas

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