Friday, August 19, 2005

Rational Technology: Bicycle Factoids

Last week's piece on bicycles elicited favorable responses for which I am very grateful. Thanks to all those who took the time to write, both on my blog and to The Metro Post. I do hope more people venture into cycling, even if only as a weekend hobby. I've found that there's so much more to appreciate about Dumaguete from where one sits on the saddle.

Partly encouraged by the feedback and partly driven by curiosity, I decided to check the Internet for resources on bicycles. The amount of material I turned up was overwhelming. There are many more people out there, it turns out, who are as passionate with cycling as they are with computers. Here's a sampler of history, culture, and trivia on the subject.

The origin of the bicycle is somewhat muddled by a fictional account propagated by a 19th century historian. Current findings, however, point to German Baron Karl von Drais and Scotsman Kirkpatrick MacMillan as the main contributors to the modern bicycle. In 1816, Baron von Drais invented what he called the Draisine. It was essentially a pushbike, powered by the rider pushing his feet against the ground to move forward. MacMillan later added a treadle drive mechanism in 1840 which enabled the rider to lift his feet off the ground while driving the rear wheel.

In 1855, a 14-year old Ernest Michaux from France took the idea of a handcrank from a grinding wheel and created the foot pedal. The result was the velocipede, forerunners of today's modern bikes. Unlike modern bikes, the pedals were attached to the front wheel. By 1870, sophisticated metal velocipedes were in production in Europe and the United States. The velocipede eventually gave way to the Ordinary, otherwise known as the penny-farthing. The Ordinary is distinctive for its huge front wheel and small rear wheel.

Despite its popularity, the Ordinary was quite dangerous. The rider was seated up high and was thus prone to falling. In 1885, American bicycle manufacturer J.K. Starley introduced the chain and the rear-wheel drive in a new design that was called the dwarf safety, or the safety bicycle. The safety bicycle is the first recognizable modern bicycle. Later on, Starley adopted the double triangle diamond-frame that is standard in most bicycles today.

The 1890s, the Golden Age of Bicycles, ushered in several new developments in comfort and safety. In 1888, Scotsman John Boyd Dunlop introduced the pneumatic tire, which soon became universal. Dunlop's name lives on today as a recognized brand in automobile tires and other rubber products. Other developments in this period included the rear freewheel which enabled riders to coast without the pedals spinning out of control. Brakes and shift gears also appeared on bicycles.

Along with these innovations came the social changes. Bicycle clubs flourished in Europe and North America. These clubs were instrumental in advocating for improved road networks. Women's fashion also changed along with the bicycle. Bloomers, more suitable for biking than restrictive corsets, became popular. Indirectly this contributed to women's emancipation in the Western nations. Bicycles also helped reduce inner city population pressures as it gave workers more mobility to commute between suburb and factory.

Today the country most associated with bicycles is China, and rightly so. Worldwide, there are estimated to be 1.7 billion bicycles, and a third of them are in China. China also accounts for 60% of all bikes manufactured. But remember that bicycles were a foreign invention and so were viewed with suspicion when they were first introduced in the late 1800s. Bicycle manufacture in China did not begin until the 1930s. The industry grew rapidly, though, and soon matched its European counterparts. Bicycles really took off after the 1949 Communist takeover. For various reasons, including ideological ones, the new Chinese government encouraged citizens to use bicycles. The industry also received preferential treatment in steel rations, and was pivotal in China's entry to other industries.

Bicycles leading to more advanced industries is a template that has been repeated several times in history. The quest to build a better bike led to advanced metalworking techniques, which later enabled skilled metalworkers and mechanics to develop the components used in early automobiles and aircraft. J. K. Starley's company became the Rover Cycle Company Ltd. in the late 1890s, and then the Rover auto maker. The Morris Motor Company and Skoda also began in the bicycle business, as did Henry Ford. And let's not forget: the airplane was invented by bicycle repairmen.

The most efficient animal on earth in terms of weight transported over distance for energy expended is a human on a bicycle. According to Bill Strickland, a prominent cyclist: "Converting calories into gas, a bicyclist gets the equivalent of three thousand miles per gallon. A person pedaling a bike uses energy more efficiently than a gazelle or an eagle. And a triangle-frame bicycle can easily carry ten times its own weight-a capacity no automobile, airplane or bridge can match."

Finally, some quotable quotes:

When man invented the bicycle he reached the peak of his attainments. Here was a machine of precision and balance for the convenience of man. And (unlike subsequent inventions for man's convenience) the more he used it, the fitter his body became. Here, for once, was a product of man's brain that was entirely beneficial to those who used it, and of no harm or irritation to others. Progress should have stopped when man invented the bicycle. -- Elizabeth West, Hovel in the Hills

Since the bicycle makes little demand on material or energy resources, contributes little to pollution, makes a positive contribution to health and causes little death or injury, it can be regarded as the most benevolent of machines. -- Stuart S. Wilson

When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking. -- Arthur Conan Doyle, in an 1896 article for Scientific American

I want to ride my bicycle. -- Freddy Mercury

Happy trails!

  • Wikipedia
  • Imperial Tours
  • Pages of Neups