How is it possible that the bicycle was invented after the locomotive?

The invention of the bicycle is generally dated to 1817. It was created by a German man named Karl von Drais. He called it Running machine, which sounds like it should mean “laugh machine,” which makes sense because bikes are a lot of fun, but it actually translates to “driving machine,” because the bike had a seat but no pedals. It was the most rudimentary form of a thing that could be called a bicycle that you can imagine. Toddlers ride push bikes every day.

The first full-scale steam locomotive appeared in 1804. Of course, compared to a bicycle, a train is larger, far more complicated, and requires serious investment in infrastructure across vast areas to be even remotely useful.

A bike ride is better than yoga, wine or weed. It runs neck and neck with sex and coffee.

However, a bicycle requires nothing but soil.

Given that, you would think that the bicycle would have been invented many decades before the steam locomotive, but of course you would be wrong. This is a strange zigzag of historical transport development, and it is also something of a jumping-off point for Jody Rosen’s very good book, Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle.

The book is filled with facts about bits of the bicycle’s development that can fill in gaps in your knowledge of bicycle history that you probably didn’t even know existed.

For example: do you know that it has happened that we drive on rubber tires inflated with air? John Boyd Dunlop, yes, that Dunlop, tried to help his son more comfortably ride his tricycle, which was equipped with wooden wheels, as they all were in the late 19th century. He got the idea to fill up a rubber cuff with something soft and rim a wheel with it. Dunlop first tried a water-filled tube before realizing that compressed air was the key. And thus covered the rubber bike (and car and plane, etc.).

Have you ever read about NASA’s plans for astronauts to ride electric bikes on the moon? Oh, they are very real.

Or that skirmishes between cyclists and other transport campaigners and pearl-clad scolds arose almost immediately after the invention of the bicycle? Bicycles were banned in London just two years after they first appeared on the city’s cobbled streets. The anti-bicycle groups in Marin County, California, for example, have a history far older than they probably realize.

In fact, there have always been them out to collect the bike. Often they come in the form of those who profit from other forms of transport (eg horse traders up through the car manufacturers today). Or from political, cultural or religious leaders who fear freedom of movement, both literally and metaphorically. Revolutionaries have always loved bicycles because they are simple, reliable, untraceable and you can store them. Bicycles represented a massive leap in women’s freedom of movement, a mechanical part of women’s emancipation with a significance that cannot be overstated.

Oddly enough, the bicycle is also unlikely to be usurped by technological advances elsewhere in the transport realm. Many other advances in the 19th century have come and gone after evolving into something completely different – the steam engine that powered the early locomotives, for example. But the bike is still here. It may be made of carbon, it may have electric shifting, but it’s still two wheels, a saddle and a chain. And while the share of bicycles with electric motors may grow, the radical efficiency of purely human-powered cycling will never, ever lose supporters.

In other words, the bike is a rarity – something that was essentially perfected not long after it came into the world.

Rosen spends a good part of this book gushing about his love of bicycles and moves across international borders to talk about cycling cultures and subcultures and paint a picture of what the blessed invention has meant to the teeming masses around world.

Perhaps you too have cycled home from a night out on a warm night and wondered: How much better would the world be if we had never invented cars? If in the modern world we had built the modern world around two wheels instead of four? Two wheels good, right?

Here is Rosen:

“Or perhaps the machine for our mind is the bicycle itself. Many of us know that our brains feel refreshed, our vision sharper, our senses sharper when we get on a bicycle. Riding a bicycle is the best way I know to achieve a changed consciousness – not an activated or an enlightened state, exactly, but definitely an enlightened one. A bike ride is better than yoga, wine, or weed. It’s neck and neck with sex and coffee. It’s also, in my experience, an antidote to writer’s block . If you’re stuck, if you need to loosen the synapses and dust off the brain lobes, take a ride on two wheels and the words will pour out. Eventually, for better or worse, you may find that you have worth a book.”

A book worth reading, that’s for sure.

Top photo: Patrick Hendry

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