Bicycle: The History

Herlihy, David V.
Yale University Press
ISBN 0-300-10418-9
Date finished: 2005-06-01

Herlihy has written an accessible history of the bicycle, never becoming boring (even when he's dissecting events year-by-year) and often entertaining. The book has many illustrations, making it enjoyable to browse through, but I also enjoyed reading it straight through.

Bicycles began in a succession of transient fads that attracted attention for a year or two and then faded. The first such fad, and the first attempt at a human-powered vehicle that was even vaguely practical, was Karl von Drais's 1817 invention the draisine. It had two wheels of the same size, similiar to today's bicycles, but was propelled by pushing with your feet; it was basically a support that made walking and running slightly easier. Various attempts at adding driving mechanisms were made, but nothing caught on. In 1867 Pierre Michaux thought to attach pedals directly to the hub of the front wheel. The resulting faddish boom lasted a few years and then sputtered out.

High-wheel bicycles were the nucleus for a longer-lived boom, and the start of bicycling as a competitive sport, but they were dangerous and not appealing to the timid. When safety bicycles came along in the mid-1880s, they quickly elbowed out the high-wheelers; interestingly, the fact that women could use safety bicycles made this final boom the longest-lasting, petering out around 1897 after lasting slightly over a decade.

In the 20th century, bicycling prepared the way for the rise of the automobile and the bike was replaced by the car. Technical innovation continued, however, with the invention of variable gears, lighter designs, and specialized models such as the mountain bike. Competitive bicycling also stayed alive and some races, the Tour de France being the best-known, are still the subject of international interest. For reasons such as environmental activism and beneficial exercise, the bicycle's stock has been rising over the past two or three decades as a recreation; perhaps rising oil prices will restore as a utilitarian part of the daily lives of North Americans.

Tagged: technology


%T Bicycle
%S The History
%A Herlihy, David V.
%I Yale University Press
%@ 2005-06-01
%G ISBN 0-300-10418-9
%K technology
%P 470pp
%* *

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