Today, let's talk about bicycles and freedom. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Let's talk about the
technology of getting from place to place. After
we've quit talking about steamboats, automobiles
and airplanes, we find we've overlooked the one
transportation medium that's touched all of our
The history of the bicycle and that of the the
horseless carriage mirror one another. Together
they represent ways that the poor and the wealthy
achieved freedom of motion. The early 19th century
saw all kinds of new steam-powered vehicles. At
first, steam carriages competed with locomotives,
but railways won that battle because they made
transportation inexpensive in a way steam carriages
People wanted to be free to travel roads as they
pleased. The new dream of rapid movement had to be
individualized. If the answer wasn't the
steam carriage, then maybe it could be the bicycle.
Between 1816 and '18, Scottish, German, and French
makers all came out with primitive bicycles.
Those early bikes seated a rider between a front
and a back wheel with his feet touching the ground
so he could propel himself with a walking motion.
But that form of bicycle dates back to antiquity.
We find images of them in renaissance stained
glass, Pompeian frescoes -- even in Egyptian and
Around 1839 another Scottish maker, Macmillan,
added a feature when he built his hobbyhorse
bicycle. It was a pedal-operated crank to drive the
back wheel -- a lot like the pedal-operated chain
drive on your bike. But the idea didn't catch on
back then. It was 1866 before pedals appeared. Then
it was on the front wheel, like the tricycles we
rode as children.
Bicycles took off after the
front-wheel pedal appeared. But there was a
problem: The bigger the wheel, the further the bike
would move on each turn of the pedal. That led to
the dangerously unstable bicycle you've seen in so
many Currier and Ives prints -- the one with the
huge front wheel and the tiny back one. In its
developed form, it was called the ordinary
bicycle, but it was nicknamed "penny-farthing"
because its wheels looked like large and small
Not till 1885 did the tricky ordinary give way to
the so-called safety bicycle. That's the
technical name for the modern bike with two equal
wheels, the back one driven by a chain and
sprocket. The safety bike had a lot in common with
MacMillan's hobbyhorse design from forty-six years
earlier. It displaced the ordinary and became the
basic bike design ever after.
So modern bikes entered the twentieth century along
with the new gasoline automobiles. They freed
people who couldn't afford cars. Now they too could
go where they pleased. And, oh, the sense of
freedom we felt as children when we got our first
bikes! They let us fly like the wind and go where
we wanted. They were wonderful things.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds