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Bicycle: The History

Bicycle: The History

by David V. Herlihy

During the nineteenth century, the bicycle evoked an exciting new world in which even a poor person could travel afar and at will. But was the “mechanical horse” truly destined to usher in a new era of road travel or would it remain merely a plaything for dandies and schoolboys? In Bicycle: The History (named by Outside magazine as the


During the nineteenth century, the bicycle evoked an exciting new world in which even a poor person could travel afar and at will. But was the “mechanical horse” truly destined to usher in a new era of road travel or would it remain merely a plaything for dandies and schoolboys? In Bicycle: The History (named by Outside magazine as the #1 book on bicycles), David Herlihy recounts the saga of this far-reaching invention and the passions it aroused. The pioneer racer James Moore insisted the bicycle would become “as common as umbrellas.” Mark Twain was more skeptical, enjoining his readers to “get a bicycle. You will not regret it—if you live.”

Because we live in an age of cross-country bicycle racing and high-tech mountain bikes, we may overlook the decades of development and ingenuity that transformed the basic concept of human-powered transportation into a marvel of engineering. This lively and engrossing history retraces the extraordinary story of the bicycle—a history of disputed patents, brilliant inventions, and missed opportunities. Herlihy shows us why the bicycle captured the public’s imagination and the myriad ways in which it reshaped our world.

Editorial Reviews

Boston Sunday Globe

"Profusely and charmingly illustrated."—Richard Eder, Boston Sunday Globe

— Richard Eder

Cycling Plus
"An instant classic."—Simon Withers, Cycling Plus

— Simon Withers

New York Sun
“There are many, many illustrations in this book—on average one per page, it seems—and almost all of them engaging in themselves. Mr. Herlihy’s prose style is pleasant and easy to read. . . . An immensely interesting book.”—Henry Petroski, New York Sun

— Henry Petroski

Seattle Times
“A copiously illustrated history of one of the most efficient and utilitarian machines of all time—perfect for any serious cyclist.”—Seattle Times
The Baltimore Sun

"Fun and informative."—Baltimore Sun
USA Today
"A definitive look at the bicycle."—Craig Wilson, USA Today

— Craig Wilson

Velo News
Bicycle is the preeminent research document concerning the invention and early development of the bicycle, but most interesting is its analysis of the bicycle’s role within societal development.”—Velo News
From the Publisher

"David Herlihy is a widely recognized expert on the history of the bicycle, and this book offers the most comprehensive account to date of the bicycle and its development from a novelty for the elite to transportation for the masses. Frequently wry and always intelligent, Herlihy takes us on a marvelous tour of the bicycle's fascinating history."— Peter Joffre Nye, U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame and co-author of The Lance Armstrong Performance Program

"Bicycle is a fascinating book. David Herlihy is a true historian, and he has uncovered a stunning amount of new material about the history of the bicycle—at times it reads like a detective story."— David Gordon Wilson, professor, MIT and co-author, Bicycling Science, and Human-Powered Vehicles

David Gordon Wilson
"Bicycle is a fascinating book. David Herlihy is a true historian, and he has uncovered a stunning amount of new material about the history of the bicycle—at times it reads like a detective story."—David Gordon Wilson, professor, MIT and co-author, Bicycling Science, and Human-Powered Vehicles
Jill DiMauro
"If you could only own one book on bicycle history, Bicycle is it. David's account is not only thorough and accurate, but offers a great read to both the aficionado and those new to the bicycle world. A great addition to anyone's library."—Jill DiMauro, Owner Proteus Bicycles, "Bicycles through the Ages" hands on mobile bicycle exhibit
Jim Langley
"The bicycle's history is rife with confusion and myth, so it's wonderful to have David Herlihy's thoroughly researched and delightfully written account to set the record of this remarkable and important invention straight."—Jim Langley, Cycling Writer
Boston Sunday Globe - Richard Eder

"Profusely and charmingly illustrated."—Richard Eder, Boston Sunday Globe

Cycling Plus - Simon Withers
"An instant classic."—Simon Withers, Cycling Plus

New York Sun - Henry Petroski
“There are many, many illustrations in this book—on average one per page, it seems—and almost all of them engaging in themselves. Mr. Herlihy’s prose style is pleasant and easy to read. . . . An immensely interesting book.”—Henry Petroski, New York Sun
USA Today - Craig Wilson
"A definitive look at the bicycle."—Craig Wilson, USA Today

Colman McCarthy
… Herlihy deserves praise for his exhaustive research. One imagines that after he began poking and digging into the archives, starting with newspapers and magazines in the early 1800s, he kept finding more and more information and then, like a downhill racer, the thrill of it all took over. I'm glad he invited us along for the ride.
— The Washington Post
Edward Koren
While Bicycle is immensely absorbing, I was often compelled to put it aside. It was as if the author himself were imploring me to take a break and come outside and play … While reading 'Bicycle, I was all too often overcome with the desire to jump on my own machine. I would relish having David V. Herlihy as my cycling companion any day.
— The New York Times
Library Journal
This extraordinarily researched work is not just for those interested in the history of the bicycle but for anyone who wants to follow the international history of an idea or invention. Herlihy (recipient of the McNair History Award) takes us from the mathematician Jacques Ozanam's 1696 challenge to develop a "human-powered carriage" to the creation of the draisine and the velocipede and eventually to the development of the bicycle. The bicycle was improved over time with advances in frame shape and material, changes in tire size and design, the addition of pedals, and the chain. The author demonstrates how the development and success of the bicycle were contingent on engineering, marketing, patents, the culture of various regions, and changing views of recreation and health; therefore, this book will also appeal to anyone interested in the history of those fields. Dozens of attractive images enrich the story and could be issued as a worthwhile book on their own. Highly recommended for all academic collections.-Christina L. Hennessey, Loyola Marymount Univ., Los Angeles Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

"David Herlihy’s epic Bicycle: The History is a comprehensive guide to the early evolution of the bicycle. Filled with anecdotes from the late 19th and early 20th century, along with hundreds of photos, drawings and catalog excerpts, this is a book that can be consumed in bits, browsed or read with careful attention." —Kent Peterson, Outside

— Kent Peterson

Outside - Kent Peterson

"David Herlihy’s epic Bicycle: The History is a comprehensive guide to the early evolution of the bicycle. Filled with anecdotes from the late 19th and early 20th century, along with hundreds of photos, drawings and catalog excerpts, this is a book that can be consumed in bits, browsed or read with careful attention." —Kent Peterson, Outside

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt


By David V. Herlihy

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 David V. Herlihy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-10418-9

Chapter One

The Elusive Mechanical Horse

More than three centuries ago, the distinguished French mathematician Jacques Ozanam spelled out the theoretical advantages of a human-powered carriage "in which one can drive oneself wherever one pleases, without horses." Its owner could freely roam along the roads without having to care for an animal and might even enjoy a healthy exercise in the process. Moreover, this particular type of "self-moving" vehicle, in contrast to those that called for wind or steam for propulsion, would run on that most abundant and accessible of all resources: willpower. But how to construct such a valuable vehicle? That was the twenty-third of some fifty "useful and entertaining" problems Ozanam identified and addressed in his famous Récréations Mathématiques et Physiques, published in 1696.

Ozanam not only issued an important challenge to the inventive community, one that would ultimately yield the modern bicycle, he also proudly revealed his own "solution" in the book's frontispiece: a massive four-wheeled carriage designed by Dr. Elie Richard, a physician from La Rochelle. According to Richard's plan, a gentleman seated comfortably in front has only to steer the frontaxle using a pair of reins. Meanwhile, his servant standing at the rear drives the vehicle forward by stepping up and down on two reciprocating planks tangential to the rear axle. The planks were spring-loaded and suspended by a rope-and-pulley system so that when one sank under pressure from the driver the other rose until reaching its apogee, whereupon the planks reversed direction. Each plank, in turn, activated a gear affixed to the rear axle, causing the axle to turn, thereby rotating the wheels. The entire driving apparatus was neatly hidden within the body of the carriage. Never mind that the pair would be better off walking, especially the poor lackey!

Richard's carriage, despite its dubious potential, served for more than a century as the working model of the human-powered vehicle. Several variations were built in Europe over the years, presumably with technical improvements, but to little avail. Finally, in 1774, a London journal pronounced a local entry "the best that has hitherto been invented." The handiwork of a Mr. Ovenden, it reportedly cruised at six miles an hour, or faster if the footman expended a "particular exertion." It could even surmount "considerable hills," provided they had a "sound bottom." Yet even this worthy initiative appears to have gone nowhere.

A few years later, a prolific French inventor, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, created a similar carriage with the help of a M. Masurier. Blancbard and his servant rode it around Louis XV Square in Paris, exciting a curious crowd. The pair even coaxed the vehicle a dozen miles to Versailles-the first recorded long-distance journey on a human-powered vehicle. The Journal de Paris, noting that the carriage drew praise wherever it appeared, urged Blanchard to give his invention greater exposure. He obliged by holding regular exhibitions in a courtyard by the Champs-Elysées. Alas, he too failed to generate a demand. Blanchard went on to more profitable pursuits, becoming a famed balloonist.

Even the New World recognized the need for a practical human-powered vehicle. In 1804, an obscure mechanic named J. Bolton patented a four-wheeled carriage designed to carry up to six idle passengers who sat comfortably on three upholstered benches. In addition, two men operated the vehicle. One sat in front and steered the smaller front wheels, each about two feet in diameter. The other stood in the middle of the platform facing the rear and two of the benches. With both hands, he rotated a lever bar that activated a series of four progressively larger interlocking cogwheels on either side of the vehicle. The last ones were affixed directly to the rear wheels, which measured about four feet in diameter, and turned them forward. The system was designed augment the driver's natural arm strength by improving leverage, the last cogwheels being almost as large as the rear wheels themselves. In contrast to his European counterparts, Bolton flaunted his driving gear. Nevertheless, for obvious reasons, his idea likewise failed to catch on.

By this time, however, the Industrial Revolution was picking up steam in Great Britain and elsewhere, energizing inventors and prompting fresh initiatives on all fronts. Indeed, thanks to a variety of useful new products and more efficient production techniques, many citizens were beginning to enjoy better living conditions, more leisure time, and greater life expectancies. Humanity was gradually freeing itself from the oppressive need to eke out a hard living off the land. Even the landscape itself was rapidly changing, as bustling factories of all sorts sprouted up within cities.

But where in all this exciting technological tumult was Ozanam's elusive horseless carriage? Alas, for all the marvelous advances of the age, the seductive concept of the human-powered vehicle had barely budged. Nor were many people optimistic about its prospects. "A machine of this kind will afford a salutary recreation in a garden, or park, or on any plain ground," opined one skeptic, "'but in a rough or deep road must he attended with more pain than pleasure."

One determined individual nonetheless set out to end this saga of failure and frustration. He was Karl von Drais, an eccentric German baron from a distinguished family in Karlsruhe. A forest master employed by the Grand Duchy of Baden, he perhaps coveted a practical human-powered vehicle as a means to facilitate his own regular inspection tours of the land he oversaw. In any event, he clearly appreciated the need to improve existing means of personal transportation. In 1813, he built a mechanical four-wheeled vehicle that would carry two to four passengers. One or more riders supplied the motive power by working a cranked axle with their legs and feet, while another handled the steering by means of a tiller.

Convinced that he had finally met the challenge of the horseless carriage, Drais sought public approval. Several journals dutifully published accounts of his invention, and some luminaries offered accolades, notably the Russian tsar, Alexander I. But despite Drais's modicum of success, the patent offices of both Baden and Austria swiftly rejected his pleas for patent protection. The examiner from his native Baden, Johann Tulla, issued a particularly harsh evaluation of the carriage and even denied that Drais had gained any ground whatsoever. Man, insisted Tulla, was ill equipped to apply his motive powers in any context other than the God-given means of walking.

Unrepentant, Drais made one last spirited push to establish his invention. In the fall of 1814, to the embarrassment of some of his colleagues at the forest ministry, Drais paraded his carriage before delegates attending the Congress of Vienna, convened to partition Europe following the downfall of Napoléon, emperor of France. Drais failed, however; to win their approval. He returned to Baden disheartened, whereupon he shifted his creative energies to other worthy scientific endeavors, notably the development of a periscope and a device for speed-writing.

Yet within a few years, the stubborn Drais would revisit the vexing problem of the horseless carriage. But this time he proposed a radically different solution: the "lauf-maschine" (running machine), soon to be known as a "draisine" or "velocipede" (from the Latin words meaning fast foot). This curious concept, unveiled in the summer of 1817, would become the first human-powered land vehicle to mount a serious bid for public acceptance. Moreover, the draisine marks the first significant step toward the basic bicycle, the compact, pedal-powered vehicle that ultimately solved Ozanam's riddle.

The slender vehicle Drais commissioned reflected the carriage technology of the time. Save for its iron tires, the machine was made almost entirely of wood and had but two miniature carriage wheels in a line, connected by a perch that supported a single cushioned seat. The rider sat nearly erect and propelled the machine by pushing off the ground with one foot, then the other, as if walking or running. A long pivoting pole at the foremost end of the frame allowed the rider to turn the front wheel in the desired direction of travel. A small padded board was affixed in front of the seat, at waist height, for the rider to rest the elbows or forearms on, shifting pressure as needed to keep the vehicle from tipping to one side or the other. The entire affair weighed about fifty pounds and cost the princely sum of four Carolins.

According to Drais, his new machine facilitated and accelerated the natural acts of walking and running. Compared to a runner or a pedestrian, the rider purportedly covered a given distance with less labor. For in the act of striding along, the rider not only advanced in the conventional manner but also imparted a velocity to the machine. It thus carried both forward on its own accord, even when the rider was between steps and not normally progressing. As one source explained, the rider "pushes the wheels along when they won't go alone-and rides them when they will." Those who took advantage of this machine thus covered extra ground with every "step," routinely advancing four or five yards with each impulsion, about n-ice the distance of a normal stride.

Moreover, according to Drais, a stride atop a velocipede was actually less taxing on the feet, since the machine supported the bulk of the rider's weight. He compared the velocipede rider to a horse that pulls an attached cart, pointing out that the horse carries a given load much more easily in the cart than it does directly on its back. In the same way, he argued, the velocipede rider's own weight is effectively rolled along with the support of the machine, relieving the rider from having to carry the full load on the feet. Drais insisted further that the velocipede was not merely a pedestrian "facilitator," but also an "accelerator." On a good road with minimal effort, Drais found that he could bowl along at five or six miles an hour, about twice a normal walking gait. If he ran with his machine instead, he could reach a speed up to twelve miles an hour, comparable to a galloping horse-the fastest thing on the road at that time.

Actual performance, Drais conceded, depended on a variety of factors, including the condition and the incline of the road, and the force with which the rider pushed off. In principle, the velocipede was most effective when used on good roads as a running machine. As one enthusiast explained, in the normal act of running, in contrast to walking, the entire upper body is brought into play. The runner often falters not because the legs give out, but because a cramp, or some other problem, develops elsewhere in the body. But when running atop a velocipede, the rider who reposes the chest on the padded board works only the legs, "whilst the other parts are in a state of rest"-presumably protecting them from a breakdown. In effect, riders were free to run as fast as their legs could carry them.

An expert could further economize time and effort, and maximize speed, by coasting during reasonably steep descents. For, as Drais discovered, once the machine reached a certain velocity on account of gravity, the rider could safely lift the feet up off the ground and let the machine roll along on its own. When it finally slowed down beyond the base of the hill and began to falter, the rider's feet reestablished contact with the ground and pushed off once again. In the meantime, however, the rider had accomplished what amounted to a giant step with minimal exertion. Drais also insisted that riders incurred no harsh penalty driving the velocipede to the top of the hill in the first place. Even if they had to dismount on account of a severe incline and proceed by foot, they could easily push their vehicles along at a normal walking pace, and might even lean on them for support, as one might a cane.

Exactly how Drais came upon this simple and novel scheme is unclear. Some have suggested that he drew his inspiration from the art of skating, since he likened the two movements in his brochure. Drais, however, never actually revealed the circumstances of his epiphany. But he did explain why he found the new design so compelling. As he wrote to one royal patron, compared with his original carriage, his running machine was simpler, more functional, and "better supported by nature herself." He was particularly keen on its motive system. Like his first vehicle, the draisine engaged the legs, which he recognized as the stronger set of limbs. But this time they performed natural work, not awkward motions to activate cumbersome machinery. He no doubt hoped that this new approach would appease those who objected to the mechanical carriage on philosophical grounds.

Drais apparently arrived at the compact configuration following his rejection of the mechanical drive. For if he no longer needed any sort of lever system to convey human power to the wheels-a process he had come to distrust-then he had no need for a platform on three or four wheels to support such a mechanism. He could thus reduce the profile of the machine to a minimal form consisting of only two wheels in a line, to act as an adjunct to the human body itself. This new approach transformed the very nature of the human-powered vehicle. It was no longer a mechanical "chariot" carrying multiple passengers, but rather a single "horse" that obeyed only one master. The personal nature of the draisine introduced an unprecedented degree of practicality and appeal.

To critics, however, the velocipede was a "strange invention" that "turned a man into a horse and carriage" and thus compelled the rider to do work formerly performed by animals. John Keats, the famed English Romantic poet, was among those who dismissed the novelty as the "Nothing of the Day." One American pundit summarily dismissed the velocipede, scoffing that "every species of transatlantic nonsense, it would seem, is capable of exciting curiosity, no matter how ridiculous." Some derided its mechanical assumptions, likening velocipede riding to "working a passage up a canal by towing the boat." Others took aim at the riders themselves, lampooning them as idle and vain "dandies."

Indeed, one skeptic in Philadelphia deemed the machine "mere apology for a decent man to take a race by himself." As he saw it, no respectable gentleman would ever "run a mile for diversion ... as nature made him," since the spectacle would inevitably "astonish the natives" and "bring the heads of the good people at their windows," perhaps even generating a trail of boys yelling "Stop Thief!" Yet, he concluded, "if a man only has a wheel at his back, or appears to have some machinery on foot, he may run till dooms-day, and no body will molest him."


Excerpted from Bicycle by David V. Herlihy Copyright © 2004 by David V. Herlihy. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

David V. Herlihy is a historian and freelance writer. He has been interested in bicycle technology since his days as a member of the Harvard Cycling Club, and for the past decade he has researched extensively the invention and early development of the bicycle. His work has been featured on National Public Radio and Voice of America and in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and Historic Preservation. In 1999 Herlihy received the McNair History Award from the Wheelmen, the preeminent American association of antique bicycle collectors. He lives in Hull, Massachusetts.

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