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Why did we wait so long for the bicycle?

The bicycle, as we know it today, was not invented until the late 1800s. Yet it was a simple mechanical invention. It would seem to require no brilliant inventive insight, and certainly no scientific background.

Why, then, wasn’t it invented much earlier?

I asked this question on Twitter, and read some discussion on Quora. People proposed many hypotheses, including:

Technology factors. Metalworking improved a lot in the 1800s: we got improved iron refining and eventually cheap steel, better processes for shaping metal, and ability to make parts like hollow tubes. Wheel technology improved: wire-spoke (aka tension-spoked) wheels replaced heavier designs; vulcanized rubber (1839) was needed for tires; inflatable tires weren’t invented until 1887. Chains, gears, and ball bearings are all crucial parts that require advanced manufacturing techniques for precision and cost.

Design iteration. Early bicycles were inconvenient and dangerous. The first version didn’t even have pedals. Some versions didn’t have steering, and could only be turned by leaning. (!) The famous “penny-farthing” design, with its huge front wheel, made it impossible to balance with your feet, was prone to tipping forward on a hard stop, and generally left the rider high in the air, all of which increased risk of injury. It took decades of iteration to get to a successful bicycle model.

Quality of roads. Roads in the 1800s and earlier were terrible by modern standards. Roads were often dirt, rutted from the passage of many carts, turning muddy in the rain. Macadam paving, which gave smooth surfaces to roads, wasn’t invented until about 1820. City roads at the time were paved with cobblestones, which were good for horses but too bumpy for bicycles. (The unevenness was apparently a feature, assisting in the runoff of sewage—leading one Quora answer to claim that the construction of city sewers was what opened the door to bicycles.)

Competition from horses. Horses were a common and accepted mode of transportation at the time. They could deal with all kinds of roads. They could carry heavy loads. Who then needs a bicycle? In this connection, it has been claimed that the bicycle was invented in response to food shortages due to the “Year without a Summer”, an 1816 weather event caused by the volcanic explosion of Mt. Tambora the year earlier, which darkened skies and lowered temperatures in many parts of the world. The agricultural crisis caused horses as well as people to starve, which led to some horses being slaughtered for food, and made the remaining ones more expensive to feed. This could have motivated the search for alternatives.

General economic growth. Multiple commenters pointed out the need for a middle class to provide demand for such an invention. If all you have are a lot of poor peasants and a few aristocrats (who, by the way, have horses, carriages, and drivers), there isn’t much of a market for bicycles. This is more plausible when you realize that bicycles were more of a hobby for entertainment before they became a practical means of transportation.

Cultural factors. Maybe there was just a general lack of interest in useful mechanical inventions until a certain point in history? But when did this change, and why?

These are all good hypotheses. But some of them start to buckle under pressure:

The quality of roads is relevant, but not really the answer. Bicycles can be ridden on dirt roads or sidewalks (although the latter led to run-ins with pedestrians and made bicycles unpopular among the public at first)…[ ]

What do you think?

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Posted by eboiler


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