History of the Bicycle

Discussion in 'Australia and New Zealand' started by Luther Blissett, Aug 21, 2003.

  1. Found this on the abc website whilst looking for something else!

    Broadcast Sunday 6 April 2003
    with Robyn Williams

    Taking a Header - A history of the bicycle


    Trevor McAllister, a retired chemist from Melbourne, traces the
    development of the bicycle, the influence it has had on health and the
    difficulty women where confronted with when taking up cycling.


    Robyn Williams: Can you name what must be one of the most efficient,
    enduring, health-giving, enjoyable, aesthetic and sometimes even erotic
    machines invented in the lifetime of the known universe? A machine which
    can be used by nuns and soldiers, cops and schoolkids, posties and
    athletes, world champions and toddlers, and which transformed the sex
    lives of our forebears more than any single factor other than perhaps
    the demise of the corset?

    I’m talking about bikes. Good old reliable, sit-up-and-beg bicycles.
    Frank Fisher, a professor at Monash University in Melbourne, gets around
    town on his bike faster than any other available form of transport, and
    free. And Trevor McAllister, also of Melbourne, can burn up the miles,
    but occasionally, just occasionally, has a mishap.


    Trevor McAllister: A while ago I fell off my bike. It happened late one
    spring afternoon when I was proceeding along the Yarra River cycle path
    in Melbourne, headed towards the city. I was wearing a T-shirt and
    trousers with cycle clips, an old-fashioned contrast with the energetic
    young folk in highly coloured lycra who were using the path as an
    evening commuter route.

    Fashionable cycling dress has changed since men took up the sport in the
    later 19th century, riding on the incongruous penny-farthings and
    dressed in woollen sweaters, knickerbockers and heavy woollen stockings,
    all of a grey-brown hue, which didn’t show the dust. Those early
    wheelmen didn’t have bicycle helmets, but they did wear close-fitting
    long-visored caps.

    The cycle path on the north bank of the Yarra is relatively new. You can
    zoom along stretches of concrete and wooden decking, interrupted by
    bumps as you bounce over the connecting galvanised steel plates. Coming
    down the slope towards the Hoddle bridge, with the tower of Government
    House just visible round the next bend, I hit one of these plates and
    lost control.

    Had I kept the front wheel straight, I wouldn’t have become airborne
    over the handlebars when the bicycle touched down and toppled. In the
    brief moment before contact with the ground, I had time to feel very
    silly and hope that nobody was looking. Dazed and bruised and
    embarrassed, I was grateful to the young folk who paused in their
    colourful flight homewards to inquire after my welfare. After a few
    minutes to recover, I got back on my remarkably undamaged bike and
    cycled slowly and painfully home.

    Taking a header, it was called by 19th century bicyclists. I should
    perhaps have felt grateful that I wasn’t riding one of those
    penny-farthings with 60-inch wheels, which caused the occasional
    fatality when cyclists were thrown over the handlebars on bumpy roads. I
    felt I could now appreciate why our modern bicycle design, introduced in
    the 1890s, was called the safety.

    The view of Government House across the river reminded me of Lady
    Brassey, wife of the last colonial Governor of Victoria in the 1890s who
    was a leader in making cycling respectable for ladies in Melbourne, and
    was photographed with her safety bicycle in front of Government House.

    Although we now associate bicycles with cities and bike tracks, in
    Australia in the 1890s rural dwellers beyond the railways also
    benefited: the need for fodder and the scarcity of water restricted the
    range of the horse in the bush. Jim Fitzpatrick, in his 1980 book ‘The
    Bicycle and the Bush’ records that the fastest long distance journey by
    horse was 300 miles in 52-1/2 hours, whereas a bicycle rider once did
    428 miles in 24 hours. Such record distances were unusual, and 50 to 75
    miles a day was more common. With this, shearers could now cover a much
    greater area during the season in search of work than by tramping the
    highways, a vital advantage during the 1890s depression.

    The British social historian, P.J. Perry, has noted another important
    social influence of the bicycle. Dorset marriage records from the late
    19th century show a considerable increase in inter-parish marriages
    after the introduction of the bicycle. Bicycles added substantially to
    the travelling distance possible with unaided muscular effort. And you
    could feel so much less tired after cycling than you would after walking
    the same distance. So the average courting Dorset male would have had
    quite enough energy left after a journey of 5 or 6 miles to ‘procreate’
    whereas after such a trek on foot he might instead have fallen asleep!

    The metabolic superiority of cycling over walking has thus been
    instinctively known since the 1890s but only recently has it been
    quantified by Alberto Minetti of Manchester Metropolitan University and
    his colleagues Paolo Zamparo from Udine and John Pinkerton from
    Birmingham, in a paper entitled ‘Evolution in energetics and
    biomechanics of historic bicycles’, published in the Proceedings of the
    Royal Society in 2001.

    Minetti et al have investigated the energy consumption involved in
    propelling five historic and one modern bicycles by equipping cyclists
    with a portable metabograph to measure breathing and heart rates, carbon
    dioxide output and oxygen consumption. In the tests, the cyclists
    pedalled around a concrete path on calm days to a program of varied speeds.

    The oldest bicycle tested was the Hobby Horse, from the 1820s. It had no
    pedals and was a speed walking aid, which you straddled and pushed along
    with your legs, the weight-bearing function being the major metabolic
    benefit. This bike was a French invention, by Baron de Drais in 1817.
    These machines were used for a time by the French postal service in 1830.

    Treadle and crank devices were then tried to provide foot power to the
    front wheel, until the next test vehicle, the velocipede, with pedals
    attached to the axle of the front wheel was introduced by the French in
    the 1860s. Velocipedes were also called boneshakers because of the
    jolting ride afforded by the metal wheels on the rough roads of the period.

    The jolting problem was alleviated by using larger wheels and solid
    rubber tyres. Increasing the size of the front wheel also improved the
    efficiency, giving greater travel for each revolution of the pedals.
    Thus was logically born the third test vehicle, the penny-farthing, or
    the ordinary as it was called outside Britain. The penny-farthing was
    not the easiest vehicle to mount or ride with any degree of safety. Its
    very awkwardness made it an exclusively male device, requiring the right
    clothes, the right training and an appropriate air of macho confidence
    to use. It spawned the new sport of cycling and clocked up achievements
    such as the 1873 journey of 800 miles in 14 days from London to John

    Minetti and his colleagues show how the metabolic cost of foot-borne
    travel, in joules per metre, decreases overall from walking to the
    modern bicycle, while the speed attainable for a fixed input of energy
    increases fourfold.

    But their diagram also shows that the next bicycle tested, the Rover,
    designed by Henry J. Lawson in Coventry in 1886, was less efficient than
    the penny-farthing although much safer for the average citizen to ride.

    The important advance in utility if not in efficiency in the Rover was
    to use chain drive from the pedals to the rear wheel. The Rover still
    had solid rubber tyres and the smaller wheels meant that it was still a
    boneshaker which required springs. With the invention of the pneumatic
    tyre by Dunlop and the introduction of the lighter diamond frame by John
    K. Starley, the Rover evolved into the safety bicycle of the 1890s,
    substantially more efficient than the penny-farthing.

    The Minetti work shows that there has been no significant advance in the
    efficiency of the average bicycle since the 1890s except for the
    introduction of gears in 1913 to enable the optimisation of pedalling
    rate with speed. This is shown in a plot of efficiency against stride or
    pedalling rate. The optimum walking or cycling frequency is one stride
    or pedal revolution per second, whatever the machine used. Below and
    above that, you are putting in more energy than required and should
    change up or down.

    Although it is difficult to imagine now, 50 years ago gears were the
    exception rather than the rule. Most cyclists of my age would have begun
    cycling on a single geared bike. Fitzpatrick suggests that the slow
    spread of gears in the Australian bush in the early 20th century was due
    to the fact that most single geared bikes could cover the range of
    demands required by varying the pedalling rate between 33 and 70 rpm
    without a substantial decrease in efficiency.

    The most popular technical advance in the early 20th century was not
    gears but the freewheel device. It may not be evident in all those
    photos of Victorian cyclists but their machines had fixed wheels; you
    had to keep pedalling, which could be quite demanding when going
    downhill! The freewheel, invented in England in 1897, meant that you
    could coast downhill. It also meant that it was safe to carry
    substantial loads over the back wheel.

    The bike as a load carrier became common not only in Australia, but
    throughout Asia. We can still see the end of that era on the boulevards
    of Beijing, with the motor cars of the newly affluent steadily
    displacing the cyclists. The spread of the bicycle in Asia was largely
    due to the Japanese, who exported millions of bicycles once their
    manufacturing industry took off in the 20th century. And it was the
    Japanese, too, who achieved the most astounding military victory in
    Malaya in 1942 with the assistance of the bike, which their army used to
    outflank the ponderous British forces.

    From early in the life of the safety, an alternative to the diamond
    frame with the crossbar was introduced for ladies; the double sloping
    bar preserved the decorum of the Lady Brasseys when cycling with their
    fashionable South Yarra friends. And here we return to the question of
    dress. Given the problems of flying skirts, only partially relieved by
    sewing lead weights into the hem, and the scandal of revealing ankles
    and even calves, the more adventurous female cyclists in America
    rediscovered bloomers which had been introduced by Amelia Bloomer in New
    York in the 1850s but had fallen out of fashion.

    From the point of view of the old-fashioned male, things then went
    rapidly downhill. R.A. Smith, in his ‘Social History of the Bicycle’
    recounts that by 1895, a Chicago schoolmistress, Gyda Stephenson, had
    created a furore by wearing her cycling bloomers while teaching in
    class, giving the rational excuse that she had cycled to school and that
    men who did so did not have to change costume for the classroom, so why
    should she? Young American men formed ‘anti-bloomer leagues’ and the
    more vulgar press had a field day with rude cartoons of bloomered
    cyclistes. Not only bloomers, but cycling itself was attacked. It was
    suggested that bicycle seats acted as ‘sexual stimulants’ and unfettered
    liberty would entice women to ‘immoral acts’!

    Like most such rages, the bloomer did not last. Women went back to
    skirts and cycling became commonplace. But the controversy had a lasting
    influence in that those skirts were now shorter and showed the ankles
    and calves, and also the death knell of the corset had been run. It took
    several generations more, of course, for the pant suit to become
    commonplace, whether for cycling or in the classroom or office.

    The last word on the revolutionary social influence of the bicycle can
    be left to John Galsworthy, who was quoted by Lisa Larabee in the
    reprinting of Frances E. Willard’s ‘How I learned to ride the bicycle’.

    ‘The bicycle has been responsible for more movement in manners and
    morals than anything since Charles II. Chaperones, long narrow skirts,
    tight corsets have wilted, strong nerves, legs and language, knickers,
    knowledge of make and shape, equality of sex, good digestion and
    professional occupation have bloomed. In four words, the emancipation of

    Lady Brassey, don’t fall off your bike!

    Robyn Williams: And I hope you stay on yours, Trevor McAllister. Trevor
    is a chemist, still pedalling in Melbourne.

    Next week Ockham’s Razor is presented by Professor Andie Beattie of
    Macquarie University, who’s found some remarkable new sources for drugs.

    I’m Robyn Williams.


    Trevor McAllister
    Retired Chemist,