History of the Bicycle


Luther Blissett

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,


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