You'll look sweet / upon the seat
August 15, 2019 10:02 PM   Subscribe

Bicycles (and some other stuff) on the streets of Victoria and Vancouver, ca. 1907.

Surprising to see how many there are. And pretty much identical to what a lot of people are riding now.
posted by klanawa at 10:11 PM on August 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

I feel like the author is too quick to dismiss the idea that it was simply not obvious that balancing on a two-wheeled vehicle would be practical. Once you have a pedal-less bike, you can figure out how balance will work. Then you need to find a way to power it, which also seems to have been slow.
posted by eruonna at 10:16 PM on August 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Might as well ask why mass production and interchangeable parts weren't invented much earlier.
posted by hank at 10:22 PM on August 15, 2019 [12 favorites]

I rode a draisine pretty much identical to the one shown in the article about 50 yards. That was PLENTY enough and it was abundantly clear to me why that thing never caught on at all.

It was positively painful to ride it even that short distance.

Admittedly that was on a cobblestone street, but all streets at that time would have been cobblestone, rough dirt, rough single track, and the like. All bumpy, bumpy, bumpy to the end.

The thing about the draisine is that it perfectly, immediately, and strongly transmitted every jolt and bump to the very exact parts are your anatomy that are absolutely least able to tolerate that kind of hard jolting.

So the response in the article "The quality of roads is relevant, but not really the answer. Bicycles can be ridden on dirt roads or sidewalks" is really 1000% not on point.

Yes, bicycles can ride on pretty rough roads, dirt roads, and so on.

IF they have (minimally) pneumatic tires and (ideally) some relatively effective form of suspension besides.

Riding a modern mountain bike or even gravel bike on rough dirt roads and trails can be a pleasure.

But riding the wooden/steel-rim wheel technology of times earlier than about the 1800s, with nothing between you and it, on rough roads is nothing but pure torture.

Sorry, but this explains pretty much everything to me.
posted by flug at 10:34 PM on August 15, 2019 [34 favorites]

(one to steer, one to power the vehicle by stepping up and down on large treadles connected to the wheels by ropes, pulleys, and gears).

The outdoor stand up elliptical was pretty much invented before the bike??? The mind boggles.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 10:47 PM on August 15, 2019 [8 favorites]

I remember reading about the history of wheeled luggage (probably on this very site!), and the explanation offered for the remarkably late discovery that little wheels on the bottom of a suitcase made it easy to move around had to do with the similarly late development of travel patterns in which those little wheels were useful (i.e. continuous flat surfaces for rolling them). I think that's at least part of the answer to the question why bicycles were invented so late.

I'm less convinced by the balancing hypothesis. I think lots of people would have had abundant evidence that a rolling wheel tends to stay upright - as seen in wheelbarrows, children's games with hoops, etc.

Also, where does the tricycle fit into the argument in the OP?
posted by a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich at 11:19 PM on August 15, 2019 [6 favorites]

Wheelbarrows are self balancing because they have three points of contact.

Seconding flug. While all the metallurgical arguments are probably true plus the need for a couple strokes of engineering genius it's the rubber tire that really enabled the bicycle. It's no coincidence that use of the safety bike exploded in the decade after the invention of the pneumatic tire. We've had wheel conveyances since before the Roman Chariot but sitting on them the way you sit astride a bike would have immensely painful without the give of a pneumatic tire. Not only to the initial contact patch but also to the spine and organs.
It’s also plausible to me that wooden frames just weren’t light and strong enough to be practical (I certainly wouldn’t be eager to ride a wooden bicycle today).
People make perfectly usable wooden bikes today. And certainly a master woodwright could have cranked out a respectable, if heavy, iteration of a safety bike at any point from the 16th century. At least in push bike form. He'd probably need the assistance of a wheelwright, chair bodger (guy who turned branches in spokes), and blacksmith. Maybe a benchman if he wanted to produce in quantity.
posted by Mitheral at 11:36 PM on August 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

It could not have been invented much earlier because its inventor, Antoine Bicycle, wasn't born until 1795. His grandson who perfected the invention, Jonathan Gregory Safety-Bicycle, wasn't born until 1849. At best, with a little more focus, they only could have bumped it up by another year or two. But asking so much of our inventors is a modern development; back then, people were expected to spend more time with their families.
posted by compartment at 11:41 PM on August 15, 2019 [36 favorites]

His grandson who perfected the invention, Jonathan Gregory Safety-Bicycle, wasn't born until 1849

...and was, for much of his early life, dismissed as a crank.
posted by flabdablet at 11:47 PM on August 15, 2019 [28 favorites]

Interestingly one of the early alternatives (that turned up again in Germany in WWI) to rubber tires was a wheel wrapped with a series of little springs. They wouldn't be anywhere near as compliant as a pneumatic tire but at least it would be something. Plus they must have been terribly squirmy and dirt/rocks getting into the springs must have made for constant maintenance.
posted by Mitheral at 11:51 PM on August 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Two years ago at bicycle conferences there was always a lot of hoopla about it being the 200th anniversary of the bicycle. I am pretty dubious of these claims, and point to the Dunlop pneumatic tires of 1888 as being the true nexus of modern bicycle development. Interchangeable parts, material advancements and economic factors such as the rise of the middle class all contributed as well. A great summary can be found in one of the key texts of Science, Technology and Society: Of Bicycles, Bakelites and Bulbs by Wiebe E. Bijker,
posted by St. Oops at 12:04 AM on August 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

A bicycle may be cheaper than a horse, but it can't replace one. Many things horses were used for would have been impractical or impossible to use a bicycle for, so once you have need for a horse, there is minimal added cost to using it for transportation as well. For those that didn't need horses in the same way, who lived in towns or cities, the need for transportation wasn't as great in eras before cities grew after industrialization. Bicycles wouldn't have had the same utility as they had later, especially when the roads weren't very fit for their use and the ride would have been extremely uncomfortable on wooden or metal wheels, as already mentioned above.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:13 AM on August 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

I totally agree with the pneumatic tire being the technology that really jumpstarted bicycles. There's an interesting book called "The Lost Cyclist" about Frank Lenz which goes in to a little detail about that. He was one of the very first cyclists to adopt not only the safety bicycle but also the pneumatic tire and he became a powerhouse in bike racing around the turn of the 20th century. He attempted a round-the-world trip with the same technology and people thought he was crazy for doing it on tires!

(The book is more about the attempts to find him after he disappeared in Turkey and has kind of an unsatisfying conclusion, but I'd still recommend it if you're interested in the early ages of "modern" cycling.)
posted by backseatpilot at 5:31 AM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I read part of this before speculating that part of the answer is "larger cities."

I mean, there are a lot of answers: industrialization, the need for roads, the design being un-intuitive and needing a lot of time to mature - and when it comes down to it, a lot of things need to fall into place for something to catch on and take off.

But in the 1800s, the urban population of Europe started booming - the urban population went from about 20% of the population to about 60% of it in a little over a hundred years. When you have an increasingly urbanized population, all of a sudden, so much more stuff - life, labor, leisure - happens within bicycle-appropriate distances. That helps develop the need, a real need that starts to weave bicycles into the fabric of life, through cities, economies, and culture.
posted by entropone at 5:35 AM on August 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

From the article:

Some commenters have suggested that it was not obvious that a two-wheeled vehicle would balance, but I find this unconvincing given how many other things people have learned to balance on, from dugout canoes to horses themselves.

I can balance in a canoe or on a horse without falling off pretty easily. Anyone who has ridden a bicycle knows that it is almost impossible to balance on a bicycle that isn't moving. If I came upon a bicycle having never seen one before, it would not occur to me that it will be very stable in motion.

I'm guessing most people don't know why bicycles are so stable.
posted by justkevin at 5:50 AM on August 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

It shouldn't be surprising that people too stupid to make nachos also didn't invent usable bicycles.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:57 AM on August 16, 2019 [8 favorites]

The answer is (of course): “It's complicated”. But the nearest answer to who, when or how the bicycle was invented that's close to being helpful is “the workshop”.

One individual didn't invent the bicycle. Kirkpatrick Macmillan/Thomas McCall didn't, but there were enough coincidental common design features with modern bikes that the case is too easily made. It wasn't just Starley & Hillman's “lever tension wheel” (aka cross spokes, as opposed to radial ones) of 1870. It wasn't just the inventor of the cup and cone bearing race, or of the pneumatic tyre, or of the roller chain, or of seam-welded then later seamless steel tube, or the Bowden cable, or the …

Because of the rise of the city, because of a need to travel longer than was comfortable on foot, because horses were expensive and messy, because of the rise of media showing aspirational details of the rich and famous, a need for an affordable yet enjoyable form of personal transport congealed into the shape of a bicycle in the latter half of the 19th century. Unlike the previous big hit in early tech, the train, bicycles could be built in not much more than a shed. Millions of tinkerers could market small improvements with very modest investments in equipment, and these developments could be quickly “borrowed” shanzhai-style by other workshops. Improved metallurgy, supply chains and local dealer networks first spread then cemented the bicycle's success. Along with the sewing machine and to a certain extent the farm wind pump, the bicycle was the shit of late 1800s tech. And now all we have is techcos dumping shanzhai electric scooters in our towns, alas.

Because of additional free time from unions and mechanization (that didn't last gee thanks white men) and the additional mobility that bicycles brought, people got to see that roads outside town were in a parlous state. With trains handling the heavy lifting, roads had fallen apart and cycling on them was no fun (“aha!” thought Mr Dunlop, who promptly went off to invent the puncture). So cycling lobby groups got together to work for improved roads right at the end of C19. This turned out just peachy for those working in some slightly noisier workshops, where the collective aspirations of the early 20th century were hastily congealing into the shape of the car, absorbing and re-purposing bicycle technologies. The car-city glob is stage four, but the patient's not quite dead yet.

The bicycle isn't the perfect shape (previously) but we haven't hit enough of a peak of mass desire to change it yet. Sometimes the exploits of a pack of loonies on hillsides of Western America (previously) congealed enough desire to change the bike a bit for many of us. While one person might want to improve the bicycle, they won't change the world's mental model of a bicycle and it's reductive to think of a sole genius inventor/invention event.
posted by scruss at 6:40 AM on August 16, 2019 [7 favorites]

There was a Mifian that was building a bike from scratch, raw metal, wonder how that turned out. Sounded like a really interesting (as in long hard frustrating) project, and still had modern tools and alloys. Don't think he was smelting his own steel ore or rolling out pipe.
posted by sammyo at 6:43 AM on August 16, 2019

I mean, why stop there with the hard questions? iPhones are basically a giant battery with a tiny hard drive and a RISC CPU on it; why didn't we have them in 1985? Semiconductors aren't all THAT difficult to produce; why were we using vacuum tubes to break Enigma? Why didn't Babbage build a generalizable difference engine? Why didn't da Vinci build himself a helicopter powered by a steam engine? Why did the Dark Ages happen?

Because the exact convergence of ingenuity, cheap/available materials, prerequisite technological advances, and pure circumstance didn't happen to line up. Until they suddenly did.
posted by Mayor West at 7:10 AM on August 16, 2019 [7 favorites]

Wheelbarrows are self balancing because they have three points of contact.

Yeah, the handles are doing the balancing on a wheelbarrow, and they're still pretty tippy.

The bicycle isn't the perfect shape
True for efficiency/ergonomics, but recumbent bikes are significantly less visible to motor vehicles and therefore more dangerous, especially in the city. Which is kind of a big deal for many of us.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:46 AM on August 16, 2019

another four-wheeled carriage, driven by two people (one to steer, one to power the vehicle by stepping up and down on large treadles connected to the wheels by ropes, pulleys, and gears).

This contraption seems like it had a baked-in an assumption that someone else should be doing the labor to move a person. They were trying to replace the labor of a horse with the labor of a human, presumably from a lower class. Congrats, you've described capitalism; labor is doing the work, management is holding the wheel, and two fat cats are reaping all the reward.

So maybe the "innovation" that popularized the bicycle was that it was culturally acceptable for a well-off person to use a machine to multiply the power of their own labor instead of someone else's.
posted by peeedro at 7:56 AM on August 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think we're missing the distinction between "why wasn't something like the bicycle tried earlier" and "why didn't we see streets of Victorian London flooded with safety bicycles like knock off Trek's on the streets of 1990s Bejing?" The answer to the latter is multifactorial as evidenced by the answers offered in the comments but the former is a pretty interesting question.

The Draisine kinda sucked for obvious reasons but its weird that we didn't see it even tried until 1817. I think it's pretty easy to discount how not-obvious the gyroscopic balance of the wheels would be to someone circa 1800. The author of TFA makes a comparison to canoes and horses that's pretty weak since a horse has four points of contact and a canoe actually has a huge contact with the water. So did people of the 18th century understand the implications of a spinning wheel staying upright? The answer is surprisingly, probably "no"!

While Newton laid the groundwork, much of implications of angular momentum weren't derived until Laplace and Bernoulli came around in 1744-1799. Serson and Bohnenberger developed the first proto-gryoscopes around the same time, and used them to measure angular displacement and find level. A better counter-example than "horses and canoes" as to why didn't we figure out gyroscopic effects until the late 1700s would be tops.... or even stick and hoop games.

And I have no idea why people seeing hoops rolling didn't lead to simple Draisines and spinning tops didn't lead to the derivation of angular momentum or applied gyroscopes. Other than physics is hard. Because despite hoop games existing for millennia, we don't have great evidence of a two wheel balancing vehicle until after angular momentum was more fully described in the late eighteenth century. So maybe it helps to have a well developed conceptual framework when developing new technologies.
posted by WonderFunGo at 7:58 AM on August 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

I wonder if anyone ever tried a sort of recumbent penny-farthing? Seems like sitting behind the big wheel instead of on top (like a Big Wheel!) would address some of its more serious issues like riding way too high and flipping over on a sudden stop.
posted by moonmilk at 9:56 AM on August 16, 2019

The problem with a recumbent penny-farthing is as you increase the rake angle of the front fork there is greater instability caused by wheel flop, which would be even more pronounced by the larger front wheel.
posted by peeedro at 10:21 AM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

recumbent bikes are significantly less visible to motor vehicles and therefore more dangerous, especially in the city

I know that recumbents aren't the perfect shape for many roads as they are now. I used to ride one of these, then later one of these until I almost got Harry Chapined by a truck.
posted by scruss at 10:28 AM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Just want to say I thought this essay was really interesting and something I never really thought about before. I like how it talked about the small picture stuff like how all the little pieces needed to be in place as well as the big picture stuff.
posted by bleep at 10:29 AM on August 16, 2019

the implications of a spinning wheel staying upright

They don't, btw. They all follow a curving path to falling over. It's just lucky that the riders can correct and make them fall over the other way for a bit. Even if your tyres were narrow enough you couldn't ride a bike for any length stuck in a tram track: you need the two-track sinuous motion.

I wonder if anyone ever tried a sort of recumbent penny-farthing?

Ordinaries existed because roller-link chains weren't quite there. The inconvenience/expense of that huge wheel is no fun. There have been a few internally-geared direct-drive front hubs (VeloVision or BCQ readers might remember 'em) attempted, though.
posted by scruss at 10:45 AM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

It would be interesting to do this what-if with China during the Tang and Song dynasties, when they were inventing gunpowder and magnets and all that, plus had a level of iron output that wasn't matched in Europe until the 1800s. Perhaps it was the remarkable Chinese wheelbarrow which made something like the bicycle seem unnecessary.
posted by clawsoon at 11:02 AM on August 16, 2019

Another interesting what-if: What would the bicycle look like today if we hadn't developed mobile combustion engines? I.e. what if we still had giant combustion engines and electricity needed to make industrial civilization possible, but for whatever reason cars and trucks didn't happen?
posted by clawsoon at 11:06 AM on August 16, 2019

Because the exact convergence of ingenuity, cheap/available materials, prerequisite technological advances, and pure circumstance didn't happen to line up. Until they suddenly did.

...and you get that.
posted by The Tensor at 11:37 AM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

The most interesting book I've read recently on the blog's general question of "how does progress happen?" is The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History. It's a comparative history with up-to-date research by a serious scholar, and it comes to some interesting conclusions. It's helpful to look at multiple societies over long periods of time in order to narrow down the set of possible explanations.
posted by clawsoon at 11:42 AM on August 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

The Tensor: ...and you get that.

The original Connections is great.
posted by clawsoon at 11:44 AM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

With his usual panache, David Jones (The Inventions of Daedalus, and etc.) investigates the surprising stability of the bicycle.

Gyroscopic stability turns out to be significant, but not all the lack of crackups might lead us to think it would be. One interesting result is that conventional designs actually court instability in a certain sense because more stable designs fight back when you try to steer them.
posted by jamjam at 12:28 PM on August 16, 2019

Thanks jamjam! I had a vague recollection of experiments with unstable bicycles that were still ride-able. I believe the self-centering force would just be centrifugal force acting on a geometry with the contact patch behind the steering axis.
As for stable bicycles, I remember a video of someone who had trained themselves to ride a "backwards brain bike" with reversed controls being utterly unable to ride a normal bicycle. This suggests to me that bicycles require active feedback when starting even if they may be stable at speed.
posted by mscibing at 1:21 PM on August 16, 2019

Leonardo Da Vinci's bicycle, 1400s.

The interesting thing about the draisine, is that the basic concept is the perfect vehicle to teach little kids to ride the bicycle, now called a balance bike.

The thing is, when I, and even my kids, grew up, such a thing did not exist, at least not commonly, or I would have used it with my kids. It was a bike with training wheels or nothing. It is weird that we missed something so simple and obvious until just recently. It makes me wonder what other simple obvious, really helpful things are just under our noses but we just can't see.
posted by eye of newt at 11:11 PM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've not followed this thread comprehensively, but I thought I would drop one of my very favorite things in here: the Wright brothers' bicycle.
posted by sjswitzer at 11:29 PM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I feel like the author is too quick to dismiss the idea that it was simply not obvious that balancing on a two-wheeled vehicle would be practical.

Me too.

So the response in the article "The quality of roads is relevant, but not really the answer. Bicycles can be ridden on dirt roads or sidewalks" is really 1000% not on point.

Yes, I think the fact that all the pieces fell into place, and now they are useful and practical in many circumstances today makes people blind to the fact that they just might not have been before and people didn't care, not that they couldn't do it.

I think back to recently when all the pieces were there for portable digital music. You could actually download it and there were actually MP3 players in stores. But the process was complicated and it didn't sound good.

Pretty much everyone I knew thought that was just silly and those players didn't sell. Why go to all that work for low quality music? But then the iPod tweaks the whole formula just a little, makes it easier to do and sound better and suddenly everyone does it.
posted by bongo_x at 1:10 AM on August 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

The iPod thing was weird. Famously: "No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame." But iPod enabled one to buy music rather than ripping/pirating and that was the real business success. The whole portable music business has been rounds and rounds of trying to force right's holders to take our money. And now they are predictably going down the micro walled garden route with video and everyone is like "You dense motherfuckers".
posted by Mitheral at 8:47 AM on August 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

One interesting result is that conventional designs actually court instability in a certain sense

Indeed they do. I still remember the visceral dread experienced very late one night, head full of excellent weed and hurtling joyously down a long steep curve on my hitherto completely controllable drop-bar tourer, pushing hard and feeling absurdly pleased about achieving a higher cadence in its 54:11 top gear than I'd ever managed before, only to discover that speed wobbles are a thing.

Fucking terrifying.
posted by flabdablet at 7:46 AM on August 18, 2019

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