E-scooters, the modern day velocipedes
November 23, 2019 7:09 AM Subscribe
From the very beginning, though, riders were also mocked as fops pursuing a ludicrous pastime. Pedestrians back then were the prime users of roads and sidewalks, so cycles seemed like dangerous interlopers. A Baltimore newspaper called the bicycle “a curious two-wheeled device...which is propelled by jackasses instead of horses.” One New Haven, Connecticut, newspaper editorial even encouraged people to “seize, break, destroy, or convert to their own use as good prize, all such machines found running on the sidewalks.” What the Fight Over Scooters Has in Common With the 19th-Century Battle Over Bicycles -- The two-wheelers revolutionized personal transport—and led to surprising societal changes [Smithsonian Magazine]
It took inventors about 70 years to perfect the bicycle. An ur-version was built in the 1810s by the German inventor Karl von Drais, and it was just two wheels on a frame. You scooted along by pushing it, Flintstones-style, with your feet. “On a plain, even after a heavy rain, it will go 6 to 7 miles an hour, which is as swift as a courier,” Drais boasted.
By the 1870s, entrepreneurs were putting pedals on the front wheel, creating the “velocipede” (the Latin roots for “fast foot”). Since a bigger wheel went faster, inventors built front wheels as huge as five feet tall, stabilized by a tiny back wheel—a “penny farthing,” as the cycle was known. Riding was mostly a sport of well-off young men, and riders exulted at the dual feelings of speed and height. “From the saddle we perceive things which are hidden from them who only walk upon the earth,” one Connecticut rider boasted in 1882. “We dash across the plain with a wild sense of freedom and power which no one ever knows until he rides the magic steed.”
The bicycle didn’t truly reach the mainstream until engineers began selling the “safety” bike in the 1890s. With inflatable tires, it offered a gentler, less bone-shaking ride, and the chain propelling the back wheel left the front free for steering. Now this was something anyone could ride—and anyone did, as dozens of bike firms flooded the market. The bicycle craze was born.
To many, cycling embodied the very spirit of American freedom and equality. “As a social revolutioniser it has never had an equal,” Scientific American observed in 1896. “It has put the human race on wheels, and has thus changed many of the most ordinary processes and methods of social life. It is the great leveller.” By 1900, there were more than 1.25 million cyclists in the United States.
Riding a bicycle felt like a burst of independence. “Finally you could go where you wanted, on your own,” Macy says. “When you were riding a cycle your mother didn’t know where you were!” Young women could meet potential paramours on the road, instead of having their parents size them up in their living room. Soon women were 30 percent of all cyclists, using the newfangled technology to visit friends and travel the countryside. It was empowering. “Cycling is fast bringing about this change of feelings regarding women and her capabilities,” the Minneapolis Tribune wrote. “A woman awheel is an independent creature, free to go where she will.”
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