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Tracing the History of the Bicycle and Its Impact on Society (November 2016): The History of the Bicycle

By Duncan R. Jamieson

The History of the Bicycle

Seeing the bicycle as an extension of the human body in The Bicycle: Towards a Global History, Paul Smethurst explores how it became a symbol of mobility as it intensified the development of a consumer society. Though the cycle’s use in the West contracted, it continued to expand worldwide as a talisman of Western modernity, used by those who could not afford automobiles until the post–World War II era.

Fred Alderson’s Bicycling: A History and Robert A. Smith’s A Social History of the Bicycle both provide additional information on the bicycle in American history. In The Mechanical Horse, Margaret Guroff discusses it as a neglected part of American social history. Albert Augustus Pope saw the high wheel bicycle displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. A Civil War veteran, Colonel Pope caught wheel fever and went to England the following year to import high wheel bicycles. He quickly developed plans to manufacture them, founding the Pope Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut, which produced the Columbia bicycle. Bruce Epperson, in Pedaling Bicycles to America: The Rise of an Industry, describes in detail the company’s history. Steven Goddard’s Colonel Albert Pope and His Dream Machines explores the bicycle’s technological history and how Pope morphed those production techniques into automobile manufacturing. Many early automobile makers in the United States and Europe began with bicycles.

David Herlihy’s Bicycle: The History, Pryor Dodge’s The Bicycle, and Andrew Ritchie’s King of the Road are three profusely illustrated histories of the bicycle, beginning with its earliest iterations and following the technological advances to the present. The accompanying texts offer technical reviews of the different types of bicycles and their uses and riders. For more technical developments, Frank Berto’s The Dancing Chain examines the history and development of the derailleur, the favored means of shifting gears on today’s multi-speed bicycles. Berto begins with the derailleur’s origins in the late nineteenth century and proceeds through the modifications that continue to be made for racing, touring, and mountain bicycles. Though the bicycle remains a relatively simple machine, it has undergone many sophisticated developments over the last 150 years. Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing’s Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History details the technical evolution of the bicycle, from the early velocipedes through today’s diamond frame and recumbent machines. While to the layperson most bicycles look very similar, the authors point out the different materials and designs that fit the bicycle for specific purposes and for different riders. England’s Raleigh was among the world’s most sought-after bicycles. Tony Hadland chronicles the rise and eventual fall of what was once the world’s largest manufacturing plant in Raleigh: Ups and Downs of the Iconic Bicycle Brand.

Glen Norcliffe’s The Ride to Modernity argues persuasively that the bicycle provides a link between the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century and the automobile era of the twentieth. The bicycle ushered in the modern age with its technological advances, spurring on the second industrial revolution.

Cyclists demanded better surfaces for riding, but they failed to agree about sharing the road. In Old Wheelways, Robert L. McCullough writes lyrically of the 1890s side paths developed specifically for cycling. Other cyclists thought roadways should be open and available to all, and they began the Good Roads Movement in America, which the automobile co-opted in the twentieth century. In Bike Battles, James Longhurst explores the history of road usage, specifically, who is and who is not welcome to share the pavement. Unfortunately, urban planners and local residents continue to battle over rights to the road. In Bicycles in American Highway Planning: The Critical Years of Policy-Making, 1969-1991, Bruce Epperson reviews the history of highway planners who refused to divert funds from automobile traffic while bicyclists wanted access to highways. John Forester, a cycling transportation engineer, wrote Bicycle Transportation to advocate for the road rights of cyclists. Not all cyclists remain on the road, however. In the 1970s, mountain bikes appeared to meet the needs of those who chose to ride and race off road. In The Birth of Dirt, Frank Berto recounts the history and development of the mountain bike.

Works Cited