Skip to main content

Bicycle: The History

By David Herlihy

Yale University Press

470 pages, $49

Don DeLillo's White Noise (to many, the American novel of the 1980s) uses a toxic-gas leak to locate a crucial question about technology and independence: Stripped of your purchased comforts and dependencies, which of the technologies that seem so quintessential to modernity or even the human species could you yourself replicate to aid your own survival? In short, alone and tool-less, could you even make a fire, let alone communicate or travel across vast distances?

Like the car, electricity or running water, the bicycle has become such an ingrained fixture of human life (and one far more global than the car) that we would be hard pressed to think of its invention as a lengthy international contest of misdirections, unexpected reversals and reluctant collaborations. Unlike any of these other technologies, though, the workings of a bicycle are so visible that the great New Yorker artist Saul Steinberg called a bicycle "an X-ray of itself." That is to say the bicycle is neither electric nor (even less comprehensible) electronic, and yet, the genealogical history of this observable machine of immense social impact is still as unpopular as its mechanics. That is, until David Herlihy's handsome new Bicycle: the History.

It has been estimated that until the late 1800s, 95 per cent of the world's people lived within a five-mile radius of their birthplace. Salman Rushdie's migrants crisscross the globe by jet, whereas Thomas Hardy's Jude changes communities on foot. Herlihy rewardingly foregrounds the fact that, almost co-terminously, the train and the bicycle allowed those who couldn't afford travel by horse suddenly to move around with relative ease.

Key among the various differences between travel by the "iron horse" and the "feedless horse," though, are privacy and independence. Herlihy -- a Massachusetts historian and journalist and a former member of the Harvard Cycling Club --intriguingly positions the protracted invention of the bicycle between a democratizing rise in personal agency and the dehumanizing rise of an industrial revolution that would culminate in the car, a technology that began as the child of the bicycle before quickly becoming a jealous sibling and then, finally, a murderously covetous distant cousin.

Bicycle is at its best when it accessorizes its robust, efficient frame of documented technological genealogy with panniers of social commentary or its flickering headlamp of advocacy. Fascinating, illustrative reproductions of period ads or photographs (nearly one per pair of pages) further augment a book that marshals all the homework necessary to be informative without quite directing its discoveries enough to be memorable.

The mechanical nudity of the bicycle (with its exposed bones and hanging teeth) affords Herlihy a visual immediacy crucial to the book's central investigation into the history of a self-propelled, affordable "people's carriage" or "people's nag." Unlike any technology of similar influence, the bicycle is comprehensible at a glance, and this crucial distinction allows Herlihy to write what is, in large measure, an engineer's howdunnit. Although not always riveting to read, Bicycle is a valuable examination of how a universal need (or at least desire) for financially accessible travel took centuries to focus and decades to perfect.

Herlihy charts the centuries-long evolution of self-propelled human transport as follows: (1) various pre-19th century horseless carriages of four wheels propelled by hand cranks or treadles for the legs (usually of a servant); (2) the German Karl von Drais's paradigm-shifting move in 1817 to just two (in-line) wheels, which allowed the draisine or "walking machine" rider to extend his/her kick, and which harnessed the body's larger leg muscles (although not on propelling pedals); (3) the 50-year mutation to pedal-driven "high-wheelers" that finally afforded speed and distance but which, because of the location of direct-drive pedals on the front tire, demanded shoulder-high front tires and largely restricted cycling to privileged young men for 20 years before, (4) the chain-driven "safety" bicycle (which transferred the drive to the rear tire) restored equilibrium in wheel sizes and became accessible to women, the crucial democratization and/or market expansion that would eventually put bicycles into the hands of all social classes.

The bicycle of the past 80 years has offered only small refinements, from inflatable rubber tires (draisines had wooden tires and were aptly known as "boneshakers") to lighter building materials: Two generations ago, American "safety" bicycles weighed more than 50 pounds, while American Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong now races on a 2.5-pound frame.

Because Bicycle chooses to remain an illustrative history (X happened), not an argumentative one (Because A, B and C caused D, reconsider E), its wealth of conscientiously recorded and visually augmented material is never fully directed into a memorable interpretation, claim or even commentary. A revised second edition would do well to spend less time parading its evidence (newspaper reports, editorials and even letters from the chief inventors), and be more stimulating by introducing some potted physics (many readers, even cyclists, may not adequately know what "drives" and "differentials" are), or a more heartfelt advocacy.

Although the conclusion does note that "nearly a third of the gasoline pumped at American service stations goes for trips of three miles or less, more often than not to transport a single passenger," the book repeatedly stops short of any sustained cycling advocacy and so consigns itself to being a history of the past, not a trail map for the future.

Darryl Whetter's A Sharp Tooth in the Fur contains one bicycling story, and he is currently completing a novel about a touring cyclist. He has hit an eye-watering 73 km/h on one "animal machine" and always recommends a helmet.

Interact with The Globe