The bike developed through the 1800s, at the same time as steam cars and balloon flight. However, modern traffic and flight owe their form and popularity to the bike.
The first time anybody actually moved a carriage with steam power was in 1769, on a commission for the French military. The first American Steam carriage was the third built in the world, Oliver Evans malfunctioning creation of 1805 did move, but it did not get far. The size and scale of these automobiles lent themselves more to the steam locomotive than the car, and the period between 1830 and 1930 was the result of these experiments.
The story of bicycles starts a little later, with the first two wheeled, inline, caster-steered, bicycle with handlebars introduced in 1817. The “Draisiene” was mostly made of wood, weighted 50 pounds, had small wagon wheels that absorbed every dip and rock in the road, and was propelled by the driver’s feet, but no matter. It was three times faster than anything but a horse’s gallop, and those who could afford it loved it. Thousands were made for London’s “Hobby Horse Craze” of 1819. They didn’t love the mud roads of the time, and were attracted to the sidewalks. London set a fine of two pounds for “Draisiene” riders using the crowded sidewalks.
This is not about the evolution of the Draisiene from wood through cast iron, wrought iron, to tubular steel, the evolution of the bike from foot to treadle to pedal and finally to ”chain drive, the change of wheels from wood through iron, solid rubber and pneumatic tires, or the important change from straight rod-spoked wheels to tangentially wire-spoked wheels. This is about the bike as the ancestor of the universal system of traffic that we have today.
After the short lived Draisiene boom of 1819, there were three more booms in self powered movement. The Quadracycle boom of 1855, the Boneshaker boom of 1867-1869, the penny farthing boom of 1880, and the Safety Bike craze of 1888-1898. These were all short lived , fashionable booms for people who could afford bikes. They were also primarily European, but America caught the buzz each time, with imports and domestic copies.
In 1885, a Penny Farthing cost several months wages for the average worker, making it a luxury good. The high cost and mania for bikes invited competition and innovation on technology and price. A market American manufacturers were all to willing to fill. The most popular American High-wheeler, the “Columbia”, was introduced at half the price the English import “Ordinary” and only got cheaper. By 1895, a bike cost a couple weeks pay and the designs were changing from daredevil high wheelers to affordable and easier to use “Safeties”. The bike was America’s first taste of affordable and universal transportation.
The bike became more than a rich man’s toy for the noble proof of chivalric prowess. When the bike became affordable to all, it became a tool of women’s and people’s liberation. The rise of biking as a nearly universal mode of affordable transportation transformed the American landscape from unpaved to paved. Horse drawn wagons and omnibuses could handle the dirt and mud. Hard paved roads were much better for self-driven vehicles than for vehicles dragged by horse through the streets. The first cycleways were built out of town, far from the crowded and dangerous streets of the city. The first Federal Highway Department, under the Department of Agriculture was formed for the good of the farmer, but at the insistence of the biker.
Albert Pope, advocate for the USDA Office of Road Inquiry, was also founder of the League of American Wheelmen (LAW), and president of Columbia Bicycles. He had become rich and influential with cheap copies of the British Starley “Ordinary”, so it was in his interest to give bikes a comfortable place in America’s transportation. As part of his empire, Pope took Hiram Maxim on to head his fledgeling Columbia Automobile Company.
Maxim got the idea for a Gas-engined quadracycle climbing the interminable hills in this native Connecticut. Many other gas engine car makers of the 1890s had similar notions on their own arduous bike drives. This legacy is seen by the gangly appearance of many gas-powered cars The dominant car models of the era were steam and electric models. Steam had been in development throughout the 19th century, and the electric cars were using the rapidly developing electric motor through the 1890’s. Both were bulky and hazardous compared to the internal combustion gas engine. The gas engine made more and more sense as America developed the fueling infrastructure. Until filling stations after 1906, Early Gas Car owners had to buy their Gasoline from pharmacists a gallon or two at a time, a bulky and dangerous activity.
I’ve run out of space to talk about the evolution of the airplane from the bicycle. I will give that to you later.