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Bicycle: the History by David V. Herlihy

by Rick Price - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bicycle: the History by David V. Herlihy (Yale University Press, 2004)

David Herlihy and Yale University Press have produced an elegant and striking book on the history of the bicycle. Almost a coffee table book, it is substantial, richly illustrated and intimidating at 470 pages. A cursory reading suggests this is the ultimate book on the history of the bicycle. A more careful reading, though, disappoints and caused me to wonder what kind of pop history Yale is promoting.

It is clear from Herlihy’s introduction and from the division of the book into five major parts that the author was interested primarily in the critical period for the bicycle that runs from about 1867 until 1897. These three decades mark almost the entire evolutionary history of the bicycle as we know it, from the innovation of the pedal to the lightweight diamond frame and pneumatic tire of 1896. This time frame is presented in the book in three separate parts:

  • Part Two: The “Boneshaker Era”
  • Part Three: The “High Wheel Era” and
  • Part Four: The “Safety” Era.

Part One was added, I assume, in order to introduce human powered vehicles and is entitled “The Pre-History.” Part Five was added to round out the full history as a whirlwind excursion into the present from the heyday of the “safety” bicycle in the late 1890s.

If you’re not familiar with the development of the modern bicycle this book will certainly give you the necessary introduction. It traces the technological steps required to bring us to the modern mountain bike from the very early -1819 – “Draisine” or “Draisienne” in French. Glacially slow at first, this process took us from the “hobby horse” or “push bike” without pedals invented by Karl von Drais to the first “push bike” with pedals in the 1860s. (By pure coincidence Stage 7 in the 2005 Race ended in Karlsruhe, Germany, the birthplace of Karl von Drais!)

Part Two of Herlihy’s history begins with the application of the pedal to the axel of the “Draisine.” It was called the “boneshaker” because there was almost no suspension and the wheels were made of simple wood or metal, causing the slightest bump to reverberate up through the bones of the cyclist. The pedal started a period of experimentation, though, which also brought the first real bicycle tour from Paris to Grenoble in 1865 and from Nice to Clermond Ferrand in 1867. It also allowed the first races, for both men and women, in 1868 in France.

Having the pedal fixed to the axel and the wheel, of course, meant the bike could travel only as fast as the rider could pedal. The physics of this meant that the bigger the wheel, the further a bicycle could travel with one revolution. Hence the emergence of the “high wheel” or the “penny farthing” as the English called it. By the mid 1870s hard rubber liners on the tires, more sophisticated pedals, and wheels as large as 54 inches in diameter were all the rage, effectively taking over from the boneshaker and assuring the bicycle was a sport only for very daring young men because of the difficulty of getting on the bike and the danger of falling off.

The high wheeler became commonplace and hence, known as the “ordinary” bicycle in the 1870s and 1880s, but was quickly eclipsed by the late 1880s and 1890s by the “safety” bicycle. This bicycle was “safe” because it had two wheels the same size driven by a chain attached to the rear wheel. The rider sat lower to the ground and could touch both feet to the ground if necessary, saving him or herself from nasty spills.

Indeed, the safety bicycle quickly eliminated the high wheeler and made the bicycle widely accessible to women as well as men. Other innovations included better ball bearings, pneumatic tires and lighter tubing. The improvements resulted in more lightweight bicycles and a much smoother ride. The adoption of cycling by women, according to Herlihy, contributed significantly to the boom in manufacturing and sales of bicycles in the 1890s. It also helped to liberate women from restrictive dress codes as long skirts gave way to shorter skirts with bloomers underneath and Victorian corsets were abandoned to afford women the opportunity to take advantage of this “new” sport.

In the process of taking us through all these innovations Herlihy goes into considerable depth about the personalities involved, including the inventors, the technicians and the early entrepreneurs in the bicycle business. The securing of patents was key to the success of these early manufacturers so the success of early entrepreneurs depended on both their vision and their legal prowess with the filing of patents.

The convergence of the bicycle manufacturing boom in 1896-97, the admission of women to the sport, and the rise of the automobile comprise a fascinating period in personal mobility in the U.S. and Europe. Herlihy discusses all of this but he leaves the reader to fill in the details as he races to complete his own “history” with a broad brush of the bicycle story in the 20th century.

This wonderful book lacks proper documentation, footnotes and even a bibliography. I once had a professor who complained about books written from newspaper accounts alone. Herlihy’s research recalls this complaint. Though not written from newspapers alone, it is written almost entirely from popular or technical literature of the day from the U.S. and France, mostly, but also from Great Britain, Germany and Italy.

Herlihy’s footnotes consist of notes at the end of the book divided by chapter and linked back to quotes in the text. Yet there are no reference numbers to identify the sources of his quotes, ideas, or comments in the text. You have to assume and hope that you’ll find a source for that reference when he quotes someone in the text or when he writes about an idea. Comments such as this, for example, warrant a source reference:

“Some historians have suggested . . . that the British bicycle industry made a deliberate decision in the mid-1880s to throw open the doors of the cycling kingdom to admit a wider public.” (Herlihy, page 239).

Yet the author gives us no indication or reference of who those historians might be. So if you are interested in pursuing research on that particular topic, Herlihy won’t help you.

I happen to live in a household with three “feminists” (when we’re all home). I’m interested in the role of the bicycle in the history of women’s liberation. Indeed, Herlihy makes repeated references to this subject (pp. 135, 138, 227-8, 239, 244-5, 266 and 298) yet provides no sources for statements such as “many . . . insisted that the bicycle had exerted a profound social influence not only by instilling a greater appreciation for outdoor exercise but also by improving the condition of women.”

In doing the research for this book the author must have consulted the entire panoply of literature on the history of the bicycle. The inclusion of a bibliography would have made the book a wonderful source for students or other readers to begin a research project into any number of bicycle history related topics (see my list below!) But there is no bibliography. This is a shame and a wasted opportunity in my opinion. (For a wonderful bibliography on the history of bicycle touring see history professor Duncan Jamieson’s “Bicycle Travel and Touring Resources”.

So what’s my final conclusion on this book? It’s a wonderful literature review of the popular press even if you could likely never access the original articles. But it is a great guide for those interested in exploring the history of the bicycle in greater depth. Edward Penfield's advertisement for Stearns Bicycles: 'Ride a Stearns and be Content' from bertc.com/subtwo/stearns.htm It also has some wonderful illustrations and a list of the sources of those illustrations in the event you wanted to track down some of them. You can see who the primary artists were and search Google for Francisco Tamagno or Edward Penfield, for example, to order some wonderful historic bike posters.

Looking for a simpler, cheap history of the bicycle? Try John Woodforde’s The Story of the Bicycle (First published in 1970 by Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., London). You can find used copies for as little as $4.59 at Amazon.com.

Don’t get me wrong. It is worth spending time with this book and absorbing all you can from it. It is just lacking in many areas. Among them (here’s my short list of topics that yet need serious study about the bicycle) are:

A History of Bicycle Touring

Women’s Liberation and the Bicycle

The History of Bicycle Manufacturing (and the history of specific bicycle manufacturers)

Collector’s Guide to Vintage Bicycles

The Good Roads Movement and the Bicycle

Bicycle Clubs in America (Britain, France, Italy, Germany . . . . )

Influence of the Bicycle on Automobile Culture

And so much more.

Alas, as Melville so aptly wrote in Moby Dick, “time, strength, cash and patience.” If only we had more of all these commodities.

Rick Price - Rick Price, and his wife, Paola Malpezzi Price, founded Bike Across Italy in 1972, Italian Specialty Tours, Inc. in 1985 and ExperiencePlus! Specialty Tours, Inc. in 1993, though they sold the latter over to their daughters Monica and Maria Elena in 2008. Rick holds a Ph.D. in Geography and has designed bike tours all over the world. Finally, in 2009 he realized a lifelong dream of becoming a certified “League Cycling Instructor,” with the League of American Bicyclists. He is now Safe Cycling Coordinator for the Bike Co-op in Fort Collins, Colorado where he also writes a monthly column on Smart Cycling for the Fort Collins, Coloradoan. If you would like to contact Rick or Paola you can e-mail them at Rick(a)ExperiencePlus.com.