Long road ahead for bicycles

The bicycle has remained largely unchanged for more than 130 years, a period in which it has improved the human gene pool and helped emancipate women. And in an age of global warming, it is coming back into its own.

A depiction of Karl von Drais and his Laufmaschine. Getty Images
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Alexander Graham Bell, Guglielmo Marconi, John Logie Baird, Alan Turing – the identities of men associated with world-changing inventions the telephone, radio, television and the computer are well enough known.

But few are likely to associate Kirkpatrick Macmillan, the son of a Scottish blacksmith, with an invention that many sociologists, historians and geneticists believe has done more to change the direction of human development than any other – the bicycle.

As with most inventions, of course, there is no one person who can take all the credit. Great minds often think alike and, frequently, at more or less the same time.

Karl von Drais, a 19th-century German inventor, patented his Laufmaschine, or running machine, in 1817. An adult-sized version of the balance bikes used by small children today, from a distance it looked a lot like a modern bicycle, but lacked any mechanical means of propulsion. The rider’s feet just pushed the thing along.

The machine, which became known variously as the hobby horse – and on account of the high-society beaux in European society among whom it became an instant if passing fad, the dandy horse – remained something of an impractical curiosity.

But von Drais had created a template from which, via a few design cul-de-sacs, such as the absurd penny farthing with its gigantic front wheel and precariously high rider’s perch, the bicycle as we know it today would evolve.

In 1839, while dandies were still scuffing the soles of their patent leather shoes propelling their hobby horses up and down the boulevards of Europe, Macmillan the blacksmith devised a simple but ingenious crank system, fitted to the rear wheel and operated by pedals attached to the front axle.

Suddenly here was a machine that could travel faster than a man could walk and, unlike expensive horses, required no regular feeding and watering.

In 1842 Macmillan set off on board his invention to travel the 65 miles from his smithy to Glasgow, and along the route crowds gathered to watch his progress.

Among them was a young girl who misjudged the speed of this infernal machine and was knocked over, becoming the first victim of a bicycle accident.

History forgets her name but records that she was not too badly hurt. Macmillan was also unhurt, but was taken to court and fined two days’ wages.

His name has also been all but lost to the history of the bicycle. He could have made his fortune but neither patented his invention, nor attempted to make anything of it.

It would be a surprisingly long time, and countless uncomfortable journeys on various contraptions known popularly and descriptively as boneshakers, before the final breakthrough that would create the bicycle as we know it today.

Again, exactly who first developed the idea of pedals driving the rear wheel through a chain and gears remains uncertain, but English engineer Thomas Humber is credited as one of the inventors of what became known as the Safety Bicycle, marketed in 1879.

This was a fad that was here to stay. To all intents and purposes, this is the bicycle as we know it today – improved and refined in almost all respects, yes, with inflatable tyres, sprung suspension, slick gears and all the rest, but essentially the same machine, fundamentally unchanged for the past 137 years.

It is difficult to overestimate the effect the bicycle had, both on individual lives and on social development in general. For the first time ordinary people had a cheap way of getting from A to B – and, quite literally, became upwardly mobile.

There was, wrote Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, in his 2000 book The Language of The Genes, "little doubt that the most important event in recent human evolution was the invention of the bicycle".

The diversity and quality of the human gene pool began to improve because, for the first time in history, large numbers of people were no longer limited to the village or valley in which they had been born, and intermarriage between cousins became a thing of the past.

Horizons were broadened in other ways as well. As part of a course titled “The Bicycle: Vehicle for Societal Change”, Ross Petty, professor of marketing law at leading US business school Babson College, listed 10 major social impacts of the bicycle.

Not without irony in an age where the streets are seen as the preserve of the motorist and cyclists – if they are lucky – are relegated to a bike lane, Prof Petty attributed the rise of the bicycle to the development of decent roads and signposting.

It was through cycling that doctors discovered that exercise was healthy, especially for women. The bicycle, claimed Prof Petty, “caused the death of the corset” and set women on the road to equality.

It was Susan B Anthony, the 19th-century American suffragette, who said the bicycle had “done more to emancipate women that anything else in the world”.

Those other key modern inventions, the car and the aircraft, both implicated today in global warming, have bicycles to thank in part for their existence.

Wilbur and Orville Wright honed the engineering skills that would lead to them taking to the skies in 1903 as makers of bicycles, and carried out aeronautical tests using one of their St Clair bikes as a test rig.

Henry Ford was another bicycle engineer, who adapted production techniques developed for the booming bicycle industry to mass produce the cars that would bear his name and change the world.

Today, given new impetus by a drive for sustainable living, the bicycle clearly has a long road ahead of it. As individuals and nations become more attuned to the perils of global warming, cycling is coming back into its own as the preferred form of transport for those concerned about their effect on the planet.

Recent figures show that since the Second World War, the production race between cars and bicycles has been won hands down by the bicycle.

In 1950 8 million cars were made and 11 million bikes. By 2013 the gap had widened to 50 million cars but in excess of 130 million bikes as the environmental message hit home – two wheels good, four wheels bad.