The Bicycle—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

It is a rite of passage, starting with a stable three-wheeled tricycle. Next is a less stable two-wheeled bicycle with two training wheels, and finally the freedom of a two-wheeler itself. But however exciting it may seem to children and parents at the time, in retrospect this progression is really a mundane part of modern life. So much so that few people realize the long history of the bicycle and the unexpected impact it has had on modern society.

Think of the Netherlands without its ubiquitous bicycles—unimaginable! Think of France without its world-famous Tour de France cycling race—unimaginable! Not to mention the Giro d’Italia in Italy and the Vuelta de España in Spain—equally unimaginable.

Given the new freedom of movement, in 1896 American suffragette Susan B. Anthony remarked, “The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.”

This is why the ever-present, under-appreciated bicycle truly deserves the accolade of what I call “extraordinary ordinary things.”

What Is a Bicycle?

The term “bicycle” literally means “two wheels,” and that is basically all the bicycle was when it came into being in the early 19th century. Originally called a “walking machine,” the precursor of the modern bicycle was created in 1817 by German inventor Karl Drais as a kind of wheeled walking device to help him get around more quickly in parks and gardens.

The device basically consisted of two wheels mounted on a wooden frame. The front wheel could be turned left or right for steering. To use it, you straddled the frame and then pushed your feet on the ground, thus rolling yourself and the machine forward in a sort of gliding motion. The walking machine enjoyed a short life as a fad, but quickly fell out of favor because it was impractical for transportation in places other than on well-manicured pathways such as in parks and gardens. 

The next incarnation of the bicycle came in 1865 as a two-wheeled riding machine. This time two pedals were attached to the front wheel. The rider straddled the wooden frame, positioned one foot on a pedal, then moved off. Once mounted, he put his other foot on the second pedal and continued going. This machine was official known as a velocipede (fast foot), but it became popularly known as the “boneshaker” because the combination of the vehicle’s metal wheels and cobblestone streets made it extremely uncomfortable. One of its principal uses was at indoor riding academies, similar to modern roller-skating rinks, where it was used more for pleasure and competition than for transportation.

In 1870 the boneshaker was followed by the high-wheel bicycle. This device consisted of a very big front wheel with pedals attached to it and a very small back wheel. Its long spokes (the reason the front wheel was so big) and solid rubber tires gave a much more comfortable ride than did its predecessors. Over time, the front wheel became larger and larger so that the rider could go greater and great distances with a single rotation of the pedals. However, this also made the device increasingly less stable, so you had to be rather experienced to actually ride one.

This was the first device actually called a bicycle. However, in England it became popularly known as the “penny farthing” because in the money of the time a penny was a very big coin and a farthing was a very small one. You would purchase a wheel as large as your leg length would allow. The various models of the high-wheel bicycle enjoyed considerable popularity in the decade of the 1880s, largely among young men of means. Its price was equivalent to about six-month’s pay for an average worker.

Various innovative designs were tried to make the bicycle more comfortable and less dangerous. One such design put a small wheel in front and a big wheel in back. This was to protect the rider from falling forward and landing on their head, which was an ever-present danger with a big front wheel and small back wheel.

The first of what we would call a modern bicycle made its appearance in the mid-1880s. It returned to the concept of the original walking machine, i.e. two wheels of the same size. However, advances in metallurgy had made it possible to build the entire device in metal rather than wood. Moreover, rather than putting the pedals directly on the front wheel, it was now possible to put them in between the two, the pedals being connected to the rear wheel via a chain to propel the device forward.

Some historians and enthusiasts are fond of saying that the bicycle is what made the Gay Nineties so gay (joyous). By the 1890s, it had become a practical means of transportation of the working class.

The rear-powered bicycle also provided a welcome means for ladies to travel longer distances while still keeping their legs decorously covered by the then obligatory long skits. And, as a concession to the bicycle, the fashionable corset and bustle had to be abandoned. For the benefit of ladies who did not wish to abandon their corsets, a three-wheeled device was developed, which quite naturally was called a tricycle.

Bicycles and Computers

By the end of the 19th century, the basic design had been established. However, their range of uses had just begun. Today there are specialized categories of bicycles such as modern road bikes, racing bikes, all-terrain (mountain) bikes, freight-carrying bikes, utility bikes (for commuting, shopping, running errands), military bikes, stunt bikes, etc. All categories of bikes benefit from the help of computers to develop basic designs, test variations of basic designs, choose appropriate construction materials, maximize comfort, minimize the risk of injurious accidents, etc.

Because of cycle racing’s prestige and financial importance, not only do computers help design for this particular category, they are also used to design and produce racing bikes for particular individuals. Designers, of course ,have to work within the parameters set by bicycle racing’s international and national governing bodies. However within these restrictions, a personally designed racing bike can help convert a very good cyclist into a world champion.

Anyone who has been paying attention will be aware that in many major cities around the world, the bicycle is once again having a major impact on society. In an effort to reduce automobile traffic congestion and air pollution, many municipalities have introduced free or low-cost rental bicycles to move around the metropolis. Basically, you pick up your bicycle at an expanding number of bicycle rental stations, usually outdoors on the sidewalk, cycle to where you want to go, then return the vehicle to another rental station. Given that rental stations have been proliferating exponentially, picking up and retuning urban bicycles seems to be becoming easier and easier, thus encouraging more and more users.

Great, right! Well, not necessarily. As with many “obviously good ideas,” urban free or rental bicycle programs may have a dark underbelly. The success of such programs has spawned a number of private-enterprise competitors, notably in the form of electric bicycles (no pedal power required), electric stand-up scooters (like a child’s sidewalk scooter), sit-down electric scooters (like small motorcycles), etc. 

For example, although San Francisco initially welcomed them, it is now somewhat regretting its hospitality because the streets are becoming clogged with these electric two-wheel vehicles. This does not relieve traffic congestion because most car riders continue to ride in cars. At the same time, many previous walkers seem to be increasingly abandoning their two feet in favor of electric two-wheelers.

A major innovation with most electric two-wheelers is that you no longer even need to look for them at an official rental station. Instead, you can pick them up and leave them anywhere you want. This is because the rental cost is relatively high ($10 or more per hour), so you use them only as long as you need to get from one place to another, then turn them off. You are charged only for the time the vehicle is actually used; the moment you turn it off, the charge stops. Someone else then comes along, turns it on again, rides to wherever they want to go, and turns it off. The more such vehicles are in circulation, the greater the chances of finding one whenever you need it. Even better, there are smartphone apps that will locate the vehicle nearest to you no matter where you are, so you don’t even have to look for it.

Great, right? Well largely yes, but not entirely.

One very annoying consequence is that city sidewalks are becoming increasingly congested with waiting-to-be used electric vehicles. People being what they are, they lay aside their vehicle with little or no consideration for the pedestrians who also use the sidewalk.

Here in Brussels, many sidewalks are quite narrow, so a poorly parked electric two-wheeler can completely block the passage. Thus, walkers have to step into the street to get around it. I sometimes become so incensed at this incivility that I pick up the vehicle and move it to a less encumbering location, which is usually only a couple of feet away. When I do this, I usually get two responses. The vehicle starts whining while I move it because apparently it shouldn’t be moved without first being activated. Second, if there are witnesses to my righteous action, I get a short, sincere round of applause.

And the problem seems on the verge of becoming even worse. Now that electric two-wheelers have become a common sight in Brussels, other companies (including car rental companies) are extending the proposition. Instead of renting such vehicles only when being used, they are now offering them for rental by the day or week for tourists and others who feel the need for planned rather than spontaneous use. The charge for daily or weekly rentals of course is considerably less per hour than for pick up and drop off whenever you want rentals. If they catch on, the parking problems created by such vehicles can only increase, not to mention accidents and injuries, which are virtually guaranteed in a city simply not built for such an innovative form of transportation.

In 2015, a bicycle was employed to raise questions and perhaps provide tentative answers to some key questions in human neuroscience. It was constructed so that when the rider turned the handlebars to the right, the vehicle actually turned to the left; likewise, when the rider turned the handlebars to the left, the vehicle turned to the right. The question was: “How easily could an experienced bicycle rider adapt to the new situation?” The answer (at least in this single trial) was not easily at all. In fact it took the subject about eight months, practicing at least five minutes a day. Then the question was: “How easily could the same rider revert to the right = right, left = left system?” Once again, apparently it was not easy.

Unfortunately, the video reporting on the trial does not specify how long it took the subject to make the switch, or whether he ever reached a stage where he would easily switch from one system to the other.

(You can also refer to this blog post commenting on the trial, and in particular its possible implications for computing.)

The historic role the bicycle has played in creating modern society seems to have been fully appreciated by luminary computer pioneer Steve Jobs (Apple), who once declared the computer to be the equivalent of “a bicycle for our minds.”

It is worthwhile noting what he said in full.

I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. Humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list . . . That didn’t look so good, but then someone at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle, and a man on a bicycle blew the condor away. That’s what a computer is to me: the computer is the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with. It’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.

High praise, indeed.