Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 78:
THE BICYCLE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 78.

Today, we talk about bicycles and freedom. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The history of the bicycle is curiously tied to that of the horseless carriage. Together they represent the routes taken by the poor and by the wealthy to freedom of motion. The early 1800s saw all kinds of new steam-powered vehicles. At first, steam carriages competed with locomotives, but the railways won that battle -- largely because they made transportation inexpensive in a way steam-carriages couldn't.

Still, trains were confining. People wanted freedom to travel the roads as they pleased. The new dream of rapid movement had to be individualized. If the answer was not to be the steam carriage, then maybe it could be the bicycle.

Between 1816 and 1818, Scottish, German, and French makers all came out with primitive bicycles. They all seated a rider between a front and a back wheel with his feet touching the ground so he could propel himself with a walking motion. The odd thing about this form of bicycle is that it wasn't new. Such bikes are found in Renaissance stained glass, Pompeian frescos, and even in Egyptian and Babylonian bas-reliefs.

But the Scottish maker Macmillan added a feature to his "hobbyhorse," as he called it, around 1839. He added a pedal-operated crank to drive the back wheel -- like the pedal-operated chain drive on your bike. Oddly enough, that idea didn't catch on then, and later bikes used a pedal attached to the front wheel -- like the tricycles we rode as children.

The front-wheel pedal led to larger and larger front wheels. The bigger the wheel, the further the bike would move on each turn of the pedal. This led to the dangerously unstable bicycle you've seen in Courier and Ives prints -- the one with the huge front wheel and the tiny back one. In its developed form it was called the "ordinary" bicycle, but it was nicknamed "penny farthing" because its wheels looked like large and small coins.

The ordinary was so tricky that it finally gave way to the so-called safety bicycle -- the modern bike with two equal wheels, the back one driven by a chain and sprocket. The safety bike was a lot like MacMillan's hobbyhorse design 46 years earlier. It went into production in 1885 and soon not only replaced the ordinary but remained the basic bike design ever after.

So the modern bike entered the 20th century along with the new gasoline automobiles. It freed those people who couldn't afford cars. Now they too could go where they pleased.

And, oh, the sense of freedom I felt as a boy when I got my first bike. It let me fly like the wind and go where I wanted. It was a wonderful thing.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


The story of the bicycle is told in many places. A very good account may be found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1468.



From Appleton's Cyclopaedia of Applied Mechanics, 1892

"Penny-farthing" bicycle

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From Appleton's Cyclopaedia of Applied Mechanics, 1892

Safety bicycle


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.


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