Right now, the global bicycle market is a $61 billion industry: 130 million bicycles are sold annually around the world; two thirds are made in China.
As recently as 1965, the production of bicycles and cars was the same, at 20 million each. Today, there are around one billion bicycles in the world, or twice as many cyclists as drivers.
Curiously, early bicycles tended to be adopted by the fashionable elite, a form of conspicuous consumption. The introduction of accessories (often more expensive than the original product) also first appeared in the bicycle industry.
The invention of the bicycle predates both the automobile and the aeroplane, and advances in bicycle tech – including ball bearings, spoke-tensioned wheels, chain-driven sprockets, gears and pneumatic tyres – eventually played a key role in the development of both. The birth of the bicycle says much about not just the accelerating pace of human innovation, but also where the mother of invention, necessity, can ultimately lead us.
The year without summerThe invention of the bicycle can be traced back to a string of likely and unlikely events. In 1550, Germany was utilising wagonways, roads comprised of wooden rails and the precursor to today’s railroads. Horses pulling wagons over wooden rails was a more efficient process than over dirt. By 1776, iron had replaced both the wooden rails and the wheels.
In 1804, the first steam-powered engine appeared in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. The technology behind the steam locomotive was intended to gradually replace horsedrawn carts. But at the same time, starting from 1790, solar activity suddenly decreased and global volcanism increased, culminating in the most powerful volcanic eruption in human history: in 1815, Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia, ejected 160 cubic kilometres of debris into the atmosphere.
The world experienced severe climate aberrations the following year, which unleashed crop failures and concomitant food shortages across the northern hemisphere. That year, 1816, which is infamously remembered as ‘the year without summer’ and the ‘poverty year’, also ushered in the end of subsistence agriculture – a methodology that had sustained human beings for millennia. But beyond the 71 000 dead, 1816 saw another vital population decimated due to starvation – horses.
It was within these circumstances that German inventor Karl von Drais developed his 22kg Laufmaschine (‘running machine’). Intuitively, the wooden invention resembles a horse, and even today the seating apparatus is called a saddle. The original velocipede was steerable, had two steel-rimmed wheels, a rear-wheel brake and was human-propelled by walking or running-while-sitting. The first verifiable ride occurred in Mannheim on June 12, 1817. Von Dais propelled himself 13km in less than an hour. Overnight, thousands of replicas were built, mostly in Western Europe and North America. Because the wealthy tended to own one, the Laufmaschine was known colloquially as the dandyhorse, but it was prone to accidents.
In 1818, British cart-makers seized on the Von Dais concept and began to make improvements. London’s Denis Johnson, a cartwright by trade, patented what he called a ‘pedestrian curricle’ that sported more serpentine lines in the frame, allowing for larger wheels. Thanks to clever marketing by Johnson, and in spite of a disparaging remark by the poet John Keats, the English version of the ‘dandyhorse’ was all the rage in the streets of London in the summer of 1819. But fines were imposed for riding on pavements, and footwear took a beating.
The first recorded cycling traffic offence appeared in a Glasgow newspaper in 1842, when the Scottish blacksmith Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a ‘gentleman from Dumfriesshire... bestride a velocipede... of ingenious design’ knocked over a small girl and was fined five shillings.
The next critical advance came from France, where cranks and pedals were applied to the hub of the front wheel. In 1863, the world saw the first pedal-operated bicycle, and wood was replaced with steel tubing, for example in the large front wheelers or penny-farthing. In 1868, the Coventry Sewing Machine Company examined a Michaux cycle and within a few years became Britain’s first bicycle factory.
In 1885, the design was further improved by adding a chain. J.K Starley’s ‘Rover’, manufactured in Coventry, is commonly regarded as the world’s original recognisably modern bicycle. The final touch included a seat tube typical of modern diamond frames. A few years later, the Scotsman John Dunlop developed the pneumatic tyre, and the remainder of bike tech quickly followed: freewheeling rear wheels, derailleur gears, coaster and cable-pull brakes. Bicycles, for the first time, were safe, comfortable, easy to steer, suitable for women and fast. The bicycle craze was ushered in 1890, a golden age of bicycles. It had taken 73 years for the invention to be perfected, and at the turn of the century, cycling was an important means of transportation for the average citizen. One-hundred-and-twenty-odd years later, bicycles are still being developed for conspicuous consumption.
Formula OneIn Norfolk, England, BERU f1systems engineers have created the world’s most advanced bicycle. It is the world’s first bicycle designed and hand-built by Formula One engineers. John Bailey, MD of BERU f1systems, said at the time: “I am very pleased that what started as a ‘clean sheet’ design exercise to showcase our expertise in composites and electronics has delivered such a beautifully styled, scientific training device.
“Athletes,” Bailey adds, “and their trainers now have access to performance enhancement capabilities that are the norm in top-level motorsport, and individuals interested in an exclusive, high-end, differentiated bicycle now have a serious alternative.”
The 7kg Factor001 has ceramic materials in its hydraulic braking system, a customised made-to-measure frame featuring monocoque designs developed with Formula One’s idiosyncratic modelling and analysis software. The frame chassis comprises sophisticated load sensors, control cables, hydraulic brake lines, batteries and general wiring. The on-board computer integrated into the handlebars incorporates motorsport-grade sensors, including GPS, performance monitoring, LCD touchscreen representing ergonomic, biometric and environmental data, and radio transmission for downloading data post-ride. A few hundred units of the Factor001 will go into production. While the Factor001 is a training machine (its specifications are illegal for professional bicycle races), in March 2011, Formula One’s McLaren and bicycle manufacturer Specialized released the Specialized McLaren Venge, an updated version of the Factor001. Its rider, Mark Cavendish, is the world’s fastest sprinter. The Venge will be available for wider release in September this year.
Simple toolsAt the other end of the spectrum, bicycles are an ideal and much underestimated tool for poverty relief, and have profound implications in terms of liberating users from oil consumption. Research conducted in Tanzania, Uganda and Sri Lanka indicates that by simply giving a poor, rural family a bicycle, incomes can be increased by as much as 35 percent. A bicycle may seem a relatively simple contraption by today’s standards, yet the layers of simple technology advancements applicable to bicycles, including mechanisation and mass production, vertical integration and aggressive marketing, formed the foundation for technologies in many other industries that came later, especially automobile manufacture.
A bicycle travelling at 16 to 24 km/h (equivalent to the energy burned while walking) is the most energy-efficient means of transport. It is far more efficient, for example, than a car travelling with five passengers, or a train, or even walking. In terms of weight ratios, it is also the most efficient form of cargo transport. The bicycle is environmentally friendly, efficient, inexpensive, fast and healthy. Is it possible that in the face of the vast gamut of environmental and energy troubles, we have already invented the answer?