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The Eco-Worrier on the History of Bicycles

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

The bicycle is undoubtedly one of humanity’s greatest inventions. For each unit of energy expended it enables the cyclist to travel five times further than using the same effort in walking. Holland and Denmark are regularly held up as models of how the rest of the world should be basing its personal transport around the bike, but it seems reasonable to argue that they have only been able to do so because their cities - and indeed most of both countries - are extremely flat. The real ingenuity in the development of the bicycle perhaps belongs to the Scots. Without decent road surfaces and pneumatic tyres, bicycles might never have progressed beyond walking speed.

Image 1: An early 19th century ‘Hobby Horse'. Wooden frame and wheels. No pedals or brakes.

John Loudon McAdam was born in 1756, 3 years before that more acclaimed son of Ayrshire, Rabbie Burns. He was deeply involved in supervising the maintenance of the turnpike coach-roads and gradually developed his method of constructing a durable road in two layers of stone. After ensuring that the route was dry and above the soil’s natural water table, the base layer of stones, none larger than 3cm, had to be 20cm thick. The 5cm surface layer was made from smaller stones of no more than 2cm. Turnpike inspectors were equipped with small weigh-scales to ensure that stones were broken down to weigh no more than 6 ounces, while the workmen who used small hammers to achieve this objective were warned that no stone should be put into the road which they could not fit into their own mouths (a ‘rule of tongue’, as it were). The tarred road surface - ‘tarmac’ - which we take for granted today came much later, beginning in the 1920s, with many of our minor roads remaining in John McAdam’s original form until the Second World War.

Image 2: A mid-19th century ‘Boneshaker’. Cast iron frame, fixed pedals, wooden wheels.

A later Ayrshireman, John Boyd Dunlop (1840-1921), was a veterinary surgeon who was intrigued by the potential uses of rubber. After moving to Ireland at the age of 27 and setting up a large veterinary practice, he made inflatable tyres for his young son’s tricycle so that he could better negotiate the cobbled streets of Belfast. By 1899 he had started manufacturing bicycle tyres in Dublin, before opening the vast Fort Dunlop factory in Birmingham two years later which also began making pneumatic tyres for the newly-invented motor cars. Dunlop seems to have been untroubled by prodigious inventor Robert Thomson of Stonehaven (1822-1873) whose inflatable “aerial wheel” of rubber encased in leather was patented in France and the US in 1846/7 but unsurprisingly was unsuited to mass-production. Amongst Thomson’s many other wonders was a fleet of steam omnibuses which plied between Edinburgh and Leith in the late 1860s.

Prior to advances in metallurgy in the 1870s, wood and cast iron were the only materials available both for frames and wheels to the makers of assorted “hobby horse” and “pedestrian curricle” devices which the rider propelled with his or her feet on the ground - or ran uncontrollably downhill. It has been claimed that the first of these was made by Karl von Drais in Germany for a remarkable reason. The ‘nuclear winter’ caused by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia caused a global famine, not only for humans but for horses which died of starvation in their millions. As the world’s horse population recovered from the catastrophe, von Drais’ device was largely forgotten.

Image 3: A late-19th century ‘Penny Farthing’ bicycle. Fixed pedals.

The later 1800s saw primitive “boneshakers”made obsolete by bicycles, tricycles and quadricycles in a range of often-eccentric forms made from steel, not least the famous ‘penny farthing’ which could only be mounted and ridden by near-athletes and had a tendency to tip the rider in every direction - except possibly backwards.

The mould for the bicycle as we know it today was formed by Londoner John Kemp Starley whose ‘safety bicycle’ of 1871 was followed by the shock-absorbing abilities of his tangentially wire-spoked wheel three years later. In 1885 Starley moved to the factory in Coventry where his uncle had been making ‘penny farthings’ and started to produce his ‘Rover’ bicycle. His design with equal-sized spoked wheels, a tubular frame and pedals driving the real wheel through a chain was soon perfected by Dunlop’s tyres and has changed surprisingly little during the intervening 135 years.

Image 4: John Starley’s ‘Rover’ safety bicycle, in 1885 still lacking Dunlop’s pneumatic tyres.

The bicycle has enjoyed a major resurgence in recent decades, with most of the efforts to improve the basic design aimed at enhancing its efficiency and easing the fundamental problem of the often-feeble ‘engine’. A fit amateur cyclist may be able to produce around 200 watts or one quarter of a horsepower, while the Tour de France professional might double that amount. These figures are around one-sixteenth and one eighth respectively of the smallest ‘Vespa’ scooter at four horsepower. This is not to denigrate the cyclist or his mount but simply to highlight the energy-density of petrol. The cyclist is sustainably using the calories derived from last-year’s sunshine embedded in the crops and other natural products which make up his diet, whereas the petrol is the one-off product of tens of millions of years worth of sunshine. Because the bicycle uses a sustainable energy-source, is healthy, lasts a long time and requires little maintenance, despite being 135 years old it still has a long future ahead of it, while the fossil-fuelled ‘upstart’ probably doesn’t!

The Eco-Worrier on the History of Bicycles will be continued in the coming weeks. Watch this space!

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