Book Review

High Wheelers and Safety Bikes

June 27, 2020

The evolution of the bicycle, as told by the Margaret Guroff book The Mechanical Horse

Notes from Margaret Guroff's 2018 book "The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life."

It was men who first adopted the dangerous and perhaps-alluringly impractical high wheel "penny-farthing" bicycles, but it was subsequent wide demand from women for a more practical model, the "safety bike," that made this new form of transportation a household item. The rise of the bicycle is a perfect example of how a successful technology starts off as a novelty, is then adopted by a niche group of users before, finally, becoming an essential component of modern day life.

It is also another technology that has been driven forward (literally) by our relentless push to make more efficient use of time.

"Space has been a sort of enemy to enterprise, and a great part of our energies has been devoted to what has been called the annihilation of space," a bicycle industry magazine noted in 1869, explaining the appeal of the bike as a time-saving instrument.

Progress in the 19th century could be tracked by the collapse in the time it would take people, objects and messages to get from one place to another.

In 1813, a cargo wagon drawn by three horses would take two weeks to get between Boston and Philadelphia, due to the wretched state of the roads. Steamboats traveled faster, upwards of 10 mph. Going from News Orleans to Cincinnati would take only 11-12 days by boat, down from 90 days by road. And so the country went from 100 miles of canals in 1813 to about 3,300 miles by 1840. Trains were twice as fast than steamers, and weren’t stymied by the weather. And so by 1840, railroads had equaled the number of canal miles.

And the widespread adoption of bikes in the late 19th century shrunk the cities just as railroads had shrunk the time it took to get around the country.

"The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life"
by Margaret Guroff
University of Texas Press(2016)

It took a good half century for the bicycle to evolve into its current form, with each step making it more appealing to a larger set of users.

The first recognizable precursor to the bicycle was the draisine (also: "hobby-horse," or "running machine"). They had no chains nor pedals; People just pushed with their feet. Great for going downhill, not so much for going back up. Draisines were more an oddity than anything.

The next evolution for personal wheel'ed transpo came with the velocipede, a multi-wheeled vehicle propelled by a foot crank. The pedal opened up a new world. Those who went fast on these machines did not wobble, going against intuition. A letter to Scientific American in 1868, noted that “a carriage or a velocipede with but two wheels…should maintain an upright position is, to the superficial observer, one of the most surprising feats of practical mechanics.”

"Walking is on its last legs," gushed the magazine in another article, entitled "velocipede-mania"

In 1869, a German Mechanic invented the wire-spoke wheel. This allowed manufacturers to enlarge the front wheel to an almost absurd height -- the larger the wheel the more distance would be traversed through a single rotation of a pedal (this was still before the use of chains or gears). This discovery rapidly mutated the velocipede's front wheel's radius being nearly the length of the average man's legs, it would seem. A high wheel could speed along at 17 mph, well over the 7 mph at best of a standard peddlers of the day.

This, of course, made the enormously front-wheeled machines ridiculously cumbersome, suitable for only the most adventurous of men. Difficult to mount or dismount (tho not quite as difficult as you'd imagine), and, with just the slightest irregularity in the road, the driver might tumble -- headfirst! -- into the road ("taking a header")! Not surprisingly, such high wheels were only favored by the male hipsters of the day, a modest market. Only about 50 high wheelers were in the country in 1878, but that had grown to about 16,000 by 1888.

The evolution of the bicycle, as told by the Margaret Guroff book The Mechanical Horse

But what about the rest of the populace -- the ladies and the olds? High wheelers were, by nature, elitist. Sure there were tricycles. But have you ever driven one? They were cumbersome and heavy at best, and terrible on bad roads, the only kinds of roads America had at the time.

A new set of two-wheeled bikes used a chain to link the pedal to the rear wheels, allowing the front wheel to shrink, bringing the rider closer to the ground. The bicycle rode more comfortably, broadening its appeal to women. These bikes, the kind we most associate with today's form of bicycle, were called "safety bikes" to distinguish them from the high wheelers. And in 1888, manufacturers created a dropframe version that could accommodate the long skirts of women (though many female riders took to wearing bloomers on their new bikes).

For a time, the high wheelers and the safety bikes "coexisted like Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, with the bigger, older species continuing to inhabit its traditional niche while the smaller, nimbler creature carved out a new one," Guroff wrote.

But in the end, practicality won out. The High Wheelers that used to cost as much as $300 were being discounted to $10. And while the safety bikes originally went for a relatively expensive $150, by 1895 that cost had shrunk to $75, thanks to fierce market competition from the 300 companies that collectively produced 500,000 bikes that year.

The evolution of the bicycle, as told by the Margaret Guroff book The Mechanical Horse