Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Technological Antecedents to the Automobile: The Bicycle

Technological Antecedents – The Bicycle
            Concurrent to ICE technological advances were developments related to the bicycle that took place in America between 1880 and 1900. The bicycle created a widespread demand for flexible, personal transportation, and it brought freedom to both women and young people. While the nineteenth century railroads exposed Americans to rapid (for the day) land transport, the very fact that tracks limited transverse spatial mobility opened the door to possibilities for more adaptable movement on roadways. Bicycles, despite their shortcomings associated with muscle power, difficult terrain, and weather, put urban dwellers in motion. In particular, their introduction and diffusion raised important questions concerning the quality of roads, manufacturing techniques, social changes, and legislation. Without exaggeration, the bicycle set the stage for the automobile that followed.
            The bicycle story began in Europe around 1819 with the introduction of a hobbyhorse design. Its historical evolution is traced in David Herlihy’s beautifully illustrated monograph.9 The first mechanical bicycle is credited to the Scotsman Kirkpatrick MacMillian, who in 1839 constructed a home-built, treadle-driven device so that he could more easily visit his sister who lived some 40 miles away. This invention was for the most part ignored until the 1860s, when in France so-called pedal velocipedes were manufactured by carriage maker Pierre Michaux and his son Ernest. These designs were a cross between the modern bicycle and the wooden hobbyhorse. The velocipede’s wheels consisted of wooden spokes and rims held together by a steel band. The front wheel was larger than the rear, and pedals were attached directly to the axle. With ivory handlebar grips, and a seat resembling an animal’s spine, this awkward-looking device weighed sixty pounds. It quickly earned itself an appropriate nickname – “the bone-shaker” – as it traversed the rough roads of that era. In 1869 the velocipede made its way to American shores, where a number of American firms improved its design. An American version incorporated hollow instead of solid steel tubes, and a self-acting brake. To stop, the rider pushed against the handlebars, thus compressing the seat spring and causing a brake shoe to engage against the rear wheel. It was seat-of-the-pants driving at its best, more a curiosity and sport than everyday technology.
            A brief velocipede craze followed in the late 1860s. At the same time, several social clubs were organized. It was difficult to ride the velocipede on the bumpy roads of the day, and one had to walk it uphill. But after 1871 interest in this less-than-practical device waned, in part because so many of the machines built were poorly designed. A radically new design was needed, and that would come as a result of the efforts of Englishman James Starley, who, to this day the British honor as the father of the bicycle industry.
            In 1870 Starley introduced his Ariel bicycle. Like its predecessors, the Ariel featured front drive pedals. However, for greater efficiency Starley made the front wheel as large as it could be, limited only by the length of the rider’s legs, and thus increased the wheel circumference and relative efficiency. Correspondingly, the rear wheel was reduced in size, making it just large enough to maintain balance. Thus, the era of the bone-shaker had ended and that of the “high wheeler” or “ordinary” began.
            English production techniques soon incorporated steel tubes, ball bearings, and solid rubber tires. One riding a high-wheeler could reach 20 mph, but it was dangerous and there was always the possibility of the rider “talking a header,” and flying over the handlebars. It was awkward and precarious, but in Britain a wide following soon emerged as clubs of cyclists were formed.
            The American ordinary craze was fueled by the efforts of manufacturer Colonel Albert A. Pope, a Civil War veteran from Boston who traveled to England, began importing British models, took the lead in establishing the American League of Wheel Men in 1880 and built his own models under the Columbia trademark. By 1884, Pope’s firm made some 5,000 “Columbia” units, and the technological gap between the U.S. and the British narrowed.10 The inherent problem with the ordinary, however, was that its size was connected with the stature of its rider, and thus standardization was impossible. Therefore, economies of scale in manufacturing could not be truly achieved.
The greatest advantage of British bicycle manufacturers during the 1880s lay in superior metallurgical techniques. Birmingham’s W.C. Stiff (an appropriate name given the technology he developed!) perfected a method of weld-less tube manufacture that permitted the brazing of light tubing to solid forging. By limiting the use of heavy gauge metal to stress points, a considerably lighter bicycle could be made without any loss of strength. Throughout the 1880s, American manufacturers were forced to use English tubes if they aspired to build first-class products. The British also modified the ordinary’s design by introducing gearing in the front of the vehicle, thus allowing the rider to pedal easier. These geared bicycles were called Dwarfs or Kangaroos, but most bicyclists saw them as no safer than the conventional design. If safety was an issue, and it certainly was for many women, they moved to a tricycle. American designers also attempted to reverse the large and small wheels of the ordinary, putting the large wheel in the back and gearing it, thus reducing the possibility of a rider going over the handlebars due to a sudden stop or maneuver.
            Americans made valuable technical contributions to bicycle design, particularly during the 1880s and 1890s. Just as the Americans seemed to be taking a lead in bicycle technology, in the mid-1880s John Kemp Starley, nephew of the creator of the Ariel, came up with the concept of the safety bicycle. This design featured a triangular frame, two wheels of about 2 feet in diameter, and a rear wheel driven by a sprocket connected to a chain. While the idea was not totally new, it was the industrial commitment to this design that was so important. Indeed, what emerged was the notion that safety was important, so much so that high wheelers became market curiosities by 1890.
            The social impact of the safety bicycle was enormous, particularly after 1888 when the design was coupled with John Boyd Dunlop’s pneumatic tires. The cycling population expanded greatly, and women, who had shunned the earlier models, embraced the dropped frame safety bicycle design. The dropped frame was introduced in 1888, and shortly thereafter women bicyclists’ skirts were shortened and their ankles exposed. Women began wearing bloomers, leading Elizabeth Cady Stanton to remark, “Many a woman is riding to the suffrage on a bicycle.”11 Further, young men and women could now go for rides without third party supervision. Patriarchal and matriarchal controls were increasingly being challenged by a machine, and as machines would become more complex with the coming of the automobile, so would the resulting social changes.
            Sales leaped forward in the 1890s, and an acetylene flame lamp was introduced in 1895 so that cyclist could travel safely at twilight and in the dark. For several years during the trend-driven Gay 90s, bicycling became a full-fledged boom. Bicycle racing became a popular sport, and many colleges established bicycling teams. Further, the bicycle inspired sheet music, trading cards, and board games. Undoubtedly the most famous of all songs inspired by the bicycle was Harry Dacre’s “Daisy Bell,” composed in 1892 with its chorus:
Daisy Daisy,
Give me your answer do!
I'm half crazy,
All for the love of you!
It won't be a stylish marriage,
I can't afford a carriage,
But you'll look sweet on the seat
Of a bicycle built for two!12
            By 1900, some 300 firms made more than a million bicycles in the U.S., making it a world leader. Innovations that followed included the coaster brake, a springed fork in the front, and cushioned tires. The cost of the bicycle halved from $100 to $50 during the 1890s, and thus American industry liberated the bicycle from its status as a plaything for wealthy sportsmen to a far more popular tool for travel. In doing so, the bicycle literally paved the way for the automobile, including the innovations of Henry Ford that would follow in the first decade of the twentieth century.
            Apart from raising consciousness concerning flexible travel and its impact on road improvements in the United States, no preceding technological innovation – not even the internal combustion engine – was as important to the development of the automobile as the bicycle. The bicycle was the object of scorn by horsemen and teamsters long before the appearance of the horseless carriage. Further, bicyclists gained the legislative right to use public roads in Massachusetts as early as 1879. Key elements of automotive technology that were first employed in the bicycle industry and then subsequently made their way into early automobiles included steel-tube framing, ball bearings, chain drive, and differential gearing. The bicycle industry also developed the techniques of quantity production using specialized machine tools, sheet metal, stamping, and electric resistance welding that would become essential elements in the volume production of motor vehicles.
            An innovation of particular note is the pneumatic bicycle tire, invented by Dr. John B. Dunlop in Ireland in 1888.13 Dunlop was far from working in a vacuum, however, as numerous inventors patented similar designs during the late 1880s and early 1890s. Also, the rubber tire had a long history that Dunlop undoubtedly built upon. Solid rubber tires were first introduced around 1835, and in 1845 Robert William Thompson, a civil engineer from Middlesex, England, patented a pneumatic tire similar to Dunlop’s design. An important issue was how to keep the tire on the rim, and it was not until the early part of the twentieth century before a system employing a wire-reinforced bead was widely adopted. Bicycle tires were the basis of automobile tires in France by 1895 and in the United States in 1896 when the B. F. Goodrich Company scaled up a single-tube bicycle tire for one of Alexander Winton’s early vehicles.

            The greatest contribution of the bicycle, however, was that it provided its owner with the ability to go when and where one wanted to. Sunday trips to out-of-the-way scenic places were now within the reach of the common man and his family. As one commentator of the period poignantly remarked, “Walking is on its last legs.”14 Thus, the bike was the first freedom machine, as it remains to this day for younger children who want to travel beyond the pale of an observing and controlling parent. It demanded, however, muscle power and a willingness to be exposed to the weather. To this day in many European cities the bicycle is an environmentally-friendly alternative to the automobile.15

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