To many, nothing is quite as elegant as a simple, effective design that remains relevant for many generations. Something like the humble bicycle. With its beginnings in the early 1800s and still being among the most important methods of transportation for people all around the world today, the bicycle has stood the test of time and carved out a place for itself among the most significant inventions of the millennium. The bicycle is an example of engineering at its best and this text will delve deeper into its invention and development, and the impacts that it has had on society.
In 1816, the world was thrown into chaos when Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted, releasing nearly 40 cubic miles of ash into the atmosphere. This blocked out enough of the sunlight to plunge Europe into a volcanic winter. The harsh conditions killed much of the livestock, and most of the surviving animals were eaten by hungry peasants who couldn’t keep up with the food prices which spiked by a factor of ten due to poor growing conditions. The animals that fell victim to this included horses, which left very few to pull carriages and kicked off a search for better human powered transportation.
Many of these attempts were four or more wheeled, Flintstones-style vehicles, but it didn’t take too long before Baron Drais von Saurbronn, a 31 year-old German aristocrat and inventor, created the first two wheeled vehicle that could be regarded as the archetype of the modern bicycle.
The mobility provided by bicycles was especially game-changing for women who had, until now, had very few opportunities to leave the house. The bicycle offered women an unprecedented amount of freedom and fueled the fire of the blossoming feminist movement. Civil rights activist Susan B. Anthony said “I think the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
The freedom to travel also helped many people move away from the health problems of the urban slums that were close to where they worked and go out to the suburbs. It also helped those who already lived far from the city, allowing the isolated residents of rural areas to avoid marrying their cousins by giving them the option to cycle to the next town. Geneticist, Steve Jones said “there is little doubt that the most important event in recent human evolution was the invention of the bicycle. Angry cyclists also lobbied for better roads. This ended up being very useful once the automobile came around. And on the topic of automobiles, many of the components of early automobiles were originally developed for bicycles, Including ball bearings, pneumatic tires, chain-driven sprockets, and tension-spoked wheels.
According to World Bicycle Relief, the freedom of transportation provided by bicycles leads to better education, health, relief and market access. “Student attendance increases by up to 28%, grades increase by up to 59%, Healthcare workers reach 40% more patients, Entrepreneurs travel four times further, carrying five times more goods, increasing profits by up to 50%.” And last but not least, bicycles are helping people all around the world stay in shape. Brief periods of cycling several times a week reduces the risk of adult diabetes, coronary heart disease and obesity by as much as 50%.
To conclude, early bicycles were amazing machines that evolved into even better machines. All the while massively impacting society and carving out a place for itself as one of the most significant inventions of all time. The bicycle brought the freedom of transportation to millions who could never have afforded it otherwise, freed women, caused major advancements that eventually helped make the automobile so practical, stopped incest, freed people from city slums, reduces our carbon footprint, keeps people in shape and is currently working wonders relieving poverty in developing nations. I would be hard pressed to find a more impressive and objectively good engineering accomplishment than the creation of the humble bicycle.