The bicycle was one of the earliest forms of recreation and entertainment to become accessible to the masses. A series of inventions during the 1800s introduced the concept of a rider-powered vehicle to the general public, but it was not until the introduction of the safety bicycle (so called because it was built to be safer than its predecessors) in 1876 that the bicycle came to be seen as a viable form of transportation. The industry proliferated in the late 1800s, and by 1900 more than 10 million people in the United States owned bicycles. In the years preceding the U.S. manufacture of automobiles (which began around 1900), the bicycle became an important means of conveyance and recreation, and it remains a popular, economical mode of transportation and a vibrant industry in the twenty-first century. By offering riders an unprecedented sense of personal freedom and self-reliance, the bicycle has had a profound impact on Americans’ relationship to the environment and to one another.
The modern bicycle is a result of the work of several innovators. In 1817 the German inventor Baron Karl von Drais de Sauerbrun (1785–1851) developed a two-wheeled device that resembled a scooter, the drasienne. The device was later improved by the Scotsman Kirkpatrick Macmillan (1813–78), who in 1839 added pedals to the vehicle, creating the world’s first real bicycle. In 1870 the English inventor James Starley (1830–81) designed a bicycle with a large front wheel and a small rear wheel. He named it the Ariel. The invention was also called the “penny-farthing” (after two differently sized British coins), the “high-wheeler,” and the “ordinary.” Although this bicycle was easier to pedal and faster (one revolution of the pedals turned the front wheel once) as a result of the elevation of the seat, its high center of gravity made it unstable and even dangerous. The addition of a third wheel in the rear for stability, creating a tricycle (also called a velocipede), improved the design of the Ariel.
The bicycle’s popularity began to rise in 1876 with the advent of the safety bike. Invented by Englishman H. J. Lawson (1852–1925), the bicycle had wheels of equal size and a bike chain to drive the rear wheel. This practical design was improved again in 1895 when the rubber tires were modified to hold air. Mass production of the safety bicycle began in 1885.
These technological improvements, an increase in advertising spending by manufacturers, and a decrease in the average price per unit to around $50 created an explosion in bicycle sales and manufacturing in the late nineteenth century. Whereas in 1890 only 40,000 bicycles were produced in the United States, in 1896 an estimated 1.2 million bicycles were produced. The number of manufacturing companies multiplied more than tenfold, from 27 to 312, during the same period. Among urban middle- and upper-class consumers, the bicycle quickly became the preferred form of transportation, as horse-drawn carriages and streetcars now seemed crowded, slow, and limited in their destinations by comparison. The bicycle allowed riders to venture outside of their usual locales to explore the city and countryside on what came to be known as a bicycle tour.
As a form of personal transportation, however, the bicycle was far better suited to the urban well-to-do than to rural farmers or low-income workers. Even a $20 low-end bicycle proved unaffordable for some workers, who might earn as little as $300 per year, and the scarcity of paved roads outside of the city made pedal-powered transportation impractical for farmers and field workers. The League of American Wheelmen, a bicycle club founded in 1880, sought to address the lack of paved rural roads by sponsoring demonstrations and lobbying efforts under the banner of the Good Roads Movement. In 1892 the League began publishing Good Roads Magazine, an annual pamphlet extolling the potential benefits of paved roads and government-funded road maintenance programs. Their efforts proved extremely influential: in February 1893 the U.S. Senate approved funding for the Office of Road Inquiry, later to become the Federal Highways Administration, which was responsible for the construction of interstate highways. While many attribute the paving of America’s roads and the construction of interstate highway systems to the advent of the automobile, it was in fact the efforts of cycling enthusiasts that made paved roads a national priority in the twentieth century.
Another sociopolitical effect of the bicycle craze of the late nineteenth century was the advent of the female cyclist. Coinciding with the rise of the so-called New Woman—the emerging ideal, championed by a growing contingent of feminists, of an intelligent, independent, and strong-willed woman—the bicycle allowed women a degree of mobility and independence that they had never before enjoyed. Indeed, in a New York World interview that appeared in 1896, leading women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) famously proclaimed, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood.” Female cyclists also initiated a number of changes to women’s wardrobes in the late nineteenth century, introducing the more practical billowing pants known as “bloomers” as an alternative to the long dresses that had previously been the standard feminine attire.
The bicycle had a transformative effect on the American lifestyle, adding thousands of jobs in the manufacturing, repair, and apparel industries, altering social norms, and initiating the demand for a network of paved roads throughout the country. Just as quickly as it grew in the late nineteenth century, however, bicycling enthusiasm dissipated in the early twentieth century, as the mass-produced automobile quickly overshadowed all previous forms of transportation.
The bicycle industry yielded some of the great innovators in twentieth-century transportation, including bicycle designer Charles Edward Duryea (1861–1938), who demonstrated the first successful gas-powered car in the United States with his brother Frank (1869–1967) in 1893. Brothers John and Horace Dodge (1864–1920; 1868–1920) introduced the use of ball bearings into bicycle designs in 1890 and later founded the Dodge Brothers Company, one of the most successful American automobile companies. Brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright (1867–1912; 1871–1948), who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, used the skills they learned in their trade to build the first airplane.