The wheel might be humanity's greatest invention, but consider an equally revolutionary idea: balancing on two of them. Today, the bicycle is an everyday part of work and leisure worldwide, but at the beginning of the 19th century, it was a revelation.
An exhibit at New York's Paine Webber Art Gallery called "Bicycles: History, Beauty, Fantasy," which runs through Oct. 4, explores the development of the bicycle from its debut in the early 19th century to the dawn of the automobile age at the beginning of this century. The show uses antique bicycles, photographs, posters, and cycle paraphernalia to lovingly detail the bicycle's evolution, not only as a piece of engineering and design, but also as a force for social change.
"It's universal," says curator Pryor Dodge of the bicycle's appeal. "For children, balancing on their own gives a real sense of accomplishment, and once you get the training wheels off, you're free. It gives people their first sense of power."
Freedom and power are strong themes in the exhibit and are often reflected in early designs that incorporated animal and bird motifs. At first a toy for the fashionable elite, the bicycle became an affordable and easy way for Europeans and Americans who did not own a horse or carriage to move around. As the world's "first democratic means of transportation," the bicycle also helped liberate another social class: women.
The bicycle offered women freedom from domesticity, isolation, and the restrictions of constant chaperones who were unable to tag along on a bicycle ride. It also fueled a movement for women's "rational dress," eventually leading to freedom from suffocating corsets and heavy skirts that made any kind of physical exertion onerous.
"I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world," American suffragist Susan B. Anthony declared in 1896. "It gives women a freedom and self-reliance."
But as an invention, let alone as a tool for social change, the bicycle had a slow start. Its inventor, the German baron Karl von Drais, had to apply twice before receiving a patent for his "running machine" in 1818. His design consisted of two wooden wheels connected by a wooden beam topped by an upholstered seat. A rider would grip the handles, straddle the beam and, according to instructions in an 1819 Philadelphia paper, use "a propelling push with one foot, anon with another."
The "Draisine," its English cousin, the "hobby horse," and its French incarnation, the "Velocipede," caught aristocratic fancy across Europe and in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, where riding schools opened. The trend ebbed within a few years, but the idea of a viable "mechanical horse," a 19th-century obsession, had taken hold. Then, in the 1860s, the French came up with a revolutionary concept that would propel bicycling into the next century: the pedal.
For the first time, steady and constant travel was possible without having to pound the ground constantly. Manufacturers, carriagemakers, and sewing-machine companies in England, Europe, and the United States turned their technology to producing the Velocipedes.
Unlike the unwieldy and expensive Draisine, mass production made these new machines affordable to the working and middle classes. By 1869, the golden age of the bicycle was in full swing.
"The Velocipede mania hit all classes," says Mr. Dodge, a flutist whose personal collection forms the base of the exhibit. Dodge has also written "The Bicycle," a lavishly illustrated book published by Flammarion that mirrors the exhibit. "Clubs were formed, people began trick riding in the streets, in music halls, and thousands came out to watch races."
One three-day meet organized in 1883 by the Springfield (Mass.) Bicycle Club offered $16,000 in prize money. The hefty purse drew 600 high wheelers and 70,000 spectators who crammed the streets to watch the cyclists, colorfully dressed like horse jockeys.
Despite their often graceful design, the early wooden Velocipedes were dubbed "boneshakers." But by the end of the 1860s, European innovations such as solid rubber tires and metal wheels and spokes made for a more comfortable ride. The classic high-wheel shape, with front wheels as wide as 60 inches in diameter, was also developed at this time. Its appeal was a matter of simple physics: a revolution of a larger wheel meant a greater distance could be covered by the cyclist.
In the 1880s, attempts to make the high-wheeler less dangerous produced the "safety," which used smaller wheels. With the invention of a rear chain-drive and Scottish veterinarian John Dunlop's innovative pneumatic tires, the bicycle we ride today was born. This new bicycle offered speed, comfort, safety, and convenience, all the attributes 19th-century inventors dreamed of when they envisioned a mechanical horse. Public reaction to the new design was overwhelming.
In cities and rural towns, the bicycle became an important tool for ministers, doctors, and postmen, as well as a recreational pastime and a passport to childhood freedom. It was, the Atlantic Monthly magazine proclaimed in 1896, "one of the world's great inventions."