Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Bicycle's Role in Automobile History

by Nancy DeWitt

Last week was "Bike to Work Week" in Fairbanks. Since I failed to live up to it, I thought I'd write about our budding bicycle exhibit instead. If you're wondering why a car museum has bicycles on display, bear with me.

Bicycle fever began brewing well before the first commercial automobiles were produced. Although the 'hobby horse' two-wheeler was invented around 1817, the velocipede (at left) was the first two-wheeler to be a called a bicycle and the first to powered by pedals. These were also known as 'boneshakers' for their rough ride (no doubt due to the wood and iron frame & wheels). Velocipedes first appeared in the 1860s and remained popular until around 1870. After much searching we've acquired a boneshaker for the museum and expect it to arrive soon.

Next came the highwheelers that many incorrectly assume were the first bicycles. The dramatically larger front wheel on 'an Ordinary' or 'Penny Farthing' allowed the rider to go farther with each revolution of the pedals, but highwheelers required much more skill and practice to ride. Around 1885 the 'Safety' bicycle appeared. These chain-driven bikes had medium-sized wheels of equal diameter and were the prototype for today's bicycles. You can see a highwheeler and several safety bicycles in our exhibit.

It's not a stretch to say that bicycles helped launch the age of the automobile, and also helped kick off women's liberation. In the 1890s, mass production of reasonably-priced bicycles allowed working men to use them for transportation and leisure. Bold young women donned scandalous bloomers and saw bicycles as their ticket to freedom. Susan B. Anthony would even declare that the bicycle "has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." As the popularity of bicycles grew, so did the demand for decent roads. We can credit pressure from recreational cyclists for the development of the Bureau of Public Roads and the beginning of highway construction that would later benefit automobilists.

The bicycle craze was also responsible for the start of steel tubing manufacturing in the U.S. and the development of the modern brake drum and shoe, chain drives, variable-speed gears, freewheeling and pneumatic tires -- all of which would be put to use in automobiles. Even assembly-line mass production was employed by the bicycle industry, well before Ransom Olds and Henry Ford discovered its value. Despite these advances, riders eventually realized the limitations of bicycles and longed for engine-powered transport that offered the same freedom. Hello automobile!

That is why bicycles have a place in a museum that celebrates the development of America's first cars. Our exhibits nicely illustrates the progression of bicycle development right up to the birth of the automobile industry. Our 1899 Hertel runabout is displayed with the bicycles because it nicely shows the transition from bikes to horseless carriages. Click here to see why or better yet, come see this exhibit in person!

1979. American Bicyclist and Motorcyclist: 100 (12)
1982. The Automobile's Bicycle Heritage. Automotive History Review: Vol. 15.


  1. It doesn't help me with my research papers about the history of automobiles and bicycles and I think that you should add more details to your next thing that you put online because this didn't give enough information for me to do my reports today.


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