Library of Congress

And other insights from “The Mechanical Horse,” Margaret Guroff’s new cultural history of cycling.

All too often, drivers act like cyclists don’t belong on the road. And that’s not entirely their fault: By and large, city streets are designed to support cars, not bikes. This can have dangerous, road-ragey outcomes when the two modes mix.

But drivers actually have bicycles to thank for the fact that most roads are paved at all. Much more than that, bicycles influenced the design of cars and their mass-manufacturing. Bikes also were a vehicle of first-wave feminism, helped underpin the development of cities in the 20th century, and informed the invention of the airplane.

The Mechanical Horse, a slim, dazzling cultural history of the bicycle by Margaret Guroff, reminds readers of these and other contributions the two-wheeled fliers have made since their invention in the late 19th century. It gives cyclists a history to be proud of (plus some ammo the next time some car cuts them off).

Women’s liberation

Before the modern bicycle came many iterations of faddish cycling machines, including the high-wheel bike. It might be parodied today, but in the late 1870s, they were high-tech speed machines, all the rage among strapping young men of the upper class. With these bikes’ direct drivetrains and towering heights, “There was just about no way to ride it if you didn’t have lots of strength, or if you wore cumbersome clothing,” Guroff tells CityLab.

Woman with bicycle wearing bicycling costume, 1895.
(Library of Congress)

Eventually, bike-makers tapped out market for the high-wheel, and recognized that other people wanted to participate in the new, speedy mobility that cycling offered—namely, women. In the 1880s the chain-drive was developed, so that bikes could go fast without a huge front wheel. That enabled the invention of the much smaller, and more modern-looking, “safety bicycle.” Shortly after that the first lady’s “step-through” frame was developed.

At first, women riding such bikes were considered scandalous. “Bike-makers made all kinds of technological adaptations, but there were still cultural adaptations that needed to happen,” Guroff tells CityLab. By the 1890s, enough women were doing it that riding—and even shedding skirts in favor of bloomers—became acceptable. At a time when “women may not yet have had full access to higher education—or even the right to vote—the unchaperoned, self-propelled bloomer girl seemed to be pedaling in that direction,“ Guroff writes. Wrote one famous women’s rights activist of the era: “Woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle.”

Connection to city and suburb

The bicycle craze of the 1890s coincided with one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history (wealth inequality was almost as bad as today), but it wasn’t because bikes were cheap. The 1890s were also a time when booming factories and immigration numbers caused urbanization to surge. People were living closer together, making it more possible for those who could afford it to use the bicycle to get from place to place. “Whereas previously, you had to live in walking distance of where you were going, or you had a horse and carriage if you were well to do,” Guroff tells CityLab. But bikes took advantage of and helped foster a new, denser kind of life in cities, where leisure time enabled by factory work gave people more things to do and places to be.

Ironically, at least from a 21st-century vantage point, bikes also helped pave the way for the earliest suburbs. “It is well known that electric trolleys triggered the growth of American suburbs during the 1890s, when metropolises splayed out like starfish along the new transit lines,” writes Guroff. “What is less well known is that the bicycle preceded—and then competed with—trolleys as a way to pursue the picket-fence life.” The two modes blossomed right around the same time, and for years it wasn’t clear which would establish dominance. “Many more persons travel the streets on bicycles than patronize the [street]cars,” one 1898 report by the State of Pennsylvania, quoted by Gurof, read, adding that the bicycle “has become a most formidable competitor of the street railway companies.” The streetcar won out by the early 1900s, and later came cars. As Guroff puts its, cars’ appeal drew from the ease of mobility offered first by bikes, and their manufacturing style, pioneered by Henry Ford, was inspired by bicycle factories.

Invention of flight

When you hear that the Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics, it seems extra amazing that they managed to invent a functional airplane. “You think it must have been a lightning strike of genius,” Guroff tells CityLab. “A friend of mine said that hearing that these bike mechanics invented the airplane is like hearing a pet-shop owner cured cancer.”

But at the turn of the 20th century, people thought that if anyone was going to fly, it would probably be bicycle experts. Bikes had created a thirst for new kinds of mobility, and they were the closest anyone had come to powering the sensation of flight. “The flying machine problem is liable to be solved by bicycle inventors,” one New York newspaper, quoted by Guroff, proclaimed in 1896. “The flying machine will not be in the same shape, or at all in the style of the numerous kinds of cycles, but the study to produce a light, swift machine is likely to lead to an evolution in which wings will play a conspicuous part.”

Wilbur Wright working in the bicycle shop. (Library of Congress)

Orville and Wilbur Wright weren’t alone in their tinkering; bike-makers across the country competed and collaborated to advance lighter-than-air technology. But it was they who succeeded first. The technology behind 1903’s Wright Flyer drew from bicycles in a number of ways, from the chain-and-sprocket transmission system, to the “wings braced with bicycle-spoke wires,” writes Guroff.

But most intriguing is the theoretical influence the bike had on the concept of human flight. Aeronautical engineers also racing to put people in the air were convinced that airplanes had to be self-balancing once in flight, able to right themselves automatically amid gusts of wind, like a toy punching clown. This was an elusive quest, which led to many a fiery crash. The Wright brothers, meanwhile, “had an insight that came straight from cycling,” Guroff writes:

They understood that a plane didn’t need to be stable. Like a bicycle, it could be inherently unstable and could be flown in the same way a bicycle is “flown”: by a rider making constant, tiny, unconscious adjustments.

Thus inspired, they innovated a steering system copied after the way birds torque their wingtips as they turn. And flew.

The Mechanical Horse speeds through to the modern era, chronicling the role of bicycles in 20th-century warfare, their significance as a trapping of 1960s childhood, the ‘70s bike boom inspired by environmentalism, and today’s proliferation of fat bikes, cargo bikes, and E-bikes. Along the ride, Guroff peppers these historical accounts with lively quotes from primary documents and her own sharp, modern insight. As she makes plain, it’s not just cyclists who have bicycles to thank for the way they get around—it’s everybody. And that makesThe Mechanical Horse worth a read for the most avowed drivers, too.

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