High Technology, 1898-style

That would be the bicycle.

Some rather breathless thoughts on the social implications of this technology from a contemporary Atlantic Monthly article by W J McGee:

A typical American device is the bicycle. Invented in France, it long remained a toy or a vain luxury. Redevised in this country, it inspired inventors and captivated manufacturers, and native genius made it a practical machine for the multitude…Typical, too, is the bicycle in its effect on national character. It first aroused invention, next stimulated commerce, and then developed individuality, judgment, and prompt decision on the part of its users more rapidly and completely than any other device; for although association with machines of any kind (absolutely straightforward and honest as they are all) develops character, the bicycle is the easy leader of other machines in shaping the mind of its rider, and transforming itself and its rider into a single thing. Better than other results is this: that the bicycle has broken the barrier of pernicious differential between the sexes and rent the bonds of fashion, and is daily impressing Spartan strength and grace, and more than Spartan intelligence, on the mothers of coming generations. So, weighed by its effect on body and mind as well as on material progress, this device must be classed as one of the world’s great inventions.

Source: From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932, by David Hounshell.

12 thoughts on “High Technology, 1898-style”

  1. Full text of the McGee article Fifty Years of American Science begins at page 307.

    The Hounshell book is excellent. A good companion to it is Endless Novelty: Specialty Production and American Industrialization, 1865-1925 by Philip Scranton. Where Hounshell shows where assembly line manufacturing came from, Scranton shows how most of the economy, including some of the most advanced sectors, was never organized on assembly line principles. Fordism-Taylorism was an important part of a much bigger story.

  2. The essay is humorous in retrospect, of course, but I think there is a good deal of accuracy in it. We forget that the unforgiving nature of machines had their instructive effect, and that bicycles were indeed an aid to commerce and a force in the emancipation of women.

  3. AVI…indeed, I think there’s much truth in the essay, once you turn the hype-control down just a little. It is surely true that working with machines develops certain kinds of intelligence–and there are probably differences between the variants developed by a mechanical device that needs maintaining and an electronic device which is totally prepackaged. Probably some truth in the gender-roles assertions, too.

    Hounshell also identifies bike manufacturing, along with sewing machine manufacturing, as important milestones in American’s manufacturing development. Apparently one bike manufacturer had a pseudo-assembly-line, in which the work moved from station to station, although this was done by messengers rather than by conveyor belt.

    Lex…the Scranton book looks interesting; I will get.

  4. The Wright Brothers were bicycle repairmen. I still have my great grandmother’s sewing machine dated about 1865. Bicycles are the first of the transportation inventions that left the horse behind. In a way, they were the first of the Industrial Age developments that applied to the individual.

  5. Hounshell also mentions that bicycles spawned the “good roads” movement, which helped prepare the infrastructure that would be used for cars.

    Michael K…that 1865 sewing machine is probably pretty valuable. Does it still work?

  6. The chain driven safety bicycle, as it was then called, which is essentially a modern bicycle, incorporated several major technological advances that made bicycles practical vehicles. Previous bicycles had been high-wheelers with solid tires and direct drive of the front wheel, like a child’s tricycle, which meant that a very large front wheel, typically at least 5 feet in diameter, was needed to reach useful speeds. Such machines are unstable, uncomfortable, dangerous, limited to one gear ratio and require a lot of skill to ride (you can find interesting YouTube videos of people riding such bikes). They were not practical. The use of a chain drive and smaller wheels of equal size with pneumatic tires transformed the bicycle into a vehicle that almost anyone could ride safely and comfortably. Technologies developed for bicycles, particularly spoked wheels and pneumatic tires, were later used successfully in motor vehicles.

    There’s an argument that the Wrights were particularly well suited to aircraft design by virtue of their being bicycle makers. They understood that aircraft, like two-wheeled ground vehicles and unlike boats, were unstable and could not be practical without well-thought-out control systems. Other contemporary aircraft experimenters emphasized power but did not adequately deal with control issues. The Wrights’ aircraft control system was not much different from modern aircraft controls.

  7. It is sitting about 25 feet from me and works after a fashion. I once had all the parts to it, like bobbins, etc. When I got divorced 30 years ago, my wife had taken all the small parts out of the drawers and, when I asked for them, they had become “lost.” It has a treadle and a leather belt to drive the flywheel but the small parts are missing.

    Those leather belts to sewing machines had quite a history in urology literature. Read sometime about foreign bodies of the bladder. Lots of them were sewing machine belts. I leave to your imagination the details.

  8. I love bicycles. I didn’t learn to drive until I was about 40 but I generally felt remarkably free because of them. A girl on a paper route in the early fifties was a rarity, but it happened. That was my first taste of independence & a certain entrepreneurial spirit has always seemed part of that experience. My employees would joke about my “going to the bank to get a loan for a new xerox machine” style – setting out on my bike in my husband’s letter jacket. But, yes, we were free to sign for that loan because in part we only needed one car. (And I wonder if it wasn’t also because all those years in college hadn’t weighted us down with school loans – few were tempted by such loans in those days.)

    A really lovely article that ties together movement and freedom and autonomy in Red China at the time of Tiananmen Square is Fred Strebeigh’s article, “The Wheels of Freedom.” One of many moving moments in this tale is when Fang Hui explains why she took on the challenge of a 1300-mile trek from Chengdu to Lhasa. She explains she “had not really worried about giving up on the journey, she told me. But, earlier, she had worried about giving up on life.” Bikes challenged the politicians and the bureaucrats. They challenged a young & pudgy school girl. They provided privacy, independence, and even the power of an independent business that could provide an independent income. Strebeigh describes their role in the demonstrations in heady, Whitman expansive terms. And when the tanks came in, the bikes were crushed, as were the people. The pictures of the broken bikes on the state news served as a warning, a symbol.

  9. Ginny…indeed, individual mobility is closely associated with both freedom and social status. For hundreds of years, there was a huge distinction between the horseman and the person who had to go on foot.

    Consciously or subconsciously, the liberal hostility toward private automobiles surely has something to do with a desire to get the Common Sort off horseback and back on foot where they belong.

  10. In Biking the Boulevards, Geoffrey Baer bikes his way across Chicago, using the city’s network of boulevards. The boulevards are wide, tree-lined streets, which connect Chicago’s largest parks. This system of parks and boulevards was the first of its kind in the country – imagined nearly 150 years ago. Discover how these boulevards came to be and explore these magnificent parks, from Washington and Sherman Parks on the South Side, to Douglas, Humboldt and Garfield on the West. These green spaces are often overlooked, but they’re every bit as beautiful as Chicago’s famous lakefront parks.

    Geoffrey invites you to take a new look at the old neighborhoods that emerged along these boulevards in the 19th Century. Places like Bronzeville, Englewood, Back of the Yards, Lawndale, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square. Many of these enclaves have seen their share of hard times over the years, but hidden just beneath the surface…you’ll find some remarkable surprises.

    And speaking of surprises, Chicago’s had not one, but three cycling enthusiasts in City Hall. The city was once the bicycle-building capital of America. And where women cyclists raised eyebrows, by taking up what was considered a masculine pursuit. And, you can take a look ahead to the future, as Chicago pursues its quest to be the most bicycle-friendly city in America.


    Watched bits of this. Fun way to explore the history of the city.

    – Madhu

  11. When I was in the sixth grade, my friends and I would ride our bikes to the Museum of Science and Industry. I spent many afternoons there and we were probably the bane of the security staff as we were always around for a few years. Now, mothers would probably not allow their children such freedom. We rode up Lake Shore Drive from South Shore, an elegant neighborhood at the time.

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