Living Green-Wheels in motion
Bicycle history discussed, displayed at PWPL
MARQUETTE — Eco-friendly and affordable transportation. Exercise. Exploring the outdoors. Enjoyment and recreation.
These are just a few reasons why people across the world have embraced biking since its inception over 200 years ago in Germany.
While the modern bicycle is ubiquitous in today’s world, the bicycle has a surprising history, evolving from “running machines” in the early 1800s, to the quintessential yet hazardous penny-farthing bike of the late 19th century, to the modern era’s diverse array of specialty bikes.
Attendees of last Monday’s Bicycles, Bicycles, Bicycles event at the Peter White Public Library had a chance to learn about the bicycle’s fascinating history from event organizer and patent attorney Margaret Brumm; see a unique collection of modern, vintage and specialty bikes; don brightly colored safety vests; learn about bicycle safety from Marquette City Police Lt. Ryan Grim; and even pitch bicycle-related inventions to Invent@NMU representatives.
The bike was invented in 1818 by Karl von Drais, a minor German nobleman who came up with the invention to help replace horses that perished due to food shortages in the 1816, “the year without summer,” which occurred after a major volcanic explosion in the Dutch Indies filled the atmosphere with sun-blocking debris and volcanic ash, Brumm told attendees.
“There were terrible crop failures, terrible starvation,” she said. “So they slaughtered the animals. And some of the animals they slaughtered were horses. Well, without horses, how do you get around? Von Drais decided there had to be a better way.”
The “better way” Von Drais came up with was called a running machine, a piece of “transformative technology” that represents a significant historical milestone — the beginning of “mechanized personal transport,” Brumm said.
The heavy wood and metal running machine Von Drais invented shares some common features with today’s bike — two wheels, a braking mechanism, a steering mechanism and a seat — but was operated in a much different manner, as it had no pedals and the user would need to run alongside it to get it started.
However, Von Drais was only granted a local patent, meaning that inventors across Europe and the world would soon copy, adapt and improve upon his initial design.
“He was one of the inventors in the history of mankind that was copied the most and the most often by the most people,” Brumm said. “He tried to get a patent. He could only get a local patent in Germany. And as fast as people saw it in France and England, they copied the heck out it. It made its way from Europe to the United States in under four years.”
As time went on, inventors realized the running machine’s “two wheels the same size, a seat, a means for steering and a means for stopping weren’t enough,” Brumm said.
Over the years, the bike eventually evolved to have pedals, with Kirkpatrick Macmillan creating the first pedal-driven bike in 1840.
By the 1860s, inventors came up with front-wheel drive for pedal-driven bikes. With this design, the bike’s front wheel became much larger for speed, creating the iconic penny-farthing bike — however, “you could not safely ride this thing; people got killed riding this thing because it went so fast,” she said.
“People realized we’re going down the wrong path — no pun intended — we need something better,” she said. “This is the greatest design in the history of the world; and it was a dead end.”
It wasn’t until 1885 that the modern bicycle came along with the help of John Kemp Starley, who named it the Rover Safety Bicycle because it was “easier and safer to use than other bikes,” she said.
“I hate to give credit to any one person, but the Starley family did the most to take it from the penny-farthing to the safety bicycle.”
With the safety bicycle invented, a number of new variations would develop, with tire improvements and specialty bikes designed for men, women and children.
By 1908, the bicycle had become “for everyone in the U.S,” with a huge variety offered through catalog retailers such as Sears, Brumm said.
Today, a variety of specialized bikes, designed for road biking, mountain terrain, snow and ice are available, with manufacturers around the world able to construct custom and complex bikes out of many different materials.
However, over 200 years after the bike was first invented as a running machine, versions of running-machine-style bikes can still be purchased today, a modern nod to the bike’s original form, Brumm said.
“Von Drais’ idea, we circled back,” she said. “In conclusion, we started with this because there were no horses, we’ve developed technology … And you have the potential for human-powered motion beyond what you know right now. It doesn’t end.”
Brumm will deliver a talk titled “People who changed the world: Inventors and inventions of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan” from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday in the Peter White Public Library’s Shiras Room.
Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.