On a recent commute home, I marveled at the armada of technology easing my way. I had a wireless, portable telephone, should...

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On a recent commute home, I marveled at the armada of technology easing my way.

I had a wireless, portable telephone, should I care to let anyone know I was on my way. I was listening to one of nearly 2,000 songs stored in a device smaller than my wallet. Leather shoes lined with a space-age material stood between my feet and the rain.

But the greatest wonder of all was the bicycle I was using for the short jaunt from the bus to the house. I bought it as a high-school student 30 years ago, yet its elegance and practicality are as timeless and profound as the “safety bicycle” unveiled more than a century ago.

The bicycle is easily one of the greatest inventions of all time, an enduring killer app. It is fun. It is good exercise. It’s a big gyroscope, held upright by the angular momentum of its wheels.

“Bicycle: The History”

by David V. Herlihy

Yale University Press,
480 pp., $35

It is incredibly efficient. The bicycling human can go nearly 1,000 miles on the caloric equivalent of a gallon of gas. Framed differently, one-third of the gasoline used in our country is for trips under three miles, a distance most humans can bicycle in less than 20 minutes.

So why isn’t everybody on one? That question is at the heart of David V. Herlihy’s “Bicycle: The History,” which traces the roots of the “mechanical horse” from when French mathematician Jacques Ozanam mused about a human-powered carriage more than three centuries ago.

Ozanam’s wish was answered by various iron beasts in the 1800s, then by the perilous high-wheeled “penny farthing” bicycle and at last the chain-driven, pneumatic-tired Rover that fueled the great bicycle boom of the 1890s. The bicycle has since been transformed by gears, lightweight parts and new materials, but its fundamental design is in many ways unchanged.

What has changed is the social climate in which it is ridden, and Herlihy gets at this in almost every page as he documents the bike’s recreational, competitive and utilitarian uses through the years. It encouraged Americans to exercise — no mean feat as the Industrial Revolution made the population ever more sedentary. Among those exercising were women, prompting a relaxation in attitudes toward both women’s work and, as they donned pants, dress.

The cycling trade inspired the nation’s earliest highways and the techniques used in automobile production and aviation. Wilbur and Orville Wright once had a bike shop and used bicycles for wind-tunnel experiments, leading to their first airplane.

Herlihy is exhaustive and anecdotal, with a straightforward prose that pretty much stays out of the way. The illustrations are first-rate and evoke the bicycle’s aesthetic and cultural charms, underscoring remarks by an editor of Brooklyn Life that bicycling “has brought a degree of perfection never before reached in vehicular construction. … A ride in the saddle is the perfection of motion and the acme of gentle exercise. Once there, a man or woman wants to be there most of the time.”