h/t alyssavance

The bicycle, as we know it today, was not invented until the late 1800s. Yet it was a simple mechanical invention. It would seem to require no brilliant inventive insight, and certainly no scientific background.
Why, then, wasn’t it invented much earlier?
I asked this question on Twitter, and read some discussion on Quora. People proposed many hypotheses, including:
+ Technology factors. Metalworking improved a lot in the 1800s: we got improved iron refining and eventually cheap steel, better processes for shaping metal, and ability to make parts like hollow tubes. Wheel technology improved: wire-spoke (aka tension-spoked) wheels replaced heavier designs; vulcanized rubber (1839) was needed for tires; inflatable tires weren’t invented until 1887. Chains, gears, and ball bearings are all crucial parts that require advanced manufacturing techniques for precision and cost.
+ Design iteration. Early bicycles were inconvenient and dangerous. The first version didn’t even have pedals. Some versions didn’t have steering, and could only be turned by leaning. (!) The famous “penny-farthing” design, with its huge front wheel, made it impossible to balance with your feet, was prone to tipping forward on a hard stop, and generally left the rider high in the air, all of which increased risk of injury. It took decades of iteration to get to a successful bicycle model.
+ Quality of roads. Roads in the 1800s and earlier were terrible by modern standards. Roads were often dirt, rutted from the passage of many carts, turning muddy in the rain. Macadam paving, which gave smooth surfaces to roads, wasn’t invented until about 1820. City roads at the time were paved with cobblestones, which were good for horses but too bumpy for bicycles. (The unevenness was apparently a feature, assisting in the runoff of sewage—leading one Quora answer to claim that the construction of city sewers was what opened the door to bicycles.)
+ Competition from horses. Horses were a common and accepted mode of transportation at the time. They could deal with all kinds of roads. They could carry heavy loads. Who then needs a bicycle? In this connection, it has been claimed that the bicycle was invented in response to food shortages due to the “Year without a Summer”, an 1816 weather event caused by the volcanic explosion of Mt. Tambora the year earlier, which darkened skies and lowered temperatures in many parts of the world. The agricultural crisis caused horses as well as people to starve, which led to some horses being slaughtered for food, and made the remaining ones more expensive to feed. This could have motivated the search for alternatives.
+ General economic growth. Multiple commenters pointed out the need for a middle class to provide demand for such an invention. If all you have are a lot of poor peasants and a few aristocrats (who, by the way, have horses, carriages, and drivers), there isn’t much of a market for bicycles. This is more plausible when you realize that bicycles were more of a hobby for entertainment before they became a practical means of transportation.
+ Cultural factors. Maybe there was just a general lack of interest in useful mechanical inventions until a certain point in history? But when did this change, and why?
These are all good hypotheses. But some of them start to buckle under pressure:
The quality of roads is relevant, but not really the answer. Bicycles can be ridden on dirt roads or sidewalks (although the latter led to run-ins with pedestrians and made bicycles unpopular among the public at first). And historically, roads didn’t improve until afterbicycles became common—indeed it seems that it was in part the cyclists who called for the improvement of roads.
I don’t think horses explain it either. A bicycle, from what I’ve read, was cheaper to buy than a horse, and it was certainly cheaper to maintain (if nothing else, you don’t have to feed a bicycle). And it turns out that inventors were interested in the problem of human-powered vehicles, dispensing with the need for horses, for a long time before the modern bicycle. Even Karl von Drais, who invented the first two-wheeled human-powered vehicle after the Year without a Summer, had been working on the problem for years before that.
Technology factors are more convincing to me. They may have been necessary for bicycles to become practical and cheap enough to take off. But they weren’t needed for early experimentation. Frames can be built of wood. Wheels can be rimmed with metal. Gears can be omitted. Chains can be replaced with belts; some early designs even used treadles instead of pedals, and at least one design drove the wheels with levers, as on a steam locomotive.
So what’s the real explanation?

(Continue reading. 2,184 words and lots of great bicycle pictures.)

This post is a single piece from Jason Crawford's project, The Roots of Progress, aptly named, to understand the nature and causes of human progress. I haven't thought deeply enough to check his research, but it's a fascinating project. This essay examines a specific piece of technology, but the case study is used to develop and support models of what it takes for progress to occur.

New Comment
10 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:07 PM

There seems to be an unstated assumption where anything useful that can be invented, will be invented. Or at least, if we invent something at some point that could have been invented much sooner, we should expect it to have been invented much sooner.

I'm a bit confused about this, but I'm curious if other people agree or disagree with the assumption, and why?

I think it's a really good assumption to be exposed. The author cites Joel Mokyr as an (the?) inspiration his project, with Mokyr having the thesis that Progress Isn't Natural.

How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin? Many bookshelves are full of learned tomes by historians, economists, political philosophers and other erudite scholars with endless explanations. One way of looking at the question is by examining something basic, and arguably essential: the emergence of a belief in the usefulness of progress.
Such a belief may seem self-evident today, but most people in the more-remote past believed that history moved in some kind of cycle or followed a path that was determined by higher powers. The idea that humans should and could work consciously to make the world a better place for themselves and for generations to come is by and large one that emerged in the two centuries between Christopher Columbus and Isaac Newton. Of course, just believing that progress could be brought about is not enough—one must bring it about. The modern world began when people resolved to do so.              
Why might people in the past have been hesitant to embrace the idea of progress? The main argument against it was that it implies a disrespect of previous generations. As the historian Carl Becker noted in a classic work written in the early 1930s, “a Philosopher could not grasp the modern idea of progress ... until he was willing to abandon ancestor worship, until he analyzed away his inferiority complex toward the past, and realized that his own generation was superior to any yet known.” With the great voyages and the Reformation, Europeans increasingly began to doubt the great classical writings on geography, medicine, astronomy, and physics that had been the main source of wisdom in medieval times. With those doubts came a sense that their own generation knew more and was wiser than those of previous eras.

" willing to abandon ancestor worship, " this phrase in particular makes me wonder if the question here and the one about why China didn't invent science don't share much in the analytical domain space.

So what’s the real explanation?

It seems most likely to me that there is no one real explanation, but rather a combination of a bunch of things.

That someone happens at some point rather than another point is an interesting question to explore but is also one that probably seldom has good answers. Still, intellectual curiosity is a goal in self.

I wonder if a better starting point for the inquiry might not actually be why the invention was invented when it was -- why the inventor made the effort in the first place. What problem was being solved. We can then look at various limiting factors to see if they would have made the effort futile if done at some earlier period of time.

That might help place some markets in history on when the invention became feasible.

But the question seems to have the two parts:

1) When the realities of the world support such an action/invention.

2) When does someone have that "oh, duh" moment when they thing "We could do this [easier] if X were present and I can figure out how to have X."

We can reasonably get answers to the first part. I think for the second part we will find that more challenging.

A related question might also be about inventive thoughts and vision that were impossible at the time they were thought and theoretically designed and what role they had an shaping the future.

That reminds me lyrics in an old song (old as in 80 or 90s not 1500s ;-) "if you cannot change the world change yourself. if you cannot change yourself, change the world"

A quick google search gave me an estimate of a 300:1 cost ratio of iron to silver (1 lb iron costing ~300 lb silver) in the 14th century. For comparison, a king's annual income might have been 20,000 lbs of silver. Without fossil fuels, smelting iron ore requires lots of charcoal, which requires lots and lots of wood, which requires plenty of land and labor (ever chopped a tree down by hand?). Bicycles would have been prohibitively expensive before fossil fuels.


A quick google search gave me an estimate of a 300:1 cost ratio of iron to silver (1 lb iron costing ~300 lb silver) in the 14th century.

You have it inverted; your link says:

That is, a (pure!) silver pound would buy 300 pounds of iron or steel.

Whoops. My bad.

With silver trading at $230/lb and steel going for somewhere in the neighborhood of .90 per pound (the range representing Chinese bulk commodity thru US small commercial quantity structural shapes), it would appear that the price ratio hasn’t changed much. (They are both metals...)

I am not a historian or an economist, but it seems better to compare steel to food: in 1500ish England, 8 pennies gets you 2 bushels of grain (i.e. 100 lbs; 3 month’s porridge)... or one axe head (1-2 lbs steel). (Though note that 16th century food prices are “weird” - it’s prior to refrigeraton, mechanization, chemical fertilizer, barbed wire...) http://faculty.econ.ucdavis.edu/faculty/gclark/papers/Agprice.pdf http://medieval.ucdavis.edu/120D/Money.html

That's a good quick check to run, thanks. Though, as the author mentions in the post, you could start experimenting with wooden frames.

On the other hand, assuming 20 pounds of steel per bicycle, that means a king could have had 20,000 * 300 / 30 = 300,000 bicycles per year. That's a whole lotta bicycles to not be building. ;)