Technology and Culture 43.2 (2002) 425-426
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Ride to Modernity:
The Bicycle in Canada, 1869-1900
Ride to Modernity: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869-1900. By Glen Norcliffe. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001. Pp. xvi+288. $60/$24.95.
Glen Norcliffe sets out to meet two goals connected by a common theme. The theme is the adoption of modernity, with an emphasis "on practical matters of innovation, design, mass production, mass consumption, improved infrastructure and social practices in Canada" (p. 247). His first goal is to use the bicycle as a case study to evaluate a proposed model of sociotechnical development. His second is to create a vivid history of the bicycle in Canada during the late nineteenth century. Norcliffe admits that he is trying to satisfy two audiences—scholars and students of industrial history and geography, on the one hand, and lay people interested in the history of the bicycle or Canadian history on the other—a risky endeavor. But it must be said that he pulls off the job admirably.
Norcliffe's model of sociotechnical development is based on the concept of the "carrier wave," developed by Peter Hall and Paschal Preston, who use it as a metaphor to describe seminal inventions that spawn a series of related innovations. To qualify, an invention must open the way for further additions and improvements; extend to associated industries through forward and backward linkages; and capture the public imagination sufficiently to become both a social and technical artifact. The 1890s embodied a confluence of two "long" waves, the first associated with railways, steel, machine tools, and ships, the latter with autos, electrical goods, and chemicals.
However, Norcliffe maintains that Hall and Preston's long waves are too deterministic, too geographically and chronologically imprecise, and that they discount important differences between economic classes and social groups. He proposes the consideration of minor carrier waves, too small or short-lived to count as long waves but which act as a bridge between them. Such minor waves may have significantly different influences at various locations on disparate social groups, and may last for only a few years. Rise to Modernity argues that the bicycle meets the criteria necessary to qualify as an innovation comprising a minor carrier wave.
Norcliffe is an avid cycle historian, and the quality of his narrative reflects his intimacy with the subject. It is refreshingly error-free. His analysis of the social impact of the bicycle is particularly piquant, and he offers a novel explanation for the great North American bicycle boom of the 1890s based on social, not technical, factors. While the introduction of the safety bicycle "opened up cycling to all but the very elderly," it was the decline in prices after 1895 that really spurred the craze (p. 183). The high-wheeled ordinary and the early safeties were expensive items, unaffordable to the average clerk or tradesman. This created a cachet for the bicycle: fast, [End Page 425] elegant, chic. As their price rapidly fell, this allure attracted middle- and working-class buyers, who snapped them up by the hundreds of thousands. As a result, the cachet was lost and the boom collapsed. After 1900 cycling did not go away, it just faded into the background of everyday life, ceasing to act as propulsive technical, commercial, or social force.
As to the bicycle's influence on the development of industrialization, I disagree with Norcliffe's analysis. Whereas David Hounshell concludes in From the American System to Mass Production (1984) that the bicycle industry was a transitional way station between artisanship and mass production, Norcliffe maintains that it exhibited all the necessary characteristics of true mass production. I find Hounshell's interpretation more convincing, and I also wish that Norcliffe had come to grips with the argument raised in Philip Scranton's Endless Novelty (1997) that custom, batch, and bulk production industries coexisted quite comfortably with mass producers during this period and shared many common characteristics, including technical adaptation and nationwide marketing. Norcliffe's discussion of the Emperor Bicycle Company, which manufactured perhaps...