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Reviewed by:
  • Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing
  • Bruce Epperson (bio)
Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History. By Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014. Pp. 576. $34.95.

This new book is the first accurate international history of the morphology of the bicycle to appear in English. It is not deeply analytical, nor does it try to be, except on a few select topics on which the authors are acknowledged experts. It is essentially a reference book. By admission, it does not include pre-1945 developments outside Europe or North America. But it does assemble a vast amount of information previously available only from small-press books, specialty journals, conference proceedings, and non-English-language sources, including those from Asia. It does so clearly and accurately, providing extensive citations and a complete bibliography, although many of the sources will tax even the most experienced and tenacious interlibrary loan specialist.

Ostensibly, the book is organized by subject area, such as drive systems, suspensions, lighting, military bicycles, etc., but in actuality the first half is a chronological narrative of cycle development from simple, human-powered, wheeled devices such as the wheelbarrow, on past the draisine—a “walking machine” resembling a bicycle without cranks or pedals, to the [End Page 983] early front-wheel-powered velocipede. The second half does begin to break down its organization into discrete subsystems, frequently taking retrospective glances back to the era of the ordinary and the early safeties before following each development forward into the twenty-first century.

Without intending to, the authors give weight to the theory that the bicycle is not an invention at all, but the discovery of an idea: that a two-wheel, single-track machine, given the proper geometry, can be made stable enough to remain upright while peddling, but sufficiently responsive to change directions when desired. The draisine, developed about 1817, has often been given short shrift. Karl von Drais was inspired by ice skaters, and in the hands of an experienced and athletic user on a smooth road, a good draisine was hardly a walking machine. A rider would have looked more like a trained rollerblader: gently swaying from side to side, strides ten to thirty feet apart, the tiller gently manipulated by the fingertips to compensate for each leg thrust as the forearms lay on a padded dashboard.

It would have been obvious to any such user that the machine could easily balance while gliding. Ideas for a foot-powered front wheel were everywhere: grindstones, treadle-powered bow saws, even kids’ tricycles. Why did it take so long to put the two ideas together? It probably didn’t. The “invention” of the front-drive bicycle in 1866–67 was more likely the near-simultaneous dissemination in France and the United States of an idea that had been discovered and forgotten many times before, in many places. The crucial elements weren’t technical but, once again, social: an American patent system deliberately kept cheap and easy to use, and business laws that facilitated venture-capital-style investment in France.

Probably the most fascinating part of this book is the specific point-by-point roster of deliberate forgeries, falsifications, perjuries, and hoaxes that have been perpetrated over the years. Rigid two-wheeled walking machines in France in 1791? Seventeenth-century cherubs on velocipedes in an English stained-glass church window? A Scottish treadle-and-rod rear-drive bicycle built by a Glasgow foundryman in 1842? All false, and intentionally so. Oh, and Leonardo’s sketch of a bicycle? A forgery, probably done between 1966 and 1969. In fact, the narrative history of the bicycle repeated most often in the United States was prepared by the attorneys for a large Boston bicycle firm engaged in a lawsuit in the mid-1880s to prove the validity of their patent (they lost). However, you won’t if you make this your basic deskbook for bicycle technology. It’s not deep, and it’s not colorful, but it’s broad, complete, well-written, accurate, and extensively lists additional sources of information. Its biggest defect is that it’s almost a century late. [End Page 984...


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