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A spin on the best thing on two wheels

Bicycle: The History; David V. Herlihy; Yale University Press: 470 pp., $35

December 27, 2004|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

The childhood memory might go something like this: A cold Christmas morning. You take your first bicycle, shining with brand-spanking-newness, out for a solo spin. The air is silent as you whiz along hushed streets, the sound of dead leaves under your tires punctuating the quiet. And then it hits you: The world is yours. You can go anywhere you want. The intoxicating feel of utter freedom mixes with the first taste of speed and self-mobility to forge a moment you'll never forget. Once you savor this magic of self-propulsion -- thanks to two pedals, a couple of spoked wheels, a pair of inner-tube tires and a set of handlebars -- there's no going back.

It's easy, as we age and come to rely on cars, to forget how transformative an experience mastering a bicycle is. David V. Herlihy's "Bicycle" reconstructs the history of the bicycle -- particularly its earliest years -- allowing readers to encounter, with child's-eye amazement, the development of this life-altering machine.

Herlihy's tale goes back three centuries to set the stage for the bicycle's invention, when a distinguished French mathematician pondered the advantages of a human-powered carriage. If such a machine could be invented, he posited, "its owner could freely roam along roads without having to care for an animal and might enjoy a healthy exercise in the process. Moreover, this particular type of 'self-moving' vehicle, in contrast to those that called for wind or steam for propulsion, would run on that most abundant and accessible of all resources: willpower."

Early versions of the bicycle were highly complicated machines that looked like carriages and often relied on the 'willpower' of a servant or lackey. Then came the "Draisine" and "Velocipede," which looked a bit like a bicycle of today: two wheels in a line with a seat slung in between, but the rider made the vehicle move by pushing against the ground with his feet -- no pedals to turn the wheels. Though this invention enjoyed moderate success, its attractiveness was hampered by poor roads, the machine's lack of a braking system and the general public's distaste for sharing the roadway with the strange-looking device.

Then, in the 1860s, a vehicle remarkably similar to today's bicycle emerged in Paris under mysterious circumstances. The author traces the strands of this invention -- and who might be given legitimate credit for its creation -- forging along the way a delicious whodunit.

From that starting point, the modern bicycle progressed and alternate forms were soon introduced. There was the bone rattler, the high wheel, the safety bicycle and others, each offering a contribution toward the bicycle's enhancement, and each afflicted with its own particular flaws. Hindsight being 20-20, it takes imagination for readers today to fully understand the difficulties besetting those who developed key bicycle improvements: brakes, gears, inner-tube tires and handlebars. But we marvel along with Herlihy as each innovation comes to the fore.

Development from the earliest bicycle to the one we know today was a one-step-forward, two-steps-backward affair. No sooner would a technical advance be introduced and interest generated than public criticism would stop further innovation. Though many hoped such vehicles might one day become the "people's nag," its initial appeal was limited to the well-heeled and moneyed. With humor and great insight, the author follows the machine's lurching trek toward its incarnation as a means of transportation that could serve the masses.

The author also traces how the bicycle changed the social landscape, giving women in particular access to a newfound freedom of movement and dress. Women took to the wheel in vast numbers, "forcing reforms in the rigid Victorian dress code as had no other pastime," Herlihy writes. Bicycles spawned the Good Roads Movement, which led to a network of highways and laid the groundwork for the automobile industry; bicycle mechanics also played an important role in early aviation. Wilbur and Orville Wright, in fact, operated a bike repair shop in Dayton, Ohio, and used bicycles to conduct their first wind tunnel experiments.

Reading this book incites new fascination with that thing that's been gathering dust in the garage. This marvelous invention has become for most of us simply a child's toy or recreational device. Given the need for alternative forms of transportation in our own traffic-clogged metropolis, readers may come to see its current-day neglect as lamentable. It's probably too much to ask for a book to reignite the spark of bicycle fascination we all felt at one time or another, but if any volume is up to the task, it may be this one.

Bernadette Murphy is a regular contributor to the Book Review and the author of "Zen and the Art of Knitting," a work of narrative nonfiction.

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