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"The Mechanical Horse": How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 30, 2024 3:01 am

"The Mechanical Horse": How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 30, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, from the modernization of medicine to the development of our country’s road systems, the bicycle has had a major impact on American life. Though its rise occurred in the nineteenth century, cycling is still something that’s very popular in our country today. Margaret Guroff, author of “The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life”, brings us the story.

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See AT& for details. And we return to our American stories. From the modernization of medicine to the development of our country's road systems, a bicycle has had a major impact on American life. Though its rise occurred in the 19th century, cycling is still something that's very popular in our country today. Margaret Gohroff, author of The Mechanical Horse, brings us the story. Because on this day in 1817, the first bicycle was ridden.

The first thing that looked like a bicycle was invented in Germany by a guy named the Baron von Dreze. And he was making this during a time where there had just been a major volcano eruption in what's now Indonesia. And that had caused a lot of soot and air pollution to kind of blot out the sun, basically, for there was a whole summer, 1816, where it was called the year without a summer in Europe because it was so cold and cloudy. And that affected the harvest that year. In the next year, there wasn't enough food, particularly for horses.

A lot of horses had to be put down. And so there's a theory that part of what gave him the idea to make this thing was that he was looking for a substitute for a horse, something that could replace these animals that were in short supply because of this meteorological event. So he made this thing, and the object was called a drazine. And it looked a lot like a modern bicycle except that it didn't have pedals. So it was very heavy, made initially with wood and then with iron. And the way you would get around on it was you'd kind of straddle it and just push off like sort of Fred Flintstone, one foot in front of another.

They compared it to ice skating on land. It kind of spread in continental Europe that year, 1817. You couldn't actually, weren't factories, but he wrote about it and other people would look at the pictures and try and build one.

The next year, it came to America. Somebody made one that was displayed in Baltimore, and it was a curiosity. People would pay to come and see it. And one of the people who saw it was an artist by the name of Peel who was from Philadelphia. And he had his own museum, again, of curiosity.

He is one of the first people to excavate a full dinosaur skeleton in the United States, which he had on display at his museum. And he also saw this drazine in Baltimore and went home and paid someone to build him one. And these machines were this kind of amazing revelation to people because it was one of the first things that would help you go as fast on land as a horse because you could roll, you could get it rolling. Now you couldn't go uphill with this thing. They weighed a ton, but if you were going downhill, you'd go really fast. And that was an astonishing new development. There was a brief kind of a fad of these, but they were very, not only heavy, but very expensive to build.

You really had to be rich to have one. And so they sort of were a curiosity in the United States for a summer and they kind of went away and people forgot that they even existed for nearly 50 years. The next technological innovation was putting pedals on this thing. And again, it still didn't look like a modern bike. They just took pedals and stuck them on the axle of the front wheel. And the person who did that in this country was named Pierre Lalemant.

He was a French immigrant who came here in 1865, so right at the very end of the civil war. And when he came, he came with this machine that he had built in Paris that was basically like a drazine, except it added the pedals. And he came to Connecticut and got a job in a factory, I believe, but he also spent his time reassembling this thing, working on this thing. And that is the first known bicycle with pedals. So it's the first thing that you could just sit on and keep going without touching the ground for an indeterminate amount of time, which again was a new technological marvel. Nobody had ever seen or heard of anything like this.

Lalemant actually got an American patent for this machine. And there are stories about him riding it around in the countryside near Ansonia, Connecticut, where he was from. And there's one story that he was kind of going down a hill and lost control of the bicycle and nearly hit these two guys on a horse carriage. And the two guys took off because they didn't know what was coming at them. They end up in a bar, a tavern. He crashes, gets himself up and kind of staggers into the tavern. And he hears them talking about how they had seen the devil coming at them, just flying, not touching the ground.

And his response was, I was the devil. So he goes back to France not long after. And it turns out that nobody's quite sure how, but there were people in France who were also starting to make this device, whether they had seen him do it, who knows, but they were adding pedals to the old dresing structure. And this was at the end of the 1860s. Now these were called also velocipedes. And this was a, there was a velocipede mania in France. Everybody was riding them.

And then that came over here. There were some European gymnasts and there was a stage show and they came over here and were riding these devices on stage. And again, they were fast and they were also, they had this character of seeming magical because nobody could really understand how you could balance on these two wheels and just keep going.

I mean, there was even a story in the Scientific American about it where it's like, we're not quite sure how this works. That happened over a winter and people in the United States, again, people of means, because these were not cheap, started to buy them or rent them or just go to, they started to have these bicycle schools where you could go to learn to ride one, which again was something that no adult knew how to do. So it was hard going. And then they started racing them, but this was all indoors during a winter. And they predicted that as soon as the summer came, everyone was going to be riding these things.

And it was this whole new, again, you know, the mechanical horse. The thing that happened then when the weather turned warmer was that in Europe, people kept riding these things because European roads were much better than American roads. So there was all kinds of technology in Europe to make these roads, stone roads that were domed so that they shed water. In the United States at that time, the road technology was way worse.

We were a lot more dependent on rivers and waterways and canals by then and railroads for getting people and goods around the country. So in the United States, the weather turned warmer, everybody went outside and you couldn't really ride these things on the roads. The roads were too bumpy or they were too muddy. These velocipedes were still very heavy. The wheels were like wagon wheels.

They were made of wood. It was not a smooth ride. And it just became something that was not practical. So people had been racing them and there had been this velocipede mania.

But in the United States, that vanished very, very quickly. And you've been listening to author Margaret Gohroff tell the story of the history of the bicycle, particularly here in the United States, though we get a taste of what was going on in Europe as well. Her book, The Mechanical Horse, How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life. Oh, it's a heck of a story about our culture and technology. And that first pedal on the front wheel, well, it's a French immigrant who patents this idea.

And of course, it spreads like wildfire. I love the name of the bicycle then, the velocipede. I wish that had stuck. That's a really great name. And of course, a lot of the development in Europe had to do with the sheer fact that they simply had better roads. As Margaret said, we relied on canals and rivers to move so much of what we moved along in this expansive country. When we return, more of the story of the bicycle and how it reshaped American life here on Our American Stories.

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See website for details. And we're back with Our American Stories and the story of the mechanical horse, aka the bicycle. When we last left off, Margaret Gohroff had told us about the surge in popularity of the bike in the early 1800s, followed by the sudden drop-off once people began to try to ride them on the roads. The roads were unfit for the wheels and cyclists were searching for solutions.

Let's return to Margaret. Before there were cars, it was the bicycle community that kind of helped develop the road system that we have. So early in the country's history, you know, country roads in particular were not built by the government.

They were not funded by the government. It was just the responsibility of whoever farmed the land near the road to make sure that the road was passable. Otherwise that farmer couldn't get their goods to town to market. There was in some places a road tax that was calculated in terms of labor. So you would be taxed like a day or two days a year of having to go show up as if you were on a jury. You just get called and you have to show up to kind of fix the roadway, which means moving some dirt around. And that was not very well done because it was, you know, it was not professionally done.

It was done by a lot of people who, you know, were just doing it so that they could say they did it. In the cities, it was the responsibility of the adjacent property owner to maintain the roadway. But obviously everything's a little closer together, so you didn't have as much responsibility for as much roadway in the cities. The roads would be paved, although not necessarily with stone.

It could be gravel, it could be, you know, wood that would rot. And this was the way it had always been, this system of maintaining the roads. And it was perceived by the people whose responsibility it was to do it, that is the property owners, that it was fine, you know, and they didn't want to be taxed more. They didn't want to pay money for some, you know, professional to come in and do whatever. They also didn't want to be required to build roads that were up to European standards.

You know, you can't tell a farmer, well, instead of moving dirt around, now you're going to have to break a lot of stones. In addition, the United States didn't really have the expertise to know how to build roads that would stay dry and stay usable all year long. There was typically a season of every year where the roads were just so muddy and mucky that no one could go anywhere in the countryside.

You just had to stay home. So what happened with the velocipedes, the first pedal velocipedes, the first velocipede mania that couldn't really go on American roads and just sort of died out. What happened in Europe was that the technology continued to develop. And one of the things that they discovered was that if you make your wheels not out of wood with wooden spokes, but out of wire spokes, they were light enough weight that you could make them bigger. And the bigger your driving wheel is, the faster you can go for each turn of the pedals.

Because again, there were no chains yet. So your wheel turned as fast as you could turn it. But if it was a bigger and bigger wheel, each turn would cover more ground. So they created these wire spoke wheels that got as big as they could get, which is twice the length of the rider's leg. And that's when you see those big wheel bikes, the penny farthings that are just like way over your head. And you would order those basically by inseam size, and they would build them for you. And these bicycles, because the arc of the tire was more gentle, when they started to come over to the United States, in the mid to late 1870s, people could ride these on the bad roads, because a smaller wheel is going to catch every single bump.

But a big arc wheel like that is going to roll easier on the road. Now again, these were very expensive. And also you had to be kind of strong to get on these. And you had to, for the most part wear pants, which meant that this was something that strong men of means, younger men usually were doing. But these bicycles became popular among young businessmen, who would start to try and go out in the country, ride on the country roads. And they started investigating the parts of the countryside that were in between railroad stops.

This was new, you know, these people hadn't really been traveling through there for a long time. And they noticed that the roads were no good. And so these young industrialists, or whoever they were, lawyers and doctors and all that, they started agitating to improve the roads. And they made the point that it would be better for the farmers, they could get their goods to market more easily, more consistently. So they started, they banded together, they created a lobby, and they started agitating for the government to start paying for improvements and teaching civil engineers how to maintain these roadways.

And at first, there was a lot of resistance, particularly from the farmers, because they had their hands full. But the bicyclists were able eventually to make the case to the farmers that this would have mutual benefits. And one of the ways that the government ended up encouraging this also was by extending mail delivery as long as the roads were passable. And so if a farmer wanted to get mail delivery at their house, instead of having to go into town every time, they had to make sure that their roads were passable. So this alliance inspired the first state highway expenditures on roadways. These big wheel bicycles were really for wealthy young men.

The older people, people who, you know, had disabilities, women who were wearing, you know, heavy skirts that wouldn't accommodate them, they couldn't enjoy them. And what happened in the late 1880s was that they hit upon the chain drive for bicycles. With a chain, you can make a wheel turn more than once for every time you crank the pedals. And so that meant that these bicycles that had been so high could come back down to the level of the earlier pedal velocipede, but could still be fast.

And so they had the lighter weight, wire spoke wheels, the air-filled rubber tire, air-filled rubber tire, which helps with bumps on the road. So when that happened, when the bicycle came down again, that opened it up for a lot of different groups of people who had not been able to ride the high wheeler. So that meant women, older men, children.

That's when bicycling really started to take off in this country in the early 1890s. And what women in particular found was that unlike before, when if they wanted to go to another town, they needed a horse, they needed a carriage, they needed a driver. They needed to be from a family that was wealthy enough to have those things.

They needed permission from their father, from their husband. They couldn't really travel independently. When you start to get this lower bicycle, which was called a safety bicycle, and it eventually becomes more affordable, you find people traveling longer distances and women traveling longer distances under their own steam and without being observed, without chaperoning. So, you know, you could go places that the train didn't go.

You could go places that you couldn't walk to. And there was a, there's actually a study that had to do with the genetic makeup of people in the countryside. And they had found that because of the bicycle, because people could go farther for courting, that actually the genome in those areas became more varied, that people were going farther to find their partners. And there was this sense that, you know, women should not be part of the public sphere. They should stay home.

They should be just leaving the rest of the world on its own. Now you start to see women in particular, but all kinds of people who have bicycles as being more out and about and on their own, you know, without having to check in with anyone, which was considered dangerous to the moral order, actually. And you've been listening to Margaret Goroff tell the story of the bicycle and in the end about so much more, particularly how the bicycle helped shape cultural life in this country.

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See terms at And we're back with Our American Stories and with author Margaret Goroff telling the story of the bicycle and America. When we left off, she just told us about the bicycle boom in the 1890s, when a technological innovation, the lowering of the bicycle thanks to the chain, allowed more people, including women, to access riding and increase mobility.

Back to Margaret with the rest of the story. So in Europe, there had been a move towards more scientific understanding of medicine and health. In this country, people thought of doctors as kind of in charge of the whole person. They're not just their physical well-being, but sort of their moral well-being and how that could play into their health. There was a thought that each person had their own individual chemistry, like just because something was good for one person didn't mean it would be good for everybody.

Each person had to be individually analyzed by their doctor who knew them well. And one of the things that American doctors were saying about the bicycle was that you shouldn't ride it or you shouldn't override it because you only had so much energy in your life, like a battery that you could recharge, and you had to conserve that and you couldn't be going out exercising willy-nilly because you would just wear yourself out and then you'd die. And there were certain things about American life that supported this, like the clothes that women wore. Middle-class women at the time were expected to wear these very restrictive corsets that they needed, in part because the weight of their clothes and the weight of their skirts was so much that they were clothes and the weight of their skirts was so much that they needed this infrastructure underneath that would distribute the weight so it wasn't all just sitting on their hips. But you could be wearing 25 pounds worth of clothing.

You'd be wearing very narrow pointy shoes. And so these women were in these very tight things that kept them from breathing well and they weren't exercising so they had no muscle strength. And so they were very frail, a lot of them. They couldn't, you know, you couldn't catch your breath or you would faint.

And the doctors were saying, well, of course, a person like this should never exercise because that would be the end of them. But what happened with the bicycle, and I were talking about in the 1890s, the safety bicycle, is that they were so enticing and they seemed like so much fun that people were willing to try them, you know, even though the doctors were saying, please don't do this, you'll die. And these women could not wear these corsets. They had to figure out a different way to dress themselves because it just didn't work on the bicycle. So they started wearing, just for bicycling, not in the rest of their lives, but for bicycling, they would wear a looser undergarment. They would wear shorter skirts. They would go riding around. They would get a little exercise.

They would get a little sun and they would feel better. And people started feeling stronger. People started, you know, feeling healthier.

And that was part of a larger move that, combined with what was going on in Europe and the fact that there were, you know, the communications between America and Europe were tighter. We were seeing a lot of people immigrating from Europe, including people who had medical knowledge. So there were, you know, they were discovering all these new things about health and discovering the germ theory of disease. There was a lot going on, but part of what was going on was that people who were riding these bicycles and feeling better were realizing, you know, my doctor doesn't know everything and you can test something out and see whether it works. And if, you know, exercise works, exercise makes you feel better. And this also showed that there were in fact some things that were like good for everybody, that you didn't need this individual like person studying you and telling you how your moral life would be improved or changed or whatever.

You could say, well, maybe everybody should eat more roughage or everybody should do this, you know? So it was part of and played into a larger change in how people thought about health and medicine at the time. The beginning of the 1890s, the production of bicycles ramped up like crazy. Producers were making new innovations in how bikes were built.

They were adapting technology from making plows and making tractors. And so the bicycles became by 1897, 1898, just the market was just flooded with them. And some of them were not good, which a lot of people say is another reason for the boom to end was that there were just a lot of bikes on the market that were dangerous, falling apart, or that didn't give you that exhilarating experience that got people hooked.

In the 1890s bike boom, it seemed like everybody was riding a bike. It got more and more popular. They got cheaper and cheaper to buy. There were more and more used ones.

So it seemed like everybody was doing it. And then right around the turn of the century, boom, stopped. People stopped using it for the most part. I mean, there were still people who rode them and used them for work, but they weren't a fad anymore. The myth has long held that the car was invented and everyone just moved directly from bicycles to cars and that that's what killed the bike boom. But in fact, the car was invented at the end of the 19th century and invented by people who had been bicycle mechanics first. Henry Ford, yes, he was a bicycle mechanic and he adapted a lot of bicycle technology, wheels and stuff like that, gears and everything to what he was doing.

But they were very expensive. So it wasn't until Henry Ford in the second decade of the 20th century started mass producing cars that ordinary people could start to afford them. So there was this 10 year gap when people really had stopped riding bicycles, but before a lot of people could start being able to afford a car. But the thing that made it much more difficult for people to ride bicycles at the beginning of the 20th century was things like streetcars, which were cutting up the roads and cities and went fast.

And, you know, there were beginning to be cars on the road. So it just became less practical for people to use a bike for entertainment. What happened in the 1970s was that, again, a new technology for us, lightweight European 10-speed bicycles came over and then we started building American 10-speeds and that got really a lot of young people on bikes in the mid 1970s. And some of those young people had the same kind of organizational aspiration as the earlier bikers who had fought for just roads. And so with this new group, you see people advocating for old railway right-of-ways that weren't being used for anything to be turned into rail trails.

That starts happening in the 70s. And also the first dedicated bike lanes in cities like New York are happening in the 1970s. You also have bike messengers at that point.

I mean, there's a whole bunch of stuff going on. The thing about the bike is that it comes and goes. Right now, I think a lot of people are finding really practical uses for it, especially in cities where distances are shorter. There have been times recently in our recent history where nobody rode a bike and there are still places in the country where you can't really. But the times when bicycles are popular coincide with times when they are perceived as fun and safe. And what's happening right now is that a lot of cities have been investing in bike lanes and also in bike share companies, bike share programs, and that gives people a way to use a bike without really taking their lives into their hands. And now we're seeing another new technology that is really starting to catch on, which is electric bicycles, which make it super easy to go up a hill. They're getting cheaper.

They're getting lighter weight. And that's coinciding with a huge older demographic, baby boomers, who came of age maybe in the 1970s bike boom after a period when nobody rode a bike, really. And they want to keep riding their bikes, but they maybe don't want to deal with those hills anymore.

So this electric addition, it's something else that is fun and practical. And I think that's a lot a large part of why right now we're seeing a lot of people on bikes. So before the bicycle, really the only way to travel a long distance in this country other than on the waterways was with a horse, whether it was riding a horse or a horse and carriage. And the creation of the bicycle really affected the way we live now.

And a terrific job on the production, editing, and storytelling by our own Madison Derricott. And a special thanks to Margaret Goroff, the mechanical horse, how the bicycle reshaped American life is her book, and it's available wherever you buy your books. And it was just a blast to just walk through American life and the bicycle and where the two intersected and how the bicycle changed in some ways and in many ways, American life. And my goodness, when we hear about where the science was as a related to, let's say, exercise and how we had a finite amount. So we should be careful how we use it up.

Be careful anytime anyone says the science is settled. The story of the bicycle, the mechanical horse. And we're telling this story because on this day in history in 1817, the first bicycle was ridden here on our American stories. Hello, it is Ryan, and we could all use an extra bright spot in our day, couldn't we?

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