on October 25, 2005
This is virtually an encyclopedia of bicycle history with an extraordinary collection of photographs, drawings, catalog covers, and lots more illustrative material from the early history of the bicycle forward to today. The visuals alone in this beautiful book are more than enough reason to buy it. The writing is also to savor time and time again with great sidebars on a variety of fascincating and amusing subjects and a very informative recounting of the 200-year history of self-propelled transporation. No bicyclist could possibly be disappointed in acquiring this marvelous volume.
on March 4, 2005
This richly illustrated and carefully researched book belongs in the library of all serious cyclists.
David Herlihy deserves high praise for his definitive work which so well illuminates our magnificient bicycling heritage.
It reads easily. I had great difficulty putting it down even for a break.
Santa Fe Bikes & Gallery
on January 26, 2008
In the second half of the 19th Century several machines engaged and excited the world's finest inventive minds. Among them were the sewing machine, the locomotive and the gun. But the machine that drew the most attention was the bicycle. In January and February of 1869, as the first craze for the early primitive bicycles hit the United States, the American patent office received about one hundred applications for improvements to the crank-driven two-wheeler. By March, over 100 more were either sent or announced.
Why? The bicycle was that deeply yearned-for device that would satisfy the centuries-old desire for cheap personal transportation.
David Herlihy's wonderful book tells the story of the invention and development of the bicycle from the first dreams set down on paper centuries ago to the present high-tech carbon fiber lightweight. While he covers the entire history of the bicycle, his main emphasis is on the nineteenth century, from 1817 when Karl von Drais made a two-wheeled hobby horse that would facilitate walking, to the bust of the great 1890's bicycle boom.
Along the way Herlihy ponders a couple of interesting questions. What, exactly is a bicycle and who invented it? That inquiry led him to conclude that Pierre Lallement, a Frenchman, is our hero. For the forty years after Drais built his "Draisine", the greatest mechanical minds searched for an efficient way propel the machine, but to no avail. It was Lallement who had the brilliant insight to attach pedaled cranks to the front wheel and turn them with his legs. And thus, the bicycle was born.
This early bicycle, or "Velocipede", was a far cry from the chain-driven modern bicycle that appeared in the late 1880's. Numerous technical improvements were needed, such as ball bearings, a cheap, reliable roller chain, high-quality steel tubing, and the tensioned wire wheel (called "spider wheels" at the time of their invention) before the "horse that eats no oats" could be realized.
Without getting bogged down in the minutia of the technology, yet filled with detail, Herlihy follows the avid inventors, excited cyclists and greedy businessmen as they sought to make and own ever better bikes.
There is a surprising nugget of information on every page. The differential gear, which allows a drive shaft to distribute the automobile's force to the rear wheels so that in a turn the inside wheel can rotate more slowly than the faster moving outside wheel, was invented for the tricycle.
The bicycle wrought profound social consequences. At times, fully one-third of the bicycle buyers in the nineteenth century were women as they used the bicycle as a tool of freedom and emancipation. Roads were improved at the urging of cyclists and thus the way for automobiles was made easier.
Lavishly illustrated, Bicycle took Herlihy fifteen years to complete. He is contemplating a sequel, taking up the story where he left off at the turn of the century. He had better not make us wait another fifteen years.
-Bill McGann, Author of The Story of the Tour de France
on March 20, 2007
They're impractical toys of the rich. The technology is flawed. People will never put up with their limitations. It's too difficult and expensive to get them repaired. Young dandies and showoffs only want to be seen riding them. Ten years from now, people will wonder why we wasted our time on them.
Anyone who has been reading the Detroit newspapers for the last 10 years or so has seen all these arguments used repeatedly against hybrid cars, fuel cell technology and any number of non-fossil-fuel vehicle prototypes. (Only substitute "movie stars" for "dandies.")
Yet the arguments cited above come from the mid-19th century, and their target is a simple tool the whole world now takes for granted: the bicycle.
The peculiarly gleeful, small-minded scorn unique to Luddites of any era is vividly brought to life in "The Bicycle," David V. Herlihy's wonderful illustrated history.
In hindsight, it seems there could be no simpler or more obvious invention. Yet Herlihy demonstrates that the bicycle went through a very long and complicated struggle to get where it is today.
For decades, the velocipede was little more than a glorified scooter, an "aid to walking" powered by kicking the ground. Herlihy picks his way through the variants that come and go, including the 1814 "draisine" of German inventor Karl von Drais, and it's a maddening story indeed. One poor entrepreneur after another goes boom and bust as people latch on to the fad and then tire of it. "Chain the goddamn wheel to a crank!" you want to scream, but history is a cruel one-way mirror. All the reader can do is look on helplessly as the bicycle-haters get their way for more than half a century -- until 1867, when the pedal-driven crank finally closed the circle and set the bicycle rolling on a globe-girdling adventure still in progress.
The reader may have noted that no name was credited above with this crucial breakthrough, and that's another bumpy side to the bicycle's history. Herlihy sifts patiently -- but not too patiently -- through a tangled chain of conflicting claims and patents that make it extremely difficult to pick out the Henry Fords or Wright Brotherses of velocipede-dom.
The heart of the drama, though, is provided by the unceasing, and very entertaining, press wars over the alleged dangers and benefits of bicycling, which Herlihy quotes generously.
As bicycles increase in popularity, cities pass ordinances banning them from sidewalks, yahoos gather round solitary riders and throw stones, pundits decry the decline of civilization. "Velocity is the fashionable mania of the present day," clucks a London newspaper in the early 1800s. "We walk with a Velocipede, are whirled around in a light Post Coach, or run into Fortune in five minutes by a successful speculation." Another newspaper worries that bicycles will make it easier for burglars to glide away from the long arm of the law, perhaps forgetting that if bicycles are outlawed, only outlaws will have bicycles.
Volatile 19th-century sexual politics were badly chewed up in the bicycle's gears, with heated exchanges over whether bicycling was a fit pastime for ladies, and if so, what the well-turned ankle should wear. In 1895, Ethel Dumont of Victoria, British Columbia rode onto the streets in bloomers, provoking a huge sensation (the press called her a new "Lady Godiva") and the threat of a court summons. Women who simply liked to bike became caught up in the polarized atmosphere in which female bicycling was often seen as an aggressive badge of emancipation.
Of course, voices were also raised in the bicycle's defense. Herlihy quotes a letter to the editor in a York, England newspaper in the early 1820s: "We hope in the course of the summer to see [velocipedes] scuddling about in all directions, to the great discomfiture of indigestion, bad spirits, paleness, leanness and corpulency." Now these arguments have returned as well, to be used against a sprawling, obese, car-driven world the bicycle may outlive.
Herlihy's text is exhaustive but far from exhausting, and he avoids flights of poetic abstraction his subject could easily provoke. But the best thing about "Bicycle" its hundreds of fascinating illustrations, all in color on heavy enamel paper that makes the book weigh twice as much as its unassuming size indicates.
There are plenty of period diagrams and photos of bicycle variants over the years, including crazy curiosities with more and less than two wheels, but most of the illustrations trace the evolving public attitude toward bicycles.
At first, it's not a pretty tableau. Even after the crank and chain made bicycling more logical and less outlandish to watch, editorial cartoonists were merciless in their depiction of riders, who are seen running over, into and through each other in every imaginable configuration. Huge Victorian ladies are perched ridiculously on tiny wheels, mutton-chopped gentleman sprawl on the ground next to wounded trees. Later, lovely Art Nouveau posters and advertisements show a world not only reconciled, but in love with the bicycle's sublime form and function.
on November 4, 2008
A very interesting read, but not for those interested in the evolution of the mechanics. The book is mostly about how bicycles ("the poor man's horse") changed American and European society, to be later superseded by the internal combustion engine. What I found most interesting are the historic conflicts within the cycling community. Real men rode big wheels, free wheelers were lazy. Weirdly, these carry over to today's cyclists.
Major technological changes (such as penny racer, to safety bike, and fixed to free wheel) the book glosses over changes in brakes, gearing and such.
An excellent book, for social history, not much for hardware.
on June 14, 2013
This piece of literature is incredible. As an avid cyclist I simply cannot put it down.
"Bicycle" is an in-depth history of man's most ingenious and efficient human-powered machine, one failed attempt after another. The two-wheeled walking machines called Draisines/velocipedes/dandy horses stagnated for an astonishing 50 years before the revelation of adding pedals to front hub came about. Subsequently evolution and innovation was rapid. The illustrations bring the story to life and some of the predecessors to the modern bicycle had me laughing out loud.
Ultimately the book has deepened my already immense appreciation for the bicycle. It also makes me wonder about the future of the machine. Does the next major breakthrough lie right beneath our noses, such as the pedal solution did for 50 years in the bicycle's prehistory? Just how much better can the world's most efficient human-powered kinetic energy machine become?
on December 8, 2007
This is a thorough encyclopedia of bicycle history with a stunning collection of photographs, drawings, catalog covers, and so much more giving the reader an informative tour of the early history of the bicycle forward to today.
The images alone in this beautiful book are reason enough to buy it, but the writing is also a joy to spend time with.
on August 14, 2010
This lavishly-illustrated and compellingly-written history of the bicycle by a serious historian, published by an academic press, is, at least for now, what its subtitle says it is: THE history of the bicycle.
Unfortunately, the two most critical reviews on Amazon make me wonder whether the reviewers actually read the book at all. Herlihy devotes a great deal of attention to "the bicycle's impact on women in the late nineteenth century," which one reviewer claimed "receives hardly any treatment at all." Herlihy points out that the "safety" bicycle sparked a boom in American and European sales in the 1890s primarily because it appealed to women, as the earlier high-wheeler had not, and that women's fashions, participation in cycling sports, bicycle touring, and relationships with men all began to change as a result. This same reviewer claimed that "the religious aspects of cycling during the heyday of 'muscular Christianity' (1880-1920) are completely neglected." Again, not true (see page 186). Finally, this reviewer claimed that "this book is also geographically biased, concentrating, rather predictably, on Europe and New England." Why "rather predictably"? Perhaps because nineteenth-century bicycles (to which Herlihy devotes three-fourths of his book) were produced almost entirely in Europe and New England! When Herlihy gets to the twentieth century, he deals with the other centers of bicycle popularity and production that emerged.
Another reviewer gave the book only one star, asserting (among other things) that "It is quite light on the many developments since the seventies, which have led to the bikes that we are riding today." But these developments are covered quite well in chapters on recreational cycling and competitive cycling, which deal with both technological and commercial developments. This same reviewer claimed that "rarely are ... illustrations satisfyingly integrated into the narrative." This statement is totally without basis. With the exception of a very few retrospective illustrations in the last chapter, every illustration in the book relates directly to the text on the same or adjoining pages.
My only criticism of this admirable book (which represents a decade of international research) is that it devotes three times as much space the first thirty-five years of the bicycle's history as it does to the next century. Partly, that is because Herlihy is trying to cover ground that has been neglected in earlier histories, and indeed he brings to light much that has lain hidden. But I would like to have learned more about the development of the cycling industry during the twentieth century. Why did none of the leading manufacturers in the 1960s and 1970s survive? Which are the leading bicycle makers today, and how did they become the leaders? How do bicycle sales today compare to those of the past?
Still, no single volume is ever likely to cover everything that every reader wants to know about cycling's history, and this one does it far better and more accessibly than any other to date.
on June 29, 2011
The author writes with great passion about the history of the bicycle. The book also has lots of great pictures. The book continues up until current times, but the focus of is the early history of the bicycle (ie up until 1930/1940 or so). I would say the book is very strong in the early history, but the sections on the last couple of decades are just awful. Suddenly the author doesn't seem to be interested any more. Gears, breaking systems, mountain bikes - these things are not mentioned. But I think BMX is mentioned. Shows that the author has been asleep during the last 20-30 years!
I bought the book because I'm a student of innovation and because I like bicycling. The book gives a good description of the bicycles history but not expect any quantitative data. The book is not at all useful to understand the evolution of the bicycles during the last 50/60 years. All together still a four star book
on March 5, 2010
I really liked this book the first time I read it, and find it enjoyable the second time around. It is substantial in weight on clay paper to support numerous color images. I like the writer's style. I thought he fairly covered the impact on women and their roles, despite one reviewers minimizing of it.
As some critics note, it is Euro-America centric and limited in time covered. A more comprehensive work would be daunting in size and probably need several covers. It would be great to see a second supplement that looks at other continents but who is multi-lingual enough and so motivated to accurately gather the data? clearly not the critics....