Friday, November 11, 2005

a partial history of the bicycle

To my great luck I live just down the street from a museum set up inside a deconsecrated monastery which is home to nineteenth century flying machines, early bicycles, and Foucault's pendulum. Some weekends they even have actual scientists in there demonstrating the workings of golden adding machines, astrolabes, and various chemical reactions near a model of Lavoisier's lab. All it is missing is a history of mail by pneumatic tube (hint, hint). However, I was glad to see the bikes because they are important to the history of the nineteenth century, the development of fashion, and women's lib -- not to mention modern eros.

The first bicycle precursors were developed perhaps simultaneously in Germany and France, and were known as velocipedes in French and the draisine (after the inventor) or Laufmaschine in German. [This invites the question: can machines undergo a Darwinian evolution just like organisms? Or, are bicycles like other machines a proxy for evolutionary forces on humans -- speeded up like everything else in the modern era a.k.a. Machine Age?]

The early bicycle was a hilarious affair. Here is a description from a bicycle historian: "The German Baron Karl Drais von Sauerbronn invented the "Laufmaschine" or "Running Machine", a type of pre-bicycle. The steerable Laufmaschine was made entirely of wood and had no pedals; a rider would push his/her feet against the ground to make the machine go forward. Sauerbronn's bicycle was first exhibited in Paris on April 6, 1818. The celerifere was another similar early bicycle precursor invented in 1790 by Frenchmen, Comte Mede de Sivrac, however, it had no steering."

The couple above is riding a Penny Farthing, a.k.a. the "High" or "Ordinary" bicycle (of which there is at least one in my photo above). According to the same historian above, "the Penny Farthing was the first really efficient bicycle, consisting of a small rear wheel and large front wheel pivoting on a simple tubular frame with tires of rubber." Before that, various bikes called the "Hobbyhorse," the "Dandy Horse," and the Velocipede or "Boneshaker" (as it was known in the United Kingdom; think cobblestones) were popularly in use. "The tires were iron, and the pedals were attached to the hub of the front, or driver, wheel, which was slightly higher than the rear wheel." Ah, moments when I remember why I am glad not to have lived during the nineteenth century.

The name of the modern vehicle dates from 1869, when a patent was taken out in England for a new machine with solid rubber tires mounted on steel rims -- phew.
In 1873 Jamse Starley, and English inventor, produced the first machine incoporating most of the features of the so-called ordinary, or high-wheel, bicycle. The front of Starley's machine wasas much as three times as large in diameter as the rear wheel.

None of them sound quite as good as Leonardo da Vinci's (unrealized) sketch of a bicycle from 1490, do they?

The rise of bicycles encourages the fledgling modern trend for women's clothes that allow greater freedom of movement.

Benjamin notes the "similarity of the arcades to the indoor arenas in which one learned how to ride a bicycle. In these halls the figure of the woman assumed its most seductive aspect: as a cyclist. That is how she appears on contemporary posters. Chéret the painter of this feminine pulchritude. The costume of the cyclist, as an early and unconscious prefiguration of sportswear, corresponds to the dream prototypes that, a little before or a little after, are at work in the factory or in the automobile. Just as the first factory buildings cling to the traditional form of the residential dwelling and just as the first automobile chassis imitates carriages, so in the clothing of the cyclist the sporting expression still wrestles with the inherited patttern of elegance, and the fruit of this struggle is the grim sadistic touch which made this ideal image of elegance so incomparably provocative to the male world in those days."

"Who still knows, nowadays, where it was that in the last decade of the previous century women would offer to men their most seductive aspect, the most intimate promise of their figure? In the asphalted indoor arenas where people learned to ride bicycles. The woman as cyclist competes with the cabaret singer for the place of honor on posters, and gives to fashion its most daring line."

Okay, for Benjamin: women cyclists = a hint of sadism, provocative seduction, and for me: women cyclists = freedom of movement and the beginning of the development of women's clothes for comfort for herself, not visual pleasure for others. Maybe there's a bit of evolution going on as well in the development of critical analysis of nineteenth century material.


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