12 May 2014

Progress and Flight

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Spurred by the amount of pageviews Bicyclist Abroad has garnered to date, (1883 as of yesterday), the occasion of it being National Bike Month in the States, and the lack of notable bicycling ventures lately, I took a look around the various internet archives for insight into what the status of American cycling was in the year 1883. Now, I’ve read a few publications on the history of bicycles, most notably David Herlihy’s monolithic Bicycle: The History, but my remembrance of things past is easily overwritten, so a reminder every so often is helpful to frame the timeline of historical progress. All of that to say: I forget exactly when stuff happened.

What I came across via Google Scholar was a nifty essay in the Journal of Social History entitled “Progress And Flight: An Interpretation of the American Cycle Craze of the 1890s”. The piece describes the transition from the boneshaker to the ordinary, more commonly known as the penny farthing, to the emergence of the safety bicycle, and the respective ebb and flow of American acceptance thereof.

What was most notable, in my opinion, (you can read the essay for yourself here) was the idea that the bicycle was both a product of, and a means of departure from, the breakneck technological progress of the time. People were being overwhelmed by the industrial expanse around them and turned to the bicycle to deliver them from the hectic lives they now found themselves in. This made me think about how that era parallels the one we live in now, where everything is digital and increasingly interconnected; new appliances are being made every day that interface with the internet or cell phones, sending messages and alerts and its just as overwhelming, if not more so. So does the bicycle still offer that simplistic respite from the complications of living in the modern age? In some respects, I think it does, but not as an end in itself. You can see from this kickstarter or this one, that there is a market for people who would like their bicycle to be more connected. It’s probably the last bastion of pure mechanical technology in most of our lives, and there are plenty of initiatives to get it to move beyond into full internet integration, too. So in that regard, the bicycle is not the answer itself, though it never really was; even in the 1880s, the technology that spawned the bicycle was still churning and developing into new things, ultimately what would become the automobile and the airplane. But what it allowed people to do at the time, and still allows today, is to escape under our own power, to pedal away from technological dependence and discover, if just for a moment, the refreshment of nature or the novelty of an unfamiliar city, and then having satisfied our desire for removal, return to the comfort of our homes. The bicycle was, and still is, the perfect balance of innovation where technology and humanity meet half way.

- Bicyclist Abroad

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