The Under-appreciated History of the Bicycle

“The thing that separates us from the high primates is that we’re tool builders,” Steve Jobs noted. The human experience is marked by the development of tools and how tools have changed our lives. The bicycle is a simple machine with a huge, and positive impact on our life to the extent that Jobs used in this interview:


 “I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts.”

And yet this amazing machine that more than 9 million Americans use daily has a somewhat unknown history. Like many of the tools we rely on, the bicycle has a simple beginning, that of necessity. The bicycle we know today came likely about during a famine in Germany when startling number of horses were dying. German inventor, Baron Karl von Drais, set out to solve this by constructing a wooden machine with two wheels and a frame that the seated rider straddled and propelled with his feet on the ground as if running. Then, for the next hundred years or so manifestations of this human-powered machine would come and go, each one advancing the bicycle to become a more rideable, and useful machine.



Up to 99 percent of the energy delivered by a cyclist into the pedals of the bicycle is transmitted to the wheels, allowing for a greater transfer of energy and thus greater speed. On flat terrain, a person riding a bicycle needs as third as much energy as someone walking. A person walking requires 60 watts to walk 3.1 miles per hour. On a bicycle, that same person can average 9.3 miles per hour. The differences get more dramatic if you’re running: world class racers can produce up to 25 watts of energy allowing them to travel at 31 miles per hour (and only briefly). However, the fastest human powered vehicle, a streamlined recumbent bicycle, reached an astounding speed of 83.13 miles per hour.

But beyond locomotion, the bicycle has had a proud impact socially. Learning how to ride a bicycle is a major milestone of childhood– the first taste of freedom, travel, and adventure. Biking has also served the noble purpose of advancing equality among the sexes: Women in the 19th century who previously had little autonomy suddenly now had a machine that was self power and negated the need for men for travel. Susan B. Anthony said of the bicycle: “The bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”


Photo credits:,,