Correction to This Article
This article about the history of the bicycle described Russell Mamone as a consultant for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. Although Mamone has advised museum curators about bicycle history, he has no official position with the museum.

The history of the bicycle

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Oh, the kids went crazy when they saw the first bicycle," said Russell Mamone, a bicycle consultant for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. (Yes, we think that would be a really cool job, too!)

"The boys and girls lined up on the side of the road waiting to see this man flying by on two wheels," said Mamone. "Whew! Nobody had ever seen that before."

It may be hard to imagine being amazed by a bicycle -- a type of childhood transportation that many kids take for granted today. But consider that it was the summer of 1817 when inventor Karl Drais first tried out the device he called a "laufmaschine." That means "running machine" in German.

Drais came up with the word because he had his bottom on a seat, steered with his hands and used his two legs to "run" up to 25 miles a day over the bumpy country roads.

"I guess that word made sense to him," said Hans-Erhard Lessing, a professor at the University of Ulm in Germany who has written popular books and academic papers on Drais and his invention. "The word bicycle didn't exist, you know." (We bet you can figure out how it got that name, though.)

It was a time, after all, before airplanes or cars, passenger trains or motor boats, cellphones, televisions or computers. In fact, there were no motors, no electricity, and even the fastest ships used sails and the wind to cross rivers and seas.

"Everybody walked everywhere, or used horses," Lessing said. "So, we remember Drais because he built the first reliable two-wheel, steerable, human-propelled machine, and it is with us everywhere to this day."

But it took a while for the bicycle to become popular.

Drais's first bicycles had pedals on the front wheel, but in the 18th century the idea of balance was unknown, explained Lessing. Most people back then stayed on their two feet all their lives, only using balance for activities such as ice skating. So the bicycle scared many people.

But by 1819, Baltimore had the first bicycle shop in the United States. Soon craftsmen across the United States and Europe were improving on Drais's ideas. Today, there are more than a billion bicycles worldwide, with about 70 million in the United States, according to the Department of Transportation.

By the year 1900, bicycles had become enormously popular, added Ken Gray of Reston, who heads the Wheelmen, a group for people interested in the history of cycling. Even Woodrow Wilson, our 28th president, was crazy about cycling but had to give it up when he moved into the White House for security reasons.

Women's rights leader Susan B. Anthony enjoyed the freedom that bike riding offered, saying in 1896, "I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel . . . the picture of free untrammeled womanhood."

"That's the fun of bikes, we can all still rejoice today," said Gray, who owns hundreds of cycles.

-- Raymond M. Lane

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