If you have a bicycle, you might want to buy it a birthday cake. One hundred and fifty years ago, Pierre Lallement, a French mechanic working in Brooklyn, won the first patent for a pedal-powered bike. Though some believe Lallement stole the idea from his former employers in France, one fact is uncontested: The bicycle helped move America toward modernity, says Margaret Guroff, author of “The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life.” (She’ll discuss her book at Politics and Prose on Saturday.) Here are five advances we can thank bikes for.
Feminist reformers had long derided the organ-pinching corsets worn by proper Victorian women, but it wasn’t until bike riding caught on at the turn of the 20th century that women started shedding them en masse. “When the bicycle appears and it looks like so much fun, and it’s this amazing way to get around, women begin to wear looser underwear that they could breathe in,” Guroff says.
Before the 1890s, most ads merely listed an item’s price and availability. Bike ads were among the first to claim that buying something could improve your life — by, for instance, helping you get a date, or impressing the neighbors. “Our consumer culture that’s persisted through the 20th century was fostered by the bicycle industry,” Guroff says.
In the late 19th century, many American doctors warned against too much exercise, believing that overexertion caused a vast array of ailments, including heart disease and depression. People took to two wheels anyway, and quickly discovered the salutary benefits of exercise. “It introduced a new strain of skepticism that helped to modernize American medicine,” Guroff says.
America’s rural roads were a rutted, muddy mess until cyclists banded together with farmers in the 1890s to demand that state governments take responsibility for paving and maintaining them. The powerful bicycle lobby also persuaded Congress, in 1893, to create the Office of Road Inquiry, which later became the Federal Highway Administration. “Bicyclists helped pave the way for cars,” Guroff says.
Lots of inventors were trying to create a heavier-than-air flying machine in the early 20th century, but the Wright brothers, who were bicycle mechanics, succeeded because they realized that flying — like riding a bike — would take skill and practice. Wilbur and Orville “understood that you needed to build something you could be constantly correcting, balancing in three dimensions the way you balance a bicycle in two,” Guroff says.
Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Sat., 3:30 p.m., free.
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