John Keats may have been a great poet but he wasn't much of a seer. According to bicycle historian David Herlihy, the famous English Romantic poet dismissed a faddishly popular precursor of the modern-day bicycle as a fleeting novelty.
For a brief moment, as Herlihy's comprehensive new book Bicycle: The History shows, Keats seemed to be right. In its earliest days, the bicycle was a plaything of the wealthy and the trendy. It was too expensive, too heavy (at more than 50 pounds) and too difficult to ride on the poor road systems in Europe and the U.S. to achieve widespread popularity. Only late in its development did it become the hoped-for utilitarian mode of transportation that sees something like a billion bicycles in use (or at least in garages) today.
Herlihy's history follows the ebb and flow of bicycle popularity from the earliest days of invention, when an 1817 bike-precursor called the draisine was seen as an enhancement to walking, through the "boneshaker" and "high wheel" eras, through the development of the "safety bicycles" (so named because their lower height meant less serious injuries in crashes or falls), to the modern proliferation of specialized bicycles.
Bicycle is best as it approaches the modern age. Here Herlihy's weave of anecdotes and analysis adds up to a fascinating social history. The bicycle contributed to women's greater independent mobility, as well as practical changes in fashion. Bike clubs were effective advocates for better roads long before automobile drivers. And bike builders made essential contributions to the development of the motorcycle, the automobile and, of course, the airplane.
To Herlihy's and our good fortune, the rise of the bicycle also coincided with the golden age of illustration. Herlihy and Yale University Press have taken full advantage of this fact. The author's prose is brought to life by the extraordinary and plentiful period photographs and illustrations. Bicycle is a handsome and visually pleasing volume.
Alden Mudge rides his 1999 Lemond Buenos Aires more than 3,500 miles every year.