Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History

by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing, with contributions by Nick Clayton and Gary W. Sanderson (MIT Press 2014), 576 pp, $34.95, ISBN 978-0-262-02675-8 (hardcover)

This book, the product of a collaboration between two historians of bicycles and bicycling, aims to redress the circumstance that, in spite of the fact that about a billion bicycles have been produced to date, “few areas within the history of technology have been as neglected as the history of the bicycle.” The authors succeed admirably in their attempt.

The book’s sixteen chapters are titled: (1) Velocipedes and Their Forerunners; (2) Front Drive; (3) Wire Wheels; (4) Indirect Drive; (5) The Safety Bicycle; (6) Comfort; (7) Improving Transmission; (8) Braking; (9) Saddles, Pedals, and Handlebars; (10) Lighting; (11) Luggage; (12) Racing Bicycles; (13) Military Bicycles; (14) Mountain Bikes; (15) Small-Wheeled Bicycles; (16) Recumbent Bicycles.

The authors use a section heading every several pages to divide each chapter into recognizable and easily searchable sections. For example, the five sections of Chapter 7 are titled Evolution of the Automatic Freewheel; The Early Development of Multi-speed Gearing; Epicyclic Gearing ; Derailleurs; Automatic and Continuously Variable Gears.

The book’s subtitle “An Illustrated History” is amply justified: there are about 300 numbered figures (line drawings and black-and-white photographs). This total is an underestimate, since many of the figures are arrays of several graphics each. The illustrations display the stunning variety of designs: two-wheeled, three-wheeled, and four-wheeled; front drive and rear drive; big-wheeled and small-wheeled; and so on.

In the very first chapter, the authors describe how the “year without a summer” (1816) necessitated the adoption of horseless means of transport in Europe. This reviewer also learned from the book how the first velocipedes drew upon roller-skating technology and about the extent to which technology developed for cycling influenced automotive and aviation developments.

As the chapter titles indicate, the authors are methodical. The treatment of design is thorough, and almost all figures have some referencing discussion in the narrative. Appendices include debunked priority hoaxes, reports from the nineteenth century, bicycle aesthetics, and a labeled diagram of parts of a bicycle. Also in the end papers, the book includes about a hundred items of “Select Literature” and approximately 300 references.

This reviewer would have liked a glossary of terms; in places it seemed that the authors were assuming significant knowledge of the nomenclature of bicycling. One other apparent omission: there was no real discussion of children’s tricycles and bicycles.

Although one of the authors (Lessing) is a past professor of physics, there are only a few places in the text with statements or explicit applications of physical principles. However, several books on bicycling science are mentioned. Two of these should be especially useful to the reader seeking more detailed treatment of the physics of bicycles and cycling: Archibald Sharp’s Bicycles and Tricycles: An Elementary Treatise on Their Design and Construction, originally published in 1896 and reprinted by the MIT Press in 1977, and David Gordon Wilson’s Bicycling Science, now in its third edition (MIT Press, 2004). Hadland and Lessing focus their attention on bicycle design and history, including commercial history.

The text is often dry, but there are wonderful passages of deadpan humor, especially in the descriptions of the joys and hazards of riding in the early days of cycling. On second-generation velocipedes, the “rider sat so high that he could no longer reach the ground with his feet.” Hadland and Lessing then quote a passage from Joseph Firth-Bottomley’s 1869 book on those machines: “When the rider comes better to understand his machine, he will mount it by running alongside for three or four yards and vaulting into the saddle, but of course for a tyro [beginner] to attempt such a method of ascent would be suicidal, and almost certain to end in discomfiture.”

Regarding high-wheelers, the authors write: “One particular joy was coasting. The approved method for enjoying a descent, where the road to the bottom could be seen to be clear, was to hang the legs over the handlebars. Barring mechanical failure or unforeseen misadventure, such as the tire leaving the rim, the practice was less dangerous than it might seem. In the event of misfortune the rider was at least propelled clear of the bicycle, rather than being centrifugally smashed into the roadway.”

Different types of readers will likely approach the book in different ways. Because the book is organized topically rather than strictly chronologically, persons with particular interest in bicycle racing or in mountain biking can read only the most relevant chapter. Many of the chapters are self-contained, and where it is necessary, the authors refer to other chapters. Only the most devoted student of bicycle design and manufacturing history will be likely to read this book cover to cover. However, almost anyone who has ridden a bicycle will find something of interest, and this reviewer can recommend the book highly.

William H. Ingham
Professor Emeritus
James Madison University

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.