The Pursuit of Happiness on 2 Wheels: A History of the Bike

More

An example of the design, reception, and transformative power of the bicycle, a simple machine that changed the world

bikeedit.jpg
I'm a big proponent of bike culture and an obsessive cyclist myself. On a cultural level, we've seen the incredible effects the bike has had on everything from emancipating women to catalyzing subcultures to revitalizing the local economy. And while the bicycle, since its earliest incarnation, has remained a rather remarkable machine, the never-ending quest for its perfection is a relentless conduit of creativity, imagination, and artisanal innovation. That's exactly what Robert Penn documents in It's All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels—a fantastic new chronicle of the bike's story, from its cultural history to its technical innovation to the fascinating, colorful stories of the people who ride it.

"At the heart of [the capstone of the Victorian era] was the bicycle. In 1890, there were an estimated 150,000 cyclists in the USA: a bicycle cost roughly half the annual salary of a factory worker. By 1895, the cost was a few weeks' wages and there were a million new cyclists each year." Robert Penn

Penn, a Condé Nast Traveler writer who has traveled more than 25,000 miles on a bicycle, approaches his subject with equal parts humor, humility, and authoritative intelligence as he sets out to find himself a new bike. In the process, he dabbles across industrial archeology, economic theory, design, and much more, profiles bike culture pioneers, talks to artisan frame builders from the world's most arcane bike workshops, and even entertains the conceits of Victorian society, where a fear that the bicycle might be sexually stimulating to women became a real concern.

bike1edit.jpg
Penn cites novelist John Galsworthy, who eloquently captures the bicycle's momentous impact:

The bicycle...has been responsible for more movement in manners and morals than anything since Charles the Second ... Under its influence, wholly or in part, have blossomed weekends, strong nerves, strong legs, strong language ... equality of sex, good digestion and professional occupation—in four words, the emancipation of women.

Entertaining, illuminating and beautifully illustrated, It's All About the Bike is a rare and precious portal to the heart and soul of bike culture and its surprising footprint—tireprint?—on all of culture.


This post also appears in Brain Pickings.
Images (top to bottom): The Library of Congress, Tamara Shopsin and Jason Fulford for The New York Times

Jump to comments
Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Video

What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets

Video

Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.

Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In