Was The Bicycle a Bigger Innovation Than the Automobile?

I always wondered what would have happened if the modern chain-driven bicycle had been invented in Leonardo DaVinci’s time.
Some historians rank the advent of the bicycle as a bigger change than the automobile.
Prior to the bicycle, people got around via horses (or walked). A horse and carriage was expensive, horses ate a lot of grain, and lived maybe 5-8 years. Because of this, only the rich could afford them.
The bicycle was (relatively) cheap, needed little maintainence, and required no fuel. You could easily bike 20 miles (given decent roads), so commuting a fair distance to work was now possible.
Contrast this with an automobile (in the early 1900’s)-expensive to buy, expensive to maintain, and unreliable.
So was a bicycle better transportation (for most people) till the era of the Model T Ford?

I think the first automobiles were around before the chain-driven safety cycles were invented. I’ve always been amused at the thought of someone putting their feet on the handlebars of a pennyfarthing while going downhill so that in a crash, there was a chance of landing on your feet.

Of course Leo would have a lot of things to overcome. Lack of ball bearings, rubber for tires and so on.

But you are right in that the early introduction of bikes would have changed a lot of stuff. Paved streets for example would almost certainly made an earlier appearance in big cities.

I dunno. You’re talking very heavy steel machines with single gears and maybe even solid tires. Even modern, wide-tired, geared bikes are less than optimal on rutted gravel, muddy roads (unless you’re a dedicated mountain biker). You can certainly do it, but a 20 mile commute would be mighty unpleasant and not notably rapid. Cobblestones aren’t very pleasant to bike on either. So before smooth paved roads came about, bikes would have had pretty limited uses. Would the presence of bicycles alone be enough to inspire the infrastructure of paved roads?

Someone has once remarked that a bicycle is the only machine that you can carry that can carry you.

Yes, as a matter of fact. Bicyclists were the ones responsible for the Good Roads Movement.

This page makes some strong statements about the social effects of bicycles:

(Though I suspect this paragraph was lifted from somewhere, as I’ve seen almost identical writing elsewhere.)

By the way, the invention that made the safety bicycle possible was not the chain drive, but the pneumatic tire. With solid rubber tires, you needed large wheels to smooth out the ride and get an acceptably low rolling resistance. With pneumatic tires, you could get the same efficiency and comfort with smaller wheels. (The chain drive mechanism was invented much earlier.)

This led to the rational dress movement. Bloomers wre invented slightly earlier, by Amelia Bloomer.

The Wright Brothers used their thriving bicycle shop to tinker with gadgets like airplanes.

Skateboard? Pogo stick? Inflatable boat?

Kayak? Wheel-chair?

roller skates?


Jet pack?

Unicycle? Tricycle?


(okay, 290lbs **is ** a bit much to carry around, but still…:cool:)

The motor car was well out of reach for most folk until after WW2.

The development of the railways was probably more significant, it changed trading patterns, made bulk products and materials far easier to move, and this undermined local markets.

A good example of this might be coal and iron ore. This had to be obtained locally as the cost of transport was too great, as soon as railways came about all that changed, high cost materials were very quickly undercut. You can also add that this was all part of the industrial revolution, which all took place without the moto car, and the internal combustion engine.

The bicycle did allow workers to live a little further away from their workplaces, but so did trams, and so did trains.

The demand for bicycles did lead to mass production lines, and many of the major bicycle manufacturers moved into car manufacture. You might say that the bicycle enabled further changes to industrial practice but I have a hard time thinking that without the bicycle it would not have happened anyway.

I guess it’s differant in the US, however the rail network in the UK reached almost everywhere, each little collection of shacks almost anywhere you could name in the UK had a railway fairly near.This situation continued almost through to the 1960’s, and the real growth in car ownership only took off in the late 1960’s.

THIS item had quite a bit to do with it.

Most UK cars were designed & marketed for the wealthy & aristocrats.

The Model T was aimed at the rest of us.
Big difference in cost.