Brain Pickings

The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels: A Brief History of the Bike

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What British artisans have to do with geometry, women’s liberation and the local economy.

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.

Illustration by Tamara Shopsin and Jason Fulford for The New York Times

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.

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