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The birth of the bike…

Bicycles are big business.  It’s hard to get an exact figure but estimates suggest there are around 2 billion bikes in the world today – and after Covid-19 there might be a few more.  People in lockdown have been turning to bikes as a form of exercise and as an alternative to public transport and they’re doing so in such numbers that waiting lists for new bikes run to three months or more. 

And of course they exist in all sorts of shapes and sizes – town bikes, racing bikes,  mountain bikes, foldable bikes, electric bikes and many more besides.  They’re available in cutting-edge high tech versions but their underlying design is very simple.  They’re very green – once built they can be repaired and resurrected, some live for ages, handed on from generation to generation.

But bicycles weren’t always around and perhaps it’s worth reflecting a little more on their history, not least because it can teach us some useful lessons about innovation.  In particular how (or not) to manage it for impact and scale.

What do you do once you’ve invented the wheel?  In the earliest days – around 3500 BC – the Mesopotamians used them to make pottery which seems to be the first application of this breakthrough idea.  The problem with using them for transport wasn’t so much the wheel as finding an axle strong enough to enable the wheels to work.  It took another 300 years before new materials and better carpentry techniques led to their being fixed to chariots and ushering in the era of mobile warfare.  But once the wheels started rolling they were attached to an increasing variety of military and domestic vehicles, so it was only going to be a matter of time before someone came up with the idea of using them to enable personal transportation. 

Well quite a lot of time, actually.  Although there’s probably a sketch for something resembling a bike in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks or in some other inventor’s imagination, the reality is that it wasn’t until the early 19th century that the vehicle that we know and love began to see the light of day.  That shouldn’t surprise us – innovation depends on a mixture of needs and means and the idea of personal transportation never mind the technologies to enable it was not a particularly high priority.  People didn’t travel far – and if they did Nature had already supplied a robust solution in the form of horses (or  mules, camels and other alternatives).

The average human being can walk at around 5 km per hour so covering any distance is going to take time and effort.  Enter Baron von Drais, a minor aristocrat in Germany who in 1817 came up with the ‘Laufmaschine’ – walking machine  – otherwise known as the Draisienne. He was already an experienced engineer and inventor, having come up with several working prototypes for devices like a piano music recording system, a periscope, and a typewriter.  (All ideas which turned out, much later, to have considerable significance but not in the form he developed them).  And he had a passion for horseless transportation.

            This wasn’t some idle curiosity or pet project.  Times were tough in the years of the Napoleonic wars and grain prices were high, something not helped by the failure of harvests in 1816.  This was the so-called ‘year without a summer’ when the fallout (literally) from a volcanic eruption in south east Asia blotted out the sun.  People died of starvation – and horses had an even harder time of it, either starving themselves or else used for food.  The possibilities of their being used for transportation shrank faster than the animals themselves.

            Drais was also aware of new technologies and materials which he could make use of and he developed a working prototype of his machine  on which he could cover the kilometres around his home town of Karlsruhe.  He experimented with variations including a four wheeled passenger carriage powered by an (unlucky) servant whose job was to pedal on planks connected to the wheels.  But his breakthrough idea was a two-wheeler – the Draisienne.  This did away with pedals; instead the rider sat and scooted along the ground with his feet – a kind of adult version of the child’s hobby-horse.

There was nothing childish about the impact this had on moving around the place though.  On 12 June 1817, a crowd gathered along the best road in Mannheim, Germany to watch him climb aboard and set out for the Schwetzinger Relaishaus (a coaching inn, located in nearby Rheinau. Less than an hour later, he was back, having completed the 13km round trip in a quarter of the time it would take to walk.   

He was a man of vision – and saw the potential for what he had built.  By October 1817, he had produced 3-page brochure of laufmaschine designs which pictured possible applications (such as for military couriers or in the postal service) as well as general and leisure transport.  He proposed different models with both 2 and 4 wheels and even a tandem and potential customers could choose between standard machiens or customised version.  The French version of the brochure, published a year later, included accessories such as lamps, an umbrella and even a sail to help with extra momentum on windy days.

Drais’s laufmaschine was pretty heavy by today’s standards, weighing in at 22kg,  made mostly of wood but with hoops of iron nailed to the wheels to function as tyres.  This design had an unfortunate side-effect because it made any journey on the fairly primitive roads of the time somewhat less than comfortable.  At least the machine was blessed with a brake on the rear wheel; perhaps more important were some of the technologies Drais put to use in his design, like the brass bushes inside the wheel bearings (which enabled the wheels to turn freely) and a trailer to the front wheel which helped the rider maintain balance.

Drais had the vision to see the possibilities in his machine – but he didn’t really have a business model to help him create and capture value from it.  Although he staged a number of impressive demonstrations around Europe the reception was mixed and once the novelty wore off the market retreated to being one for hobbyists and pleasure seekers.  Riding rinks (where customers could rent a machine for an hour or so) appeared in the parks of various European cities but the mainstream dream of providing personal transportation faded.  It wasn’t helped by the appalling state of the roads at the time; without any form of shock absorbers the seat, despite being well-padded, was not a comfortable place to spend much of the day.

‘All’s fair in love and war’ is a principle which often also seems to extend to innovation.  The pattern is one of imitation and the first mover is not always the one who can gain advantage, especially if they have inadequate protection for their intellectual property.  Drais had tried to patent his idea but it only applied locally, a loophole quickly spotted and exploited by an Englishman, Denis Johnson.  He’d seen the early demonstrations and guessed at the significant opportunity such machines might offer.  So he set about patenting the idea in England and then building in more systematic fashion a business model around which it might be exploited. 

Johnson was a coachmaker so he quickly worked out how to build the machines; what he had to do was create and grow the market.  He advertised, offered demonstration machines, organised racing competitions  and even established two riding schools where people could learn the skills involved.   He adapted the product so that his ‘pedestrian curricle’ had a Ladies Walking Machine variant with a lower saddle such that women could mount the machine decorously.

He was particularly successful in attracting the attention of the young men of the time.  This was the era of Beau Brummel and the London Dandies and they enthusiastically took up the idea, adding to it all sorts of fashion accessories – boots, gloves, etc – without which the daredevil owner would not be seen about town.  Its popularity amongst this group was heightened by the inherently unsafe nature of something ridden about narrow streets at (relatively) high speed which offered thrills (and accidents) a-plenty until an increasing number of city authorities began banning the machine  

It was an expensive hobby.  Retailing for around £10 (about £750) it carried additional running costs.  Riders wore out their expensive leather boots surprisingly rapidly, and the imposition of  fines of £2 (£150 today) for riding on the pavement added to the burden. The fashion for draisiennes began to fade but the real reason for their failure to reach a wider market was down to much simpler economics.  By 1820, the price of oats had come back down to pre-1815 levels, and horses were readily available to those who could afford them.

Innovation isn’t just a gleam in the eye, a flash of insight and then instant creation. It’s a lot of hard work, experimentation and improvisation to bring that dream to reality.  But even when the first fruits are there there’s still plenty of room for improvement.  As Johnson showed, there’s plenty of scope for doing things better, sorting out the bugs and wrinkles, continuously improving on the design.  It’s a pattern of restless experimentation, pushing the frontiers of what might be possible.  Metalworking technology in particular was improving such that machines could be made strong and (relatively) light, displacing wood as the only means of construction.  People explored using different numbers of wheels – two, three, four, more even – opening up the possibilities of carrying multiple passengers

But innovation is also about sudden leaps, of someone else very often picking up the baton and giving the wheel an extra hard push that sends it off in a new direction.  Sometimes this is about timing – a technology which wasn’t available earlier on suddenly appears . or a market which didn’t exist begins to grow to the point where there is a demand for the innovation, pulling it in new refreshed directions.  Whatever, this pattern of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ is at the heart of most innovation stories.  And in the case of the bicycle it certainly was.

Drais’s machine had a big limitation. – you had to push it.  It might carry you faster along roads you might otherwise have strolled along but you still had to do the hard work.  So alongside all the other experiments was a big push towards finding a better power system.  With some successes; for example Willard Sawyer in Dover successfully manufactured a range of treadle-operated 4-wheel vehicles and exported them worldwide in the 1850s.  But while treadles and hand operated cranks offered interesting propulsion options it was the idea of pedals which turned out to be the gamechanger.

And it’s here that we find another innovation phenomenon – multiple independent innovation.  People experimenting at the same time with access to the same technologies and the same level of information are quite likely to come up with similar solutions.  And human nature being what it is there’s also a fair bit of copying or even stealing of other people’s good ideas. 

So it’s not surprising that we can find many claims to the fame of having produced the first pedal-powered bicycle.  In Germany there’s a statue to a man called Karl Kech who claimed to have been the first to attach pedals in 1862.  But many argue that he was a latecomer to the party and that the original inventor lived and worked in a small Scottish village called Kier where he’d been using pedals for twenty years before that.

If you are going to have a mysterious legend to weave about the next phase of bicycle innovation where better to do it than Scotland? Land of towering mountains, shady glens, deep lochs and plenty of rain to fill them.  Shrouded in mists and secrecy – and home, amongst others to a blacksmith named Kirkpatrick McMillan.  

Macmillan completed construction of a pedal driven bicycle of wood in 1839, one which also included iron-rimmed wooden wheels, a steerable wheel in the front and a larger wheel in the rear which was connected to pedals via connecting rods.  Various accounts tell of his travelling about the roads near Kier and regularly making the journey to the town of Dumfries (14 miles away) in less than an hour. 

He was a modest man and his claim to innovation fame doesn’t rest on patents so much as PR, particularly the research of his relative James Johnston in the 1890s. Johnston wanted “to prove that to my native country of Dumfries belongs the honour of being the birthplace of the invention of the bicycle”.  He might have been a little creative with his reworking of history, suggesting for example that Macmillan was the gentleman in question in a Glasgow newspaper report in 1842 of an accident in which an anonymous “gentleman from Dumfries-shire… bestride a velocipede… of ingenious design” knocked over a pedestrian in the Gorbals and was fined five British shillings”.

A criminal record is perhaps not the strongest piece of intellectual property protection and a more robust claim to be the pedal innovator lies with the French.  Specifically a young blacksmith and machinist from the town of Nancy called Pierre Lallement.     He developed his ideas in 1863 and showed them off publicly during the next year; moved to the USA in 1865 and in the following year registered US Patent number 59915 for his version of the ‘velocipede’.