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Why did we wait so long for the bicycle? (rootsofprogress.org)
691 points by exolymph on July 15, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 492 comments

>Yet it was a simple mechanical invention

As a mechanical engineer, this statement baffled me. All manufactured technology exists in the context of the manufacturing capabilities available to the designer. The manufacturing tech had to be tremendously complicated before a decent bike could be made. Hollow steel tubes aren't simple. Ball bearings aren't simple. There is a reductionist viewpoint among "theory" people that misses the trees for the forest.

Right. And one point that cannot be stressed enough.

Good steel, in quantity, only goes back to 1880.

Lots of things that "could have been built in antiquity" foundered on that basic fact. Before Bessemer, steel was as exotic as titanium is now.

The alternatives are not good. Cast iron? Too heavy and too brittle. Wrought iron? Maybe, but not that great. Lead? Too soft. Brass? Could work, but expensive. A king's kid might have had a brass bicycle.

If the iron workers of Cizhou, China, who had an air-blown steel making process by about 1100 AD, had made the next step to a Bessemer converter, history would have been completely different. They were close. Right idea, limited steelmaking capability, existing iron industry. Coal was available, but apparently not too easily.

The few places in the world with easy access to both coal and iron ore started the Industrial Revolution. Then came railroads, and the resources didn't have to be so close.

I often wonder as I am building/fixing something (often my bicycle as it happens) and I happen to toss an extra screw in the trash how miraculous a simple screw of this type would have been to a middle-ages craftsman. The precision of keeping all those threads perfectly spaced is one thing, but the technology to make them in such volume at these sizes (often quite tiny), and in volumes so as to make them essentially disposable is a true marvel.

We think a computer is an impressive piece of technology, but many of the things around us that we consider less than mundane are just as incredible if we look just a couple hundred years back.

"The precision of keeping all those threads perfectly spaced is one thing"

Making the first precision screw requires a "screw originating machine".[1][2] This is a special-purpose device which can make a better screw than the ones used in building it. Then you can install the first precision screw in a lathe and make more screws in harder metals. This is how precision is bootstrapped.

[1] https://chestofbooks.com/home-improvement/workshop/Turning-M... [2] http://collection.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects/co46546/tool-...

> "The precision of keeping all those threads perfectly spaced is one thing"

> Making the first precision screw requires a "screw originating machine".[1][2] This is a special-purpose device which can make a better screw than the ones used in building it.

I hadn't realized screws would be needed to create a screw-making machine. I love that we have machines that make better versions of their own components, something I never even thought to think of!

Which is incidentally yet another reason why it's very important to ensure stability of our technological civilization. We've pulled ourselves by the straps of our boots a couple hundred meters into air now; it's not safe to stop pulling. Given big enough shock to economies and populations, we'll regress not a decade or three, but all the way to the beginning of industrial revolution - you can't build the technology we have now from scratch, as it's full of cyclical dependencies. It would need to be rebooted from scratch.

This is also why the protection of supply chains and international trade is essential. The cause of the Dark Ages was the collapse of the security surrounding the Roman road network, making trade hazardous, and subsequent reversion to local production of everything resulting in the loss of technological prowess.

In our current economy, that reversion would be even more painful. In the short term, as much as I hate the US military, their "freedom of navigation" guarantees are essential. In the long term, every nation/bloc should make sure it has the materials to re-bootstrap if necessary.

Here in Korea, we just had to scramble because Japan decided to limit photoresist and high-purity HF exports. I count the scramble as a good thing for national self-sufficiency.

My apologies for going way off topic.

Your first paragraph is very interesting. Got a link or book you could recommend to learn more?

The Hardcore History episode "Thor's Angels" goes quite a bit into that territory. It covers period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire until the formation of the Holy Roman Empire.

For fans of that podcast, it's one of the best single episodes. Dan Carlin has a particular style, which is not for everyone, but fans know what to expect.


Perhaps more critically, we've burned most of the easily-accessible fossil fuels, which means that if we drop below a critical threshold we won't be able to reboot from scratch because there will be insufficient high-energy-density material available.

That too. I'm increasingly strongly of the belief that ensuring the stability of what we have now is the most important thing. We can keep fixing things incrementally, but if we break our civilization now, we condemn the next couple dozen or more generations to medieval life on a severely damaged planet.

That's why it pains me when I see activists crying for correcting the wrongs at all costs, "justice" at the cost of "order". It's ultimately a self-destructive approach that's akin to cutting off the branch you're sitting on, after first setting it on fire.

The biggest threats to the current order today are not the people calling for more "justice", or more "social justice", however.

The biggest threats to the current order are companies and politicians that refuse to address our unsustainable level of pollution, which is pushing our climate out of balance.

They're the people advocating for a "starve the beast" approach to governance, literally trying to create a financial crisis just to get a few percent taxes shaved off their bottom line (and probably think they can profit off the crisis too).

They're the people pushing for increased gerrymanding and census manipulation, which radicalizes politics on both ends of the political spectrum, shuts out people in the middle, and erodes faith in our institutions on the long term.

These things are by far the biggest threat to the long term stability of the current order in the US.

I agree. And I didn't mean to say that pursuit of justice is a problem, but I do have an issue with calls for justice at the expense of everything else that I sometimes hear from the Internet pitchfork mobs, and I worry that it may gain momentum at some point.

I wonder how difficult it would be leapfrog oil and go straight to nuclear power.

If any necessary and non-substitutable material or equipment is based on petroleum chemistry, then we won't be able to do that. I'd love some nuclear engineering experts to chime in on it here; my uneducated guess is that it's extremely unlikely that there isn't a hard petroleum dependency somewhere in there.

Just think of all the protective equipment. What do you think it’s made of?

The coal-powered steam locomotive era and the nuclear power era overlap. We almost did go from coal to nuclear. Especially in the UK, which had little domestic oil or gas in the 1950s.

I think it would be a lot easier to go with internal combustion of ethanol and biodiesel (and possibly wood gas) first.

There’s a great book about exactly this - including an attempt to help you reboot it by giving people the Igor clues in the right order.

The knowledge, How to rebuild the world from scratch https://www.amazon.co.uk/Knowledge-How-Rebuild-World-Scratch...

In some ways this is what has happened with the transfer of manufacturing to China. Building things requires building components, and their components, and their components, and so on down. That whole stack is withering in western democracies, so it’s incredibly difficult to “bring back” something like iPhone manufacturing without retaining a deep dependency on China anyway.

This is the answer to the question "Why not build more Saturn Vs". We no longer have the tools to build the tools to build the machines to build the parts of the Saturn V.

Why not?

Because "unused muscle atrophy" applies very much to our technology as well. A lot of knowledge surrounding technological processes isn't really captured beyond institutional culture and individual memory. So if there isn't demand for some specific technology, the capacity and knowledge to build it will wither and die with the organizations and people who built it.

We can't do a Saturn V today. We might be able to do a Saturn V equivalent, though, as both NASA and SpaceX are retracing the steps towards heavy lifters.

This. And if one still struggles to understand the importance of institutional culture + individual memory, I would like into invite you to the following thought experiment.

“Imagine waking up the next morning and the world totally forgot all knowledge on Linux Kernel, and you are now tasked to release the next major version with major changes / improvements”

And remember the documentation and tests we have on Saturn V is certainly not as great as what we have on Linux kernel.

I remember reading that some of the textile techonology that enabled the arctic/anarctic expeditions in the early 20th century has already been lost.

They're having to analyse the garments in medical scanners to work out how the fabrics work.

The idea that technology that enabled the equivalent of the space race could be lost within a century is quite sobering.

You should write all this up on a single place, it's very interesting.

I just might put it up on my blog. Need to collect references for the things I've been saying first.

I first need to finish and ask someone to proofread my long overdue post on my views about advertising industry.

http://jacek.zlydach.pl, yes? I eagerly await this piece. I can think of a lot of people (and groups) who would find it enlightening!

Yes. I see you have an e-mail address in your profile; I'll drop you an e-mail when I'm done with it.

Hey person, I hope it wouldn't be to presumptuous for me to also ask for an email about this? I'd be very interested in what all you have to say.

Not at all! But since you don't have your e-mail published in your profile, you need to mail me so I know where to send the notification :).

Thanks. Already subscribed to your feed :)

I can proofread if you want.

Thanks. I'll send you a draft later tonight.

Someone else linked a book, but this TV show, Connections by James Burke [1], follows this idea of cyclical dependencies in technology. Society starts with the plow. Definitely a great watch, even though it was made basically pre-internet.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connections_(TV_series)

> It would need to be rebooted from scratch.

With no readily-accessible source of energy, we would never be able to reboot. And everything readily-available has already been mined. We now drill deep below the ocean surface for oil.

"Dark Age America" is a fascinating book by John Michael Greer that goes into the wicked dependencies in our technology stack.

That is one of many of his books to focus on this topic.

The Ecotechnic Future, The Retro Future, The Long Decent, Not the Future we ordered - all great books on what will happen if these systems crumble from resource depletion.

As much as I want disagree with his views, they look more sound every day. He is actually doing a follow up series on these topics on his blog (Ecosophia) currently.

This is one of the most fascinating things I've read on this site. Do you know of any resources that go into this in more detail?

See resources around the thread about precision manufacturing. Consider how Industrial Revolution started thanks to easy access to high-density energy sources like coal, and how we've mined and burned pretty much everything that's accessible by hand. Observe how modern mining requires huge amounts of energy and sophisticated technology. It's all intertwined.

Consider also the amount of people needed all across the industries and supply chains of any product you know. I don't have hard sources, but I fondly remember this essay by Charles Stross[0]. TL;DR: how many people does it take to maintain (not improve) current technology level of our civilization? Charlie puts it at 100 million to 1 billion.

And now think of the economies and infrastructure needed to just feed these people. We hit 1 billion around 1804[1], which is far in the industrialization process, and most of these people weren't working to support the technology levels anyway.

For some insights, I recommend tracking down and watching Connections[2]. It's an old show, from the era where TV shows actually made sense, and it drives home just how much our current technology is dependent on right combinations of social, economical and technological conditions.

EDIT: fixed site reference in [2].


[0] - http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/07/insuffic...

[1] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population_milestones

[2] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connections_(TV_series); I hear you can find it on a site that starts with "daily", and ends with "motion.com".

Thanks! I'll check those out. It would be amazing if someone had put together a piece that tied this all together.

That risk seems like a liability to me. It's also the Achilles' heel of all the new non-fossil-fuel-based energy production methods at scale - they all end up being dependent on that same advanced industrial base and transportation network, which is complex, fragile, and incidentally still runs on fossil fuels.

This is kinda inherent in everything, our tech generally moves upwards based on iterations of improvements. Even cheap mass production shitty stuff is still an improvement. Or do you mean exactly screws?

Really when you get down to it, like computers, tools are used like 30+% of the time to build other better tools. Jigs, more accurate cutters, measurement devices, etc. With code that's things like test frameworks, rpc mechanisms, version control, code gen, etc. In fact in software engineering you're usually seen as a better engineer if you build things indirectly (frameworks) instead of mass production of the solution.

Check out the home machine shop series to see how you'd build up a tech stack from basically scrap metal and wood and Sand.

The Metal Lathe (Build Your Own Metal Working Shop From Scrap Series Book 2) https://www.amazon.com/dp/B007USU8HU/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_i_Gh...

The lathe is pretty much the ur-machine, and a lathe is really just screws

There is an old Jewish tradition (written down in Pirkei Avot ~1700 years ago) which lists the objects that God created "on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight" after finishing the rest of creation. Most of them are religious or mystical in meaning, but the final object listed is "[the original] tongs, for tongs are made with tongs."

here's a link to the text https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_Avot.5.6?lang=bi&with=all&lan...

That's really interesting. The Tanakh never mentions an "evening and morning" for the Sabbath, unlike the first 6 days.

Good catch. That's because we're still on the 7th day according to the Tanakh.

The form of the verb translated that God "rested" is in fact progressive in the original Hebrew.


I don't have a source, and maybe I'm misremembering, but I think compilers (for software) and CPU production tooling (for hardware) both bootstrap off their own performance.

A better compiler can compile itself more efficiently, same for CPU/chip layout systems.

> compilers

Absolutely. Otherwise, all compilers would be written in Assmebly. Most compilers used today are written in C and the compiler for C (GCC) is written in C itself.

The C language was also written by Ken Thomson, because he was unhappy with the BCPL language, so the compiler for C was originally written in B. So on and So forth.

More Recently, the initial compiler for Rust was written in OCaml but is now written in Rust itself.

Slight nit: GCC has been written in C++ (not C) for several years now.

The original version of the C# compiler was written in C and C++, but today's version is indeed itself written in C#!


Often, the first bootstrapped is the bare minimum to get basic functionality available, to then build upon what features you can support.

Its been a while, and I think it was gcc 7.x timeframe, and IIRC, you had to have at a min, gcc 4.x available to bootstrap, and it took something like 3 separate bootstrap iterations to get the final compilers was like 4-6 hours if memory serves.

You’re exactly right about this. Of course compilers which compile themselves come with their own risks! https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=358210

Risks which can be ameliorated: https://dwheeler.com/trusting-trust

This is accurate, but compiler runtime efficiency and compiler effectiveness at producing efficient programs are inherently orthogonal.

There is certainly a major milestone in each new language though, when it becomes feature complete enough to write its own compiler.

Amusingly, most commercial screws today are made with rolled threads, where the wire is rolled between two ridged dies. But making those dies is a pretty high technology in its own right. The use of screw machines is now limited to making specialized or super-precision parts.

I heard an interesting anecdote about screw manufacturing. A friend of mine was in china talking to manufacturers there.

He asked about standard screw sizes and was told that there were no standard sizes or "in stock", and he should just tell them what size he wanted because their supplier just makes whatever size screws they need.

> I love that we have machines that make better versions of their own components, something I never even thought to think of!

This is how compilers for example are made. You initially compile the improved source code of a compiler on the previous version.

I wonder if there is an ancestry trees (or I guess chains) somewhere of the major compilers out there?

I spent many years building a database backend from scratch. Right from the beginning, you need a fast way to look up a file address given a simple key, and that mechanism needs to be persistent. Thus to build a database you first need ... a database. Bootstrapping this thing was tricky.

The Technium is a superorganism.

I recently read "The Perfectionists", which is a very readable book on the topic of how vital precision and machine tools was to the industrial revolution and the material world we live in. It really gets to the bottom of how the advances in our material capabilities and the invention of precision went hand in hand.


Next: nano-tech

GRIIIIIIIIIFFFFITH! (Cue berserk soundtrack)

But for real, interesting read. Thanks for linking that.

Would love to see some applications of such a thing.

There was a very interesting discussion on One Hour One Life mailing list about how fast we would go from prehistoric tech to modern tech if we knew all the steps and one key point was that we would have to make several iterations of increasingly precise machinery.

I learned that in 1751, Vaucanson made this full-metal lathe: https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/metal-turning-lathe/... that was a kind of breakthrough and the ancestor of modern lathe, one of the first precision machine tool. Add that to his automata and his invention of punch cards to program looms and I am now realizing how much of a Da Vinci that guy was.

I'd rate Henry Maudslay's invention of the three plate technique for producing extremely flat surfaces (popularized by Joseph Whitworth) as the most important step toward modern mass production. All precision machining ultimately depends on accurate surface plates, so without them interchangeable parts are impossible.

See the excellent book "Foundations of Mechanical Accuracy" by Wayne Moore of the Moore Tool Company for details.

While the our industrial capabilities are indeed incredible there still is an insane complexity gap between finely threaded screws and nanometer pattering ultra-purified materials, treating them with some of the most aggressive chemicals known to mankind as a mere cleaning step. The complexity of the patterns, so intricate that people can't even design them by hand anymore. Or those barely-practical national treasures that are EUV lithography machines. And all this is mass-production.

There recently was an article on HN that fabs install microphones and other environmental sensors everywhere and use deep-learning to extract QA information from the sensors.

It's similar with nails. If you tour Jefferson's home Monticello, there was a "nailery" where the nails needed were forged by hand, one by one. Being handmade, the each nail was valuable.

People would burn scrap lumber to recover the nails.

Burn scrap nothing, In Colonial America they'd burn decrepit houses to get the nails. Enough that colonial governments passed laws against it.

Which reminds me when I was a little kid people would carefully pull the nails out of old boards and save them.

I did too. These days, I save nuts and bolts. Not because they are expensive to buy, but I don't want to spend a couple hours going to the hardware store to get one.

I thought everyone had a container where they keep a random selection of nuts and bolts that have been collected over the years...

I have two clear plastic drawers from a refrigerator I had 15 years ago almost overflowing with extra hardware. While it’s mostly just nuts, bolts and nails I also throw any extra part that comes with random widgets. I just dug through it yesterday to find two small machine screws to tie together a broken plastic connector. It’s not hoarding if you use it right?

Yeah, I have a tub with random springs, brackets, spacers, clips, and odd metal bits pulled off of devices I threw away. It's surprising how convenient it is when you need something.

That's wild! I thought nails were way easier because you could maybe just cast them. I guess forging would make them substantially stronger.

Casting parts like that is actually incredibly difficult. The iron will want to freeze before filling the mold cavity, since the cross section of a nail is so small. While tedious & time consuming, hand forging a nail is significantly easier than attempting to cast one. Plus, cast iron is much more difficult than forging simply due to the much higher temperatures required. A simple charcoal fire is adequate for forging, the higher temperatures required for casting necessitate specialized equipment. Hence why many village blacksmiths didn't have the capacity to produce cast iron parts.

Oh interesting! TIL, thanks!

Or consider how useless you would be if transported back 400 years.

You would be able to offer great advice about washing hands or the solar system generalisations. But actually create something to show people....even the simplest things would be beyond most of us.

There is a good chance you might just end up as another Ignaz Semmelweis. The idea that washing hands would help against illnesses did not agree with the state of medical science.

If you could figure out how to make wire, you could make a working electric motor.

You’d also need to make magnets, know their polarisation, create bearings, and have the skill to assemble all of that as well.

None of that is necessary. I built a working electric motor in cub scouts using several feet of wire, tape, some iron nails, some sheet metal cut from tin cans, a wood board to mount it on, and a battery.

Tools required: tin snips and a hammer.

A battery can be made from a jar, lemon juice, and two electrodes.

Believe me, as an 8 year old, my skills were limited to using a hammer to mash my thumb with. :-)

Electromagnets substituted for magnets, and bearings were a dent in the sheet metal that the point of a nail sat in and turned. Simple and effective.

Once you showed this to a medieval craftsman, they could reproduce it and start improving it.

I’m both impressed and have learned something new. Thank you :)

I found a variant that uses magnets:


The version I built was far simpler, and used electromagnets instead of the magnets, but you can see the general idea.

I didn't design it, I don't know where the Den Mothers got the design from. But I found it fascinating, as you could see and feel how it worked.

I built several of them. One day, I got a little bolder and replaced the battery with an A/C cord. The motor buzzed loudly and burst into flames. I learned about alternating current that day :-)

I looked it up, people knew how to make wire then. From that you could build a working telegraph system, even a telephone system, with what was available at the time.

You could draw/paint modern devices which would then eventually inspire others.

(Maybe not as precise as screws, I'm not sure, but) I'm freaked out by bicycle chains, so many pieces, each manufactured to precise tolerances. $15.

Especially fun are the fact that some of them are now asymmetric with hollow pins, though that one is a bit more expensive. Incremental improvements. A bike today looks fairly similar to a bike from 50-60 years ago, but every last bit is very different.


Near Stonehenge they found a 4000 year olds dagger. Its handle "was decorated with 140,000 tiny gold studs, each almost as fine as a human hair and set into the wood at more than 1000 to the square centimetre."

Even 21-century craftsman would find that impressive.


What killed the Chinese iron industry wasn't the lack of a Bessemer converter. What killed them was the mandarin bureaucracy. The mandarins saw that some commoners were getting rich in the iron industry, declared it to be contrary to the proper order, and shut it down. (Source: "The Victory of Reason" by Rodney Stark.)

Commoners got rich in commerce and in agriculture and landlording for most of Chinese history. A merchant legendarily put the first emperor's father on the throne of Qin in the third century BC.

The merchants were despised, as merchants everywhere are; the rich farmers weren't. And a hereditary distinction between commoners and nobles was gone by the tenth century.

So I'd want to hear a little more context to the claim that "the iron industry was shut down because of the effrontery of commoners getting rich there".

A reply, now deleted, pointed out that AnimalMuppet's "source" appears to be more of a work of ideologically-motivated fiction than a source of credible information, as described in the Amazon reviews: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/RKTM14HNQUUFO

Stark's book, while polemical and shoddy (in a non-trivial number of places), is not really any worse than much of the literature he sets out to make straight. A significant number of works that are often cited as authoritative regarding the historical issues Stark focuses on, end up citing patently inaccurate accounts from the 19th century. For example: for whatever reason, a non-trivial number of authors from the 20th century were completely fine citing 19th century works as primary sources, even though the events under discussion happened many centuries before then, and so were necessarily secondary sources.

The right take away after reading Stark is to become skeptical of a non-trivial amount of historical scholarship regarding the issues he covers, and skeptical of Stark as well.

Joseph Needham is hardly a fount of objectivity and lack of bias too.

Now that I have access to the book, I'll try.

Stark says, "Eventually, Mandarins at the imperial court had noticed that some commoners were getting rich by manufacturing and were hiring peasant laborers at high wages. They deemed such activities to be threats to Confucian values and social tranquillity[sic]. Commoners must know their place; only the elite should be wealthy. So, they declared a state monopoly on iron and seized everything. As Winwood Reade summed up, the reason for China's many centuries of economic and social stagnation is plain: 'Property is insecure. In this one phrase, the whole history of Asia is contained.'"

Footnotes for sources list "Hartwell 1966, 1967, 1971, McNeill 1982" for the info on the iron industry, and "Reade 1925: 108" for the quote.

"Hartwell 1971" resolves to 'Hartwell, Robert, 1971. "Historical Analogism, Public Policy, and Social Science in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century China." The American Historical Review 76:690-727.'

Hartwell 1966 is "Markets, Technology, and the Structure of Enterprise in the Development of the Eleventh-Century Chinese Iron and Steel Industry." The Journal of Economic History 26:29-58.'

(No Hartwell 1967 is listed in the bibliography.)

McNeill 1982 resolves to 'McNeill, William H. 1982. The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society Since A.D. 1000. Chicago: University of Chicago Press'

Finally, Reade resolves to 'Reade, Winwood. 1925. The Martyrdom of Man. London: Watts.'

I'm not sure that Reade is important for more than the quote. I suspect that Hartwell and McNeill are the source of the actual info on what happened in China.

And, presuming that Stark summarized adequately, the problem may have been hiring peasants for high wages. That may in fact have been somewhat disruptive to the existing social order...

That does not sound like a good argument at all. Metal for vast majority of human history gave you massive edge in weapon technology. Some Mandarin just shut something like that down? Seems super unlikely

Vikings transported Crucible steel all the way from Afghanistan to make high end swords. Damascus steel(actually manufactured in India) and then forged into weapon in Damascus.. etc

There got to be other reasons. Better or equivalent to Crucible steel but en masss.. you can have forged plate for everyone, horse full armor, heat treated crossbow bolt heads etc.

This kind of thing isn't totally out of the question. The mandarins famously shut down China's budding sea voyages because they were run by a eunuch, and the mandarins and the eunuchs were opposed factions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zheng_He

But there was never a Chinese ideological opposition to peasants becoming rich; the theory advanced by AnimalMuppet makes no sense.

The Wikipedia article you referenced has much interesting information, including "China ... embarked upon a massive and expensive expansion of the Great Wall of China. In this environment, funding for naval expeditions simply did not happen"; and Zheng He's part in spreading Chinese influence throughout South-East Asia.

Or, they shut down those voyages because they were economically absurd.

> That does not sound like a good argument at all. Metal for vast majority of human history gave you massive edge in weapon technology. Some Mandarin just shut something like that down? Seems super unlikely

The assumption here is that every thing works in a clear way so you can see the military or whatever advantages of a particular phenomenon. Now I don't know if AnimalMuppet is literally correct that the bureaucracy simply shut down the steel industry -- but if it happened it would be because all that cheep steel was not being used for obvious things, like the imperial army, but for other unexpected uses. Maybe arms and armour still had to be made the old fashioned way anyhow, so there was no immediate military advantage.

More likely, things were subtler. Things innovations can strangled long before their importance is clear. Imperial China had a vibrant merchant class, but it isn't the kind of place that is likely to tolerate the "disruptive innovation" which fuelled Britain's Industrial Revolution -- where a bunch of upstarts come and do things with unexpected things. Even modern China (or for that matter the modern United States) struggles with it.

Perhaps that was Wootz steel from southern India?


Strong reverberations of this in Western history as well, and it's quite possibly the strongest argument against monopoly:

Bernhard J. Stern, "Resistances to the adoption of Technological Innovations" (1937)


Good steel would only be strictly needed for axles.

Bearings could have been polished and oiled wood. The frame, wood. The hinge of the front wheel, brass or another small bit of steel. Transmission could be a leather belt. Wheels, wood again.

Would such a device somehow emulate a modern bicycle? Very likely.

Would such a device be practical, reliable, fast, to say nothing of comfort? I greatly doubt it.

Right, that's how you could plausibly have made one or two, as a palace amusement, or a circus act. It's a little surprising this didn't happen (as far as I know).

But efficient enough to go some distance, reliable enough not to need a full-time repair-man, and cheap enough to be sold to people who didn't already own a horse & carriage? That needed lots more technology.

> Right, that's how you could plausibly have made one or two, as a palace amusement, or a circus act. It's a little surprising this didn't happen (as far as I know).

You also need people to ride it. It wouldn't fly as a palace amusement because the king (and more importantly the little prince) would keep falling off. They won't have an incentive to value the skill until there is a horde of middle-class, 19th century, hipsters showing him up.

A circus act is more plausible, but only if there's some continuum of other simpler circus equipment leading up to this rather sophisticated bit of engineering.

Bamboo-frame bicycles exist today as a fashionable item, and as far as I can tell without having ridden one, they work for practical purposes just as well as metal-frame ones.

I suspect you could make a perfectly acceptable modern bicycle with 18th century technology, albeit not as durable. Metal axles aren't much of a problem. Light and strong wheels are trickier, but you could get away with solid wooden ones, or emulate modern spoke systems with sturdy leather strands. The chain is difficult point - leather won't cut it as you need immense tensile strength and rigidity - but if you didn't want to meticulously hand-craft a modern chain (possible but tedious), a direct-gear solution might be practically possible.

No, what was missing was the very concept that it would be a worthwhile thing to attempt to build. It would have taken an incredible visionary to follow the above steps, especially in a world where the poor quality of roads made such a device of questionable value. And anyone rich enough to afford such a thing was doubtless rich enough to afford a horse carriage - who in that set would aspire to pedal through the mud?

tl;dr expensive, flimsy bicycles are completely useless in a world with poor roads and deep wealth inequality.

> expensive, flimsy bicycles are completely useless in a world with poor roads and deep wealth inequality.

You make a last great point with this.

Without paved roads, rubber, decent springs; all of the shortcomings are amplified. The gear drive works, but if you have a wood wheel, with a wood axle, w/ wood cogs, the tolerances to be both comfortable and effective on cobblestone or dirt would be troublesome.

> Without ... rubber,

as a one-word piece of supporting evidence, let me just say - Boneshakers.


Agreed. Vulcanized rubber tires appear to be the major missing component. Vulcanization wasn't discovered until 1839 [1] and the need to further improve ride comfort (from solid rubber tires) helped spur the creation of the pneumatic tire in 1888 [2].

[1] https://www.britannica.com/technology/vulcanization [2] https://www.britannica.com/technology/tire#ref117797

The existence of huge numbers of wooden scooters called chukudu in Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda disproves this. Apparently they are made with simple woodworking tools, transport 500 pounds and last 2-3 years.

The Chukudu is more practical and simpler than the penny-farthing. And the roads in the Democratic Republic of Congo are rough.

Leonardo da Vinci could have built a Chukudu in 1490.

I read one source that says metal ball bearings are used to attach the wooden wheels to the wooden axle. Makes sense, because otherwise the friction would probably make the device impractical.

Might not rubber belts have been possible instead of chains? Rubber was available 18th Century - maybe not in industrial quantities but still. In fact, latex was was available to the Mayans and Aztecs according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_rubber#History

AFAIK you'd need vulcanization to make rubber belts practical, so wouldn't have been available much earlier than chains and sprockets.

Good design may not have made up for the "wealth inequality" aspect of ancient bike production ... but it could have surmounted the issue of bad roads: The Rungu 3-wheeled electric bike seems to be well suited to rough, off road, conditions:


Leather "chains" were used on bicycles for a while, made from several small pieces of leather riveted together, in order to form ridges that gears could grab onto.

>he chain is difficult point - leather won't cut it as you need immense tensile strength and rigidity - but if you didn't want to meticulously hand-craft a modern chain (possible but tedious), a direct-gear solution might be practically possible.

Leather is good enough for motorcycle drive belts. Nowadays belt drive bikes use cogged composite belts, but once upon a time they were leather.

Leather belts would work fine if you made them wide enough. I'd expect a canvas belt to be used instead - wide again being key. I'd expect to need a the belt to be a couple cm wide to work. A chain is better, but this should work.

And the chain. The chain has more pieces in it than the rest of the bicycle by a significant margin. A safety bicycle could never have been created with out modern precision mechanical engineering and production.

You'd need good steel for spoked wheels too- without that you have heavy solid wheels instead.

The technologies developed in ancient China are staggering, the more so as they'd been largely fogotten by / rendered invisible to the Chinese themselves.

A find of the past few years has been Joseph Needham's truly epic Science and Civilisation in China. Begun in 1954, still in production -- the series is not yet completed, 7 volumes, 27 books. Simon Winchester (also author of The Perfectionists, mentioned in this thread, has an excellent biography, The Man Who Loved China.


It still blows my mind that they abandoned the printing press for aesthetic reasons, long before Gutenberg was born.

And bamboo really is a hell of a material. The breadth of vocational materials science they had was staggering.

Well, their printing press wasn't nearly as useful as Gutenberg's. Mostly because of weak materials.

A printing press isn't as useful if you have to manually verify and fix the types ever other print.

I had heard another other issue cited as a possible culprit - that their alphabet wasn't very suited to it given their vast number of characters not gaining as much.

It brings to mind one artifact of letter construction being based upon the writing method - cuneiform vs ink pen letters for instance.

In _My Unwritten Books_, George Steiner has a go at Needham for hypocrisy in using his authority on Chinese civilization to make false statements about the Vietnam War

Can you, or anyone else, recommend any good books/resources that chronicle the history of ‘manufacturing’, if that even is the right term to use. I.e. the various ‘discoveries’, such as steel manufacturing, railroads etc.

How to invent everything is a great, fun introduction to this.

But you don't need advanced materials and technologies. You don't need steel. You don't need ball bearings.

Archimedes could have built a velocipede, using mostly wood, same tech as ox-driven carts, just the wheels being lighter and more narrow since the load is much less, and it would have worked fine.

I'm just not sure about road surface quality back then. I suspect that was a bigger limiting factor.

Also, bikes are kind of a city thing. On the country side, horses work just fine.

I think even horses was more of an upper class thing. Most humans throughout our modern history have used their own muscle power for work and transportation. In poorer rural communities a bicycle is immensely helpful in getting your products to a market more quickly and economically then walking. This is as true today as it was in the early 19th century.

I've seen rural roads in poorer parts of Eastern Europe some decades ago. They definitely used bicycles and found them useful, but that was more of a fair weather type of thing. And bikes were exclusively used to get one person from point A to point B; to carry goods they preferred 4 wheel vehicles, either motorized or not.

Perhaps that's just my experience.

You're right about horses. Oxen were the preferred power source to move goods. Sometimes donkeys. Horses were used for the same purposes, but that indicated the owner was definitely not on the lowest rung on the social ladder. The context here is the Eastern Bloc decades ago.

I remember oxen being more practical and cheaper but not as high status as horses from Laura Ingalls Wilder's books.

> I'm just not sure about road surface quality back then. I suspect that was a bigger limiting factor.

It was a limiting factor for modern bikes too, sealed roads were invented to make cycling easier.

> The alternatives are not good. Cast iron? Too heavy and too brittle. Wrought iron? Maybe, but not that great. Lead? Too soft. Brass? Could work, but expensive. A king's kid might have had a brass bicycle.

Haven't they made working bicycles with wooden frames?

The frame is incidental.

It is the little parts that matter. Not just screws; really-spherical ball bearings, ceramic-hard bearing races, micrometer adjustment.

Without good bearings, friction and wear make it a short-lived toy.

Yeah - https://celilocycles.com/ for instance. But it's not easy and I don't think they can mass produce them.

This threw me on a bit of a tangent to learn about iron and steel, and I came across this good video about the history of the two including the Bessemer Converter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7E__zqy6xcw

The Haya people from contemporary Tanzania began making steel 2,000 years ago.


Hmm... And so? Hardly the first. [0] Although, I admit, I wouldn't have thought that Tanzania would be so advanced in that era.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_metallurgy

Your citation was about iron metallurgy in Rome, not steel.

Bamboo, maybe, although the joints would have been very difficult and you still have the problem of bearings and other moving interfaces.

You can make a decent bicycle out of wood (albeit with modern manufacturing): http://www.makery.info/en/2018/03/06/le-top-10-des-velos-en-...

I don’t disagree with you per se but wooden carts (with wooden wheels) has existed a long time before bicycles.

Albeit such devices would be “powered” by animals rather than people. So the friction of baring-less wooden joints was probably less of a concern.

> The alternatives are not good. Cast iron? Too heavy and too brittle. Wrought iron? Maybe, but not that great. Lead? Too soft. Brass? Could work, but expensive. A king's kid might have had a brass bicycle.

Well that still leaves wood.

not strong enough for the frame without being too heavy. there are wood composite bicycles, today, but that is whole other thang

You can buy 1kg of titanium for $10 on the internet. It's not that exotic.

And bicycles made out of wrought iron would work perfectly fine. First bicycles were made out of wood and durability wasn't their main issue.

What about making a bike out of wood? It would have a lot of friction, sure, but it might be better than walking?

If you poke around there were a number of bicycles made of wood. Wood is an excellent material from a weight to strength standpoint.

Bamboo can work well enough.

Did you read the article or just that line? Most of what you mention is addressed plus a number of other factors.

"Technology factors are more convincing to me. They may have been necessary for bicycles to become practical and cheap enough to take off. But they weren’t needed for early experimentation. Frames can be built of wood. Wheels can be rimmed with metal. Gears can be omitted. Chains can be replaced with belts; some early designs even used treadles instead of pedals, and at least one design drove the wheels with levers, as on a steam locomotive."

"Second, advances in materials and manufacturing were probably necessary for a commercially successful bicycle. It’s a bit hard, from where I stand, to untangle which advances in design were made possible by new materials and techniques, and which were simply sparks of inventive imagination that hadn’t been conceived or developed before. But the fact that people were willing to put up with the precarious high-wheeled design indicates to me that pneumatic tires were crucial. And it’s plausible to me that advanced metalworking was needed to make small, lightweight chains and gears of high and consistent quality, at an acceptable price—and that no other design, such as a belt or lever, would have worked instead. It’s also plausible to me that wooden frames just weren’t light and strong enough to be practical (I certainly wouldn’t be eager to ride a wooden bicycle today)."

Anyone who had tried to make anything, especially anything original and with mechanical components knows this to be true. Even simple machines require a lot of forethought, planning, and iteration to be able to perform consistently and reliably. When we see an every day object like a bicycle we take it for granted and think that it must be obvious. But that couldn't be further from the truth.

Take even just a single part from it, like the chain for example probably represents centuries worth of technology. Each link has to be uniform to operate smoothly on a chainring or sprocket, which indicates some form of mass production.

Chains must be hardened to withstand stress, resist stretching. Soft steel would wear and deform too quickly.

Each link is in itself a complex component composed of a uniform bushing and pin shaped oblong symmetrical down the center and also quite small. It must pivot smoothly.

I doubt there are many people, even skilled people, who could make a complete bicycle from raw metal stock.

The Toaster Project is a good example of this:



He attempted to build the basic components of a toaster from scratch. Smelting metal, molding plastic, etc. The book is a tough recommendation because he sortof gives up on the later parts and limps to a finish, but overall its a fascinating look at how difficult these processes are if you build them up from scratch.

HTME on Youtube also goes into the process of making seemingly simple things and the time and effort it takes: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfIqCzQJXvYj9ssCoHq327g

One of the more famous videos is where it takes them ~$1500 and 6 months to make a chicken sandwich and they still used a lot of equipment that they didn't make themselves.


  it takes them ~$1500 and 6 months
  to make a chicken sandwich
I watched that video and there's nothing really explaining what went into that price. Did they include the flights to the coast to gather salt? Hiring the boat? Renting an apartment to boil the sea water down?

It does seem to be a rather meaningless exercise and depends on what you start with. If you have a back garden or a tiny plot of land, you can easily grow the required ingredients and raise the chicken for far less than $1500, although the wheat will take that amount of time to grow. If you start with absolutely nothing and insist on farming wheat in the middle of San Francisco, it can certainly cost far more than $1500 to get your chicken sandwich.

I dabbled in electronics, then electromechanics then mechanics.

I'm now convinced that almost no software engineer is worth its title unless he made some physical apparatus on any complexity. Even a pair of scissors.

I think you also have to argue for why, for your comment to be meaningful. Otherwise, I could just as well state that "no software engineer is worth their title unless they've competed in horseback riding, specifically dressage."

Why? That's akin to saying a mechanical engineer isn't worth their salt unless they know how to design and implement software. They're two different specialties that do different things. To be a good mechanical engineer you absolutely don't need to be good at making or even have tried to have make software.

Cross-discipline experience is invaluable, especially across several domains. One begins to appreciate commonalities, uniquenesses, and the infuriating significance of details only apparent on in-depth experimentation and iteration.

As with usability testing, small-n samples, say three to five, go a long way.

Do you have cross-domain expertise yourself?

That's all true, and almost entirely irrelevant to the (very strong!) claim "a software engineer who hasn't built some mechanism is not worthy of the title".

But why specifically manufacture of consumer goods, when there are so many other disciplines, like horseback riding, nursing, human resources, and so on.

You don't need steel tubes for a bicycle, you don't even need steel at all. In fact there were (and still are) wooden bicycles and they work fine.


As for ball bearings these are incremental improvements not a necessity (see horse chariots and carriages with wheels used for millenia before we had ball bearings). For another example see medieval wooden windmills - all cogs and bearings made from wood with some animal fat and skin for bushings and lubrication - worked well enough for centuries.


> Tutankhamen's chariots give us an opportunity to study the details of wheels and axles. The aspect that is most striking to a present-day engineer is that the axles were made of wood and the wheels bad wooden journals. The favored materials were elm and birch, which were imported because neither wood was native to Egypt. Anyone accustomed to modern practice finds it hard to believe that wood-on-wood could function as a bearing at all. This primitive arrangement was improved in a few cases by the addition of a leather bushing. Lubrication in the form of animal fat or tallow is known to have been used, although the exact composition has not been determined.



First mass-produced bicycle (velocipede) had no ball bearings until a few years later.

> As for ball bearings these are incremental improvements not a necessity (see horse chariots and carriages with wheels used for millenia before we had ball bearings). For another example see medieval wooden windmills - all cogs and bearings made from wood with some animal fat and skin for bushings and lubrication - worked well enough for centuries.


>> Anyone accustomed to modern practice finds it hard to believe that wood-on-wood could function as a bearing at all. This primitive arrangement was improved in a few cases by the addition of a leather bushing. Lubrication in the form of animal fat or tallow is known to have been used, although the exact composition has not been determined.

You'll notice that your examples involve a lot of power driving the mechanism - a team or horses or a windmill can overcome the kind of friction a wood-on-leather bearing implies. If you've ever ridden a bicycle where the fender was rubbing on the wheel, you'll know that human power is much more limited.

It would be less efficient, but still workable. Even just wood on wood is sufficient. Proof:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcvFpbh2fjE [1]

I think people vastly underestimate what you can do with very simple "naive" technology.

[1] Yeah it uses aluminium spacers on the chain, but you can do a bicycle without a chain.

> It would be less efficient, but still workable. Even just wood on wood is sufficient. Proof:

> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcvFpbh2fjE

Your "proof" is unconvincing.

1. The bike looks super wobbly and seems like it takes a lot of effort to just make it function properly. Yes, it is an example of a wooden bicycle, but it is not an example of a useful wooden bicycle. It seems like it probably has a pretty short working life and low speed. In short, it's worse than just running.

2. The bike is being run on a paved road. All of my earlier criticisms get magnified by the stress of taking the bike off road. Yes, dirt roads are a thing. No, they are not nearly as smooth as asphalt. Also, much like carts, a bicycle like that would start to put ruts in a dirt road.

Well it was a youtube gimmick, just a proof that wood-on-wood isn't as high friction as people think.

But there were wooden bicycles without ball bearings in real-life history and they worked with the infrastructure they had. How well they worked is a different thing, but still it proves "no tech to build a bicycle" isn't the reason we waited for bicycles for thousands of years.

We had people jumping off towers with wooden wings for centuries before aeroplanes were made after all ;)

It would be perfectly possible for Romans to make bicycles from technological POV. Just wouldn't make sense because 2 slaves with some chair on sticks were cheaper.

BTW - first real world mass-produced bicycle added ball bearings after several years:

> On the new macadam paved boulevards of Paris it was easy riding, although initially still using what was essentially horse coach technology. It was still called "velocipede" in France, but in the United States, the machine was commonly called the "bone-shaker". Later improvements included solid rubber tires and ball bearings.


I completely agree with you, slaves were a major cultural and economic motivation behind technological innovation (or lack thereof). Consider the aforementioned example of the cotton gin, which used rather simple tech to replace slaves. This device was only invented when slavery became legally dubious. If Romans (or Greeks, or Egyptians, or the Chinese, etc) of antiquity could have opened their eyes beyond the use of slavery as a source of power, technological innovation would almost certainly have improved

To amplify number 2; I just spent a week in Rome; Cobblestone would seemingly destroy the fragility.

Anecdotally, on a bike ride recently, on a modern bike, hopping an inch curb snapped a chain.

Modern bikes are built yo tight tolerances for their purpose. Taking an inch curb in a mountain bike is nothing, taking it in an ultra weight optimized road bike is a different story.

Road bike chains aren't that delicate. It sounds to me like this person's chain was already old and near EOL. An inch curb on a road bike isn't that big a deal either, unless maybe it's a time-trial bike or something. The main problem with road bikes is that the wheels aren't as rugged as mountain bike wheels.

3. The test ride was down a hill. It is hard to judge without being there, but that is probably a 5% grade or so (see 6:54 in the video)

It's not just wood. It's thin wood glued together .. but yes .. a wooden bike is possible .. but there is a reason why nobody does use it in everyday life.

Yes, but I don’t think that was the factor here. Ancient technology was astoundingly precise (see the famous Antikythera mechanism).

I think the problem was roads. If you combine bad (or nonexistent) roads with airless hard tires, the result is much much less useful than any modern bike on any modern road.

The first bikes were indeed wooden with wooden wheels. No ball bearings, no hollow steel tubes etc. But streets.

I could now say something about how engineers are so specialized in their perspective they cannot judge things without bringing current conventions into it but hey, every profession comes with it’s weakness.

> Ancient technology was astoundingly precise

Highly skilled artisans could make one-off pieces fit together exactly. Doing so at scale was prohibitively expensive, because machine tools hadn't been invented that let you precisely machine things identically. So, if you had a broken bicycle, you'd need a skilled artisan just to repair it- off-the-shelf parts were impossible. Every single bike would have been a unique object. This is how guns, ships, clocks, and basically everything was made before reliable methods of achieving precision were invented at the dawn of the industrial revolution.

The antikythera mechanism had inherent looseness in its hand-wrought gears which greatly limited how accurate it could have been. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antikythera_mechanism#Accuracy

(source: this book, which I gather is pretty accurate, if pop-history https://smile.amazon.com/dp/B072BFJB3Z )

> Ancient technology was astoundingly precise (see the famous Antikythera mechanism).

Ancient technology was neither accurate nor precise. Making two specific things fit (e.g. THIS dowel pin in THAT hole in a brass plate) does not require precision in the actual sense of the word, you can achieve the goal by consistently small iterations (ex: grinding the dowel down until wanted fit is achieved).

Precision (all my threads are the same) and accuracy (and they fit with the thread from every other machine shop) are what made the industrial revolution. Ancient technology had neither of those.

The Antikythera Mechanism was a completely exotic Roman artifact. It was the space shuttle of its time. Not really a fair comparison.

Dually, Romans were known for their extensive roads system. My family home sites directly below the Ancient Roman frontier in Germany, where you can climb a mountain and still find a 10 foot wide stone road they built 2000 years ago mostly intact

As any cyclist who has been on cobblestones can tell you, the pavers used on Roman roads aren't friendly to bikes. This would be doubly true without a pneumatic tire. Amazing engineering but not suitable for a bicycle.

The Roman pavers you would ride on today are 2000 years old, remember. Back then they were in much better shape, right? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_roads#/media/File:Pompei...

I'm a little doubtful. It's hard to make a large pretty flat surface out of stone. That looks better than the french paves (which they still lay by hand in some places today), but still not fun without a modern bike.

That still looks very uncomfortable without pneumatic tires.

I wouldn't want to ride on such a road with a racing bike or a normal city bike; but with at mountain bike with suspension and perhaps somewhat fatter than normal tires I think riding there would not be too uncomfortable.

See also: Paris-Roubaix.

They often use customized bikes for that to keep from shaking their fillings out.

They actually use road bikes for these, though they're versions that are now called "endurance bikes". They're a pretty popular segment of road bike sales now. The two biggest models are the Specialized Roubaix (named after the race of course), and the Trek Domane. Both are basically road bikes with relaxed geometry and some compliance features to reduce/absorb vibration so the rider doesn't get tired as quickly. And of course wider tires, typically 28 or 32mm, but this has actually become the norm these days for road bikes anyway. (23mm tires used to be the norm, but that's gone out of fashion now, as people have decided you don't gain enough in efficiency with such skinny tires to make the downsides (punishing ride quality) worth it.)

I grew up close to old roman streets and even in it’s best times it is nothing that you would wanna ride on with any kind of bike.

Perhaps that's true recently, when you grew up, but not back then:


What about a modern mountain bike? Those are built to cross worse paths than just a regular dirt path.

On a mountainbike, if you had a choice between that road and offroad, you'd prefer offroad if it's clear (e.g. not riding through bushes or over fallen trees). Riding right next to the paved Roman road could be nice, riding on it not so much.

Fact check: The Antikythera Mechanism was a completely GREEK artifact. It was recovered in the wreck of a sunken Roman ship but there is zero dispute about its origins due to the Greek inscriptions, Greek calendars, everything Greek. It's not Roman in the least but I understand the confusion since it was found in a Roman vessel. The Romans had conquored Greece by that time (c. 85 BC when the ship went down) but the mechanism and other Greek marbles, sculptures etc. were tributes FROM Greece to the Romans, who valued and treasured Greek art and invention. The device is firmly dated to 160 BC, incidentally, before Roman conquest of Greece

We're in violent agreement here: But the Antikythera Mechanism was built in the Roman era. The time is usually more important than the place or ethnicity when discussing technological advancement.

If 160 BC is the Roman era, then sure we agree. But it straddles the Bronze Age and in fact it's almost definite that the mechanism discovered was merely one in a long line of such mechanisms and that first invention dated to Archimedes (c.272-205 BC). In any event, it's not Roman and thus the post should have read "Roman era." To call it a Roman device is simply inaccurate in any context.

You're right, I should have used the term "era" in there. ust to be clear though; 160 bc was certainly the Roman era. The city of Rome was founded in the 700's BCE. The Punic wars were fought between 264–146 BCE. Rome conquered Greece in 146 BC. Rome dominated the seas for generations before the mechanism was made.

Cicero is quoted marveling at the "Sphere of Archimedes." Numerous books have been written about the Antikythera Mechanism. Just google it or look at wikipedia under Antikythera Mechanism. It's not Roman in any way, shape or form. It's all Greek.

I should have specified time in my original post. Cicero was a Roman orator. The Mechanism is a Roman era artifact. The time matters more than the location when discussing the level of technological advancement.

From the early middle of the ancient Roman era. The nationality of the artifact is less significant than the time in assessing the state of the art especially in this case.

Or try the BBC and History Channel documentaries. There's zero dispute about its Greek origin. It's painfully obvious, in fact.

Could you please give us coordinate of that road? Or even a link to some map service pointing at it? :)

Would a wooden bicycle, with not-very-freely-spinning wheels, and a bone-jarring ride, be worth the considerable expense of purchasing? Would it even be better than walking and/or using a wheelbarrow? Doesn't the thing produced have to rise above a certain level of utility to merit making some copies of it? For human-scale power, I am not sure a bicycle without bearings or pneumatic tires works other than as a curiosity.

I think bicycling was really not relevant, because the peasants would probably rather take a mule or a wagon to carry stuff around and the aristocrats would rather take a comfortable carriage.

There was basically no rich middle class which had the time and money to fool around with individual transportation, and the other classes had either no real reason to want this or it was pure luxury.

Googling “bicycles in Africa” gives me plenty of examples of peasants who, I guess, would rather use a mule or wagon, but cannot afford one, and are much helped with a bicycle.

I also would think such people existed elsewhere in the world centuries ago.

Bicycles in Africa can exist only as output of the massive industrial base elsewhere.

Chinese wheelbarrows are the real endpoint of pre-industrial transportation.

> For human-scale power, I am not sure a bicycle without bearings or pneumatic tires works other than as a curiosity.

Pretty much all modern rideshare bicycles do not have pneumatic tires, FWIW. Ride quality suffers, but it's not an awful tradeoff for short trips with whatever squishy compound they use now.

Yeah but the alternative in antiquity wasn't "whatever squishy compound", it was wood, perhaps with a metal strap around it, like a carriage wheel.

Which is why in the early wooden “bikes” (you were sitting on a wooden bar and pushing with your legs) they made the bar “squishy” by adding some sort of saddle or some adapted spring dampers or sth.

It's interesting that wood is considered impractical for a bicycle... but somehow practical for a carriage?

Carriages used to have suspensions (made from some elastic whale bone I believe).

If someone would attempt to build a bicycle in a time of carriages with carriage wheels, I would then expect this person to also copy (at least in analogy) the suspension systems for carriages of that time, if not on the first try at least on the second...


That's not really accurate. Docked bikeshare systems in US major cities use real pneumatic tires. Citibike in NYC, whatever Ford Bike in SF is called now, Capital Bikeshare in DC, and more.

It's just some of the cheap dockless purveyors that use non-pneumatic tires, and these companies have been dropping like flies. The docked bikeshares by contrast are still (slowly) expanding with their superior, but admittedly more expensive, bicycles.

> be worth the considerable expense of purchasing

Anyone with the means to pay would much rather use an animal-pulled cart instead of literally making an ass of himself.

Or just ride a horse like a gentleman. (Until the 'mad dogs and Englishmen' craze hit.)

"see the famous Antikythera mechanism"

As a counterpoint see the marine chronometer for measuring longitude. Clocks had been around for centuries so easy right? [1]

Making something strong/reliable is easy, making something precise is 'easy', making something strong/reliable and precise, oh and preferably lightweight is hard.

You do have a good point about roads though. In fact in the UK the first push to tarmac the roads came from cyclists, not from motorists. And the first tyres were for a certain Mr Dunlops sons bicycle.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marine_chronometer

Even marine chronometers, once they were perfected, were very expensive, artisan pieces that had to be handmade.

Both factors are relevant. Modern mountain bikes with pneumatic tires (for example) would have been very useful going back to medieval times when roads were pretty rough. And, as you say, given streets, even low-grade bikes can be useful.

There is an economic component in this. The people who would really want a bicycle had neither time nor money to develop them nor money to afford one. People with time and money would immediately think that horses were more practical. And they wouldn't be wrong.

It wasn't until the mid 1800's that the people who would want a bicycle could afford one if such was available. You had a middle class with disposable income. And simple mechanical contraptions like bicycles were cheaper. Because steel got about 20 times cheaper from 1860 to 1890. And things like chain drives had become industrial commodity items.

Exactly. You need pressure and necessity to deliver most inventions, especially at scale. Who's going to do all that work when horses were a hell of a lot easier?

It is reductionist. Bicycles are complex machines, simple to us now because we can view examples and understand them readily. But to create one from nothing requires imagination. He hints at it with the cotton gin and flying shuttle. He also discounts the whole balance thing stating that you balance on a horse. Not true you sit on a horse you don't balance on one. Further the horse is firmly planted on the ground on four legs. It is not obvious that someone could balance on two wheels. It seems that the foot powered “walking” bike was the development that taught us to balance.

What bothers me with such speculative and unsupported history is now it will likely be thought true. Everyone believes that there were two sleeps per night in the past or that doctors brought women to orgasm to relieve stress. These ideas have little substantiated documentation and are hard to believe yet they are repeated by know-it-alls frequently.

>He also discounts the whole balance thing stating that you balance on a horse. Not true you sit on a horse you don't balance on one.

Have you ever ridden a horse? You have to have balance to avoid falling over. And if you have ridden one, it sounds like you've never ridden English-style.

>Further the horse is firmly planted on the ground on four legs.

Only when it's standing still. Try riding one while it's jumping over things.

This is addressed in the article to some degree. Wheels and the frame can be made of wood. Wheels can be lined with iron or bronze plating. Ball bearings are not strictly necessary. Chain can be replaced with belts or some alternative transfer mechanism. The result would not be as comfy as a road bike today, but it would be a functional vehicle.

It's not a simple mechanical invention at all, I agree with you, this is a silly/absurd statement.

I recall in my freshman physics classes asking my professor "why are all the modules using inclined planes and pulleys? wouldn't we be able to learn better if the problems involved something we're actually familiar with in everyday life like a bicycle?" (I attended the university with the most bicyclists in the world)

I only needed to see his reaction to realize that a bicycle is pretty damn complex.

The article also didn't mention weight. The lighter a bike is, the more effective it is. One made out of wood and iron would be simply too heavy. Imagine a cast iron wheel.

Lots of people dismiss the Wright Bros as "bicycle mechanics". They kinda miss that lightweight bicycle technology, like chain drives and steel wire, were essential for their working airplane.

If ever you're in Washington, D.C., visit the Air & Space Museum, which has a room containing the ORIGINAL Wright Flyer. It is absolutely spectacular. To give context, the room contains one of their bicycles along with much context and background. Worth the trip every time I visit D.C.

You're right, and I've been there. That room gives me the chills! To me, 1903 was the beginning of the modern era. To go from that to landing on the moon in less than a single lifetime!

Who could ever believe such a thing could happen?

Steele tubes is new bicycle technology. The earliest bicycles were all wood. The bicycle was already a known and popular thing before steel. But they were thought of more as toys or akin to a swan paddleboat than a serious mode of transportation. They could and were made by skilled woodworkers, so manufacturing technology is not the deciding factor. I think understanding and caring about complex mechanisms brought on by the industrial revolution is what prompted the devices; that is, it was cultural rather than technological that prompted their introduction.

Baffling, maybe. It's a good question, not because the answer is trite but because it's interesting.

The invention itself might have even occurred, or parts of it. If you pressed hard enough, maybe you might have gitten a decent prototype built in the bronze age.

History has to take its course, in a sense. It has to be.practical and economical to manufacture, acquire and use one. A major part of that is what it takes to build one that's good and cheap enough. Another part is the path (roads, good steel parts like hollow tubes). Then it needs to be invented in a way that can lead to some decent number being made, demand of some sort considering that it still sucks. Enough people need to learn to ride one... There need to be engineers around with an interest...

It's dense with trees, but forests assume trees are inevitable. Nothing here is really. Maybe the invention is, on some level. But things usually need to be invented into existence over many iterations, events and chains before they totally stick.

It seems this comment was made before reading the whole of the article, which goes into much detail about the invention and the many iterations that were needed to arrive at the current design.

Yeah, whoever said that should try to make one without being able to go the the hardware store

Assembling a bike from parts would be a challenge for many people here.

Assembling a wheel from parts is beyond most people, including many bike mechanics. In fact most wheels are assembled by machines, else labor costs would be too high.

Used to be it was mostly serious amateurs and professionals that had them hand built. They’re more reliable, but I think it’s more to do with the combinatorial explosion of parts. Machines are for making 5000 of something, not one.

And even the reliability will fall at some point (maybe already, I’ve been out of the loop so long) The human picks up on things that don’t seem right. But if you built enough telemetry into the robot, you could measure all the elastic and inelastic deformations and probably reject/reassemble the wheel based on information a human couldn’t or wouldn’t track.

> Assembling a wheel from parts is beyond most people,

Just how shitty wheel would be admissible here? A wooden octagon?

Speaking as someone who has laced motorcycle wheels (same construction as bycicle wheels, just with larger parts) it is very much a non-trivial task. Even given a premanufactured hub, rim, and a bag of spokes assembling a wheel is time consuming and easy to get wrong. Spokes have to be laced following the correct pattern, and it may not be obvious there is a mistake until ~80% of the spokes are installed. There are (at least on motorcycles with a drop-center rim) 4 different types of spokes that aren't that dissimilar from each other & are easily confused.

Having rewound electric motors w/ no repair manuals avaliable & laced rims w/ repair manuals & directions from the spoke manufacturer, rewinding an electric motor is far easier to successfully accomplish.

I've built bicycle wheels from parts. It's a bit tricky and time-consuming, but perfectly doable. The real tricky part IMO is getting all of the nipple adjustments just right so that roundness, tension, and track are all acceptable at the same time.

This entire discussion is very interesting, with arguments for and against the idea that the underlying materials technology was (or was not) sufficient for a bicycle to have emerged 50 or more years earlier.

This discussion is similar to flawed arguments about evolution. It assumes that at any given point in time, there was an exhaustive search of solution space (in this case for personal transportation). In discussions of evolution, people often propose that a particular solution occurred because it was optimal in some way.

But neither evolution, nor technology development, involves an exhaustive search. Things happened by chance, and some things were not tried as early as they might have been (or they were tried and tried and found lacking in some way), until, by chance, the right conditions allowed the technology (or evolutionary trait) to emerge.

The role of chance is often under appreciated.

> a reductionist viewpoint

I once tried to figure out how to make iron from nothing. There are several "from scratch" guides on the internet, but all of them include "buy these needed chemicals from a supply house".

You tried to make an element from... nothing?

Nothing provided by civilization. It's the old "you're dropped naked into the wilderness 10,000 years in the past" challenge and have to make iron to impress the tribe so they won't eat you.

To clear up the confusion of the grandparent comment: I guess you mean smelting iron from its ore (because actually creating new iron atoms would require nuclear fusion)

Wooden bikes seem like an obvious materials argument. Here's one I saw in a shop recently:


I suspect the answer is complexity. There are a bunch of inventions all together in a bicycle. From the frame to the spokes to the tires and headset, there is a lot of IP there.

I think you are really overthinking it.

Bicycle can be very simple. You need just two wheels (can be made of wood with some steel support, just like a wagon wheels) and some frame to connect these (again can be made from wood). You do not need any bearings or even a belt - you can connect pedals directly to the front wheel (as was done in early design).

All of this can be made with simple carpenter and smith tools.

I swear Cannondale road bikes have more in common with aircraft than terrestrial vehicles. You gotta see the aluminum welds on insanely thin tubes.

Disclaimer: I lost my 20+-year-old baby-blue R800TT to frame damage that I bought while making $4.25/hour. #SadDayForMe

This is becoming less true, perhaps: modern road bikes now are largely made of carbon fibre, not aluminum. The cheap $1k ones are still Al, but anything over $2k is now CF.

Of course, some commercial aircraft are now getting CF parts, but they're still mostly Al.

The most compelling counterargument, to me, is mentioned in the article: clocks. I still don’t know how to make a clock and I certainly do not think it’s easy. Yet they were making clocks centuries before the first bicycle was invented.

I have seen bicycles built using bamboo. I mostly agree with the assessment that the tech and need just wasn't there in antiquity, but I would definitely stress that it could have plausibly been built using the materials available.

What were the hub and drivetrain made out of?

Your points are all literally stated in the article's first bullet point.

The same was very much true for Babbage and the Difference Engine. If I remember correctly, the level of repeatable precision and quality needed to make something like that was simply well beyond what engineers could manage even at the height of the industrial revolution. In theory everything that Babbage was designing was technically possible at small scale, but simply couldn't be done on the scale he imagined.

If memory serves, even the London Science Museum's partial reconstruction in the 1980s was a massive challenge of engineering.

Yeah. Do not underestimate the amount of technology that goes into bicycles.

Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics, before they pivoted into inventing heavier-than-air flight craft.

Why not bamboo or balsa or bone?

The wheel existed before ball bearings - why are they necessary for bicycles? (is it an efficiency thing, for human powered?)

The safety-bicycle chain requires cheap precision mass engineering, but rope, rubber, axial rod (as in a car), or interlocking gears also work. Or direct, as in a penny-farthing. Or, no wheel power transfer, but push along with your feet, as in the Kirkpatrick bicycle.

The TV series "Connections" did a great job demonstrating how often that more often than not we're not short on ideas or inventions or inventiveness.

Usually there are a lot of great ideas, but availability of materials in quantity, or a key part is what is missing, sometimes for centuries, and often comes from someplace you might not expect.

It goes both ways. Imagine what motor vehicles and transportation in general would look like today if we were able to manufacture and process titanium alloys like we do steel. How far away are we from that breakthrough?

Conversely, what would the world look like today without steel? No airplanes? No WWI nor WWII? No huge panamax ships? No global markets?

Can you imagine having a bicycle made of casting iron with the technology of the past? Tetanus would be a problem, people wouldn't be able to have bicycles close to the ocean, it would be even dangerous if the person fell on the ground.

It certainly is amazing how people take for granted the marvels of current technology.

And let's not forget the pneumatic tire; Wikipedia suggests they were invented 1847-1888. (It says they were invented to help make bicycles/tricycles comfortable.)

If anyone thinks these tires aren't important, then why are almost all vehicle tires still pneumatic?

> Ball bearings

Couldn't you just use anything sufficiently round and uniform and Mohs-hard, given a lubricant oil to protect it from wear? Glass marbles? Pearls? Rocks after a ridiculous amount of tumbling?

"Sufficiently round" is harder than it may seem. A roller or needle bearing would be immensely easier (cylindrical grinding between centres is a bit of a doddle compared to spherical accuracy)... and then you've still got the problem of making them sufficiently precisely that all of the rollers actually bear. Even today you make 'em in quantity first and sort them afterwards. A well-lapped plain bearing/bushing would work better than a bad roller.

(Yes, you can make something that looks like a ball or roller bearing even on a cheap 3D printer, and it may even have less friction than the thing that looks like a plain bearing/bushing you can make on the same machine, but it's not going to roll freely and take a load.)

And if you don't have smooth roads you need rubber for the tires no? there is a lot of technology involved in making a useful bicycle (ie not a toy).

Neither of those is necessary for a basic bicycle. A wooden frame with a fixed gear ration and chain or belt would work just fine for moderate riding

Chains and gears are especially not simple

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