Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login

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.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact