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Why was cycling not included in the ancient Olympics? (2004) [pdf] (stanford.edu)
88 points by Hooke 35 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 108 comments

Materials (iron and most especially steel), the fuels required to produce these (the Mediterranian has little coal and was largely stripped of fuelwood in ancient times, oil is of little use in iron smelting and steelmaking as coking of pig iron is required), precision of several manners (machining and working metals, temperature and process controls), mass-production techniques (not entirely unknown in ancient times, but far from Fordism). Pneumatic tyres aren't essential, but quite the bonus, and would have been difficult to come by in ancient times (neither latex nor petroleum-based rubber being available), and practical alternatives are difficult to conceive of.

And a need to travel distances. Bicycles emerged in a world in which long-distance transport via trains was common. It was trains which, ironically, induced a demand for increased local point-to-point transport (notably of horse-powered drayage), and of people, especially to and from train stations. In a pre-mechanised world, most commerce and activity simply remained local.

This isn't to say that the bicycle couldn't have been invented (perhaps with different materials say, a bamboo-based design from China). But there were numerous technical and motivational hurdles.

Induced a demand for increased local point-to-point transport (notably of horse-powered drayage)

Railroads introduced a last-mile problem. Rail freight dates from about 1930. Big stuff moves fine by rail, but if you don't have your own railroad siding, there's a problem on delivery. Heavy trucks didn't appear until about 1905 (from Mack Truck, still in business), and they weren't produced in volume until 1914.

One solution was to breed big horses. Really big horses. Clydesdales and Shires were bred up to huge size and pulling power. That was the best short-term fix available.

It took three quarters of a century to get motor trucks working, even when it was obvious that trucks were needed and there was the industrial capacity to build geared machinery.

Yes, the Roman Empire probably could have made a bicycle. They had lathe-turned iron axle bearings on carts, and lathe-turned spokes in wheels. But it would have been a crappy bicycle. Not worth lugging around. The tension wheel only appeared in 1802. Someone might have hand-made a tension wheel for a Roman emperor as a one-off. They had steel, but in low volume and not of uniform properties.

Always remember, when looking at early technology, that before 1880, steel was about as rare as titanium is now. With no strong, cheap materials, what you could do was limited.

Why do you say that rail freight dates from about 1930? Or are you referring to a specific region?

Rail was a key to supply in WW1 and there were lines made in various countries for freight earlier than the 1930s. In the UK your find references to regular rail freight services from the first half of the 19th century.


Pretty sure that was a typo and they meant 1830, as that fits with the rest of the timeline they laid out.

Oops, 1830. Liverpool and Manchester Railway. First railway with all steam locomotives, double track, schedules, tickets, and signals. That was when the Industrial Revolution got out of beta.

An interesting thing about titanium - I think it will become much more common and cheaper in the future. The Kroll process is comically complex, and the newer Armstrong process reduces refinement down to just a few steps with way less energy consumption. Titanium is also hard to machine, but the Armstrong process produces a powder as a result. If the Armstrong process can be tuned to produce Ti powder suitable for 3D printing, then the upcoming patent lapses on metal 3D printing will mean cheap 3D printed titanium gadgets may be in the future.

Aluminum for example used to be so rare and difficult to produce that Napoleon used Gold plates at the dinner table with his regular guests and Aluminum plates with the very best guests. Then we found a better way to refine aluminum and now we have cheap dollar store aluminum bottle openers. Titanium itself is decently abundant in the Earth's crust, so I am hoping these cost reductions in refining and manufacturing, when widespread, will mean cheap Titanium stuff too.

And seriously it is worth watching this video on the Kroll process from Oakridge National Laboratory. It feels like a rube goldberg contraption and clearly uses lots of energy:


And here is their video on the Armstrong process:


> Rail freight dates from about 1930.

This must be a typo. Freight was transported across the US once the transcontinental link was completed in 1869. Also the standard oil trust was broken up in 1911: part of the antitrust was case was its control of rail transport of oil.

Yes, obvious typo. The world’s first inter-city railway opened in 1830 (not 1930!) and carried freight from the beginning:


The Stockton and Darlington railway [1] opened in 1825 and carried freight (coal) from the beginning.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockton_and_Darlington_Railwa...

Indeed. There's an entire genre of board game called 18xx because the games tend to be named for the year in which railways were built or opened somewhere and most places got one in the 19th century. They're all games about getting rich while building some (alternates history version of) a particular piece of railway network, e.g. 1830 is about the Eastern United States. There is always some need for players to build and run railways but often the winner isn't somebody who was successful at actually doing that since the score is money.

On motor trucks: electric streetcars --- generally tracked --- were becoming A Thing by the 1880s. Though yes, free-routed motorised transport only really came to the fore by ~1910. And that last-mile conundrum was a real issue.

Direct sidings to warehouses and factories were quite common, and traces of such routes can still be found in urban street patterns and/or plot dimensions of many cities (dating from ~1850--1950), with the constrained-radius turns of urban rail often creating signature relict patterns.

About a quarter of US grain production in 1900 went to horses, largely for short-haul freight transport.

Interesting that Mack trucks appeared in around 1907 according to


Whereas half a world away (and rather close to where I am) what became Sentinel were making trucks about a year earlier


Bicycles in the current form require a lot of modern tech, but the use case can be met with much simpler machines. For example, the Chukudu is a large kick scooter in regular use in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It's constructed entirely of hardwood using only tools and materials which would have been a available to the ancient Greeks.

Small wheels work best on smooth surfaces.

A scooter or kick bike would have been possible, but would likely require large-diameter wheels over stone or dirt roads or pathways.

Chukudus are used on dirt roads. There are some photos in Wikipedia.


Thanks. Not huge wheels, though large for a scooter.

Red clay roads, damp but not sodden, tends to be smoother than many other options.

> In a pre-mechanised world, most commerce and activity simply remained local.

In the Bronze and Iron age the horse (and cart/chariot) served the long distance and fast travel market.

A horse is more versatile than a bike or even a train. It can go on more variety of terrain. It is able to feed itself on food (grass that we can't eat). Unlike a cow it can even do this in the winter (horses in their natural habitat on the Eurasian steppe survive winter because they can push snow aside to get at grass underneath). It produces manure which is useful for agriculture. And it can be trained to pull heavy equipment of both a dragging kind (sledge, plough) or rolling kind (cart, chariot). The chief advantage a train has is the ability to ship ridiculous quantities.

Long distance trade and travel was more common than you think, even back into Eneolithic times. Indo-Europeans and their horses spread all the way from the Black Sea to what is now Xinjiang in China in about 3500 BCE and kept a trade route going back and forth for a long time after.

This is one of my favourite stories about ancient trade, told by a charismatic curator of the British Museum: https://youtu.be/bQIBf7eeXG8

Not only was there long-distance trade in ancient times, there were import and export taxes you had to pay. Naturally, this led to smugglers as well, which is what the video is about.

A good list of reasons. I'd add that much of what we consider antiquity in Europe was all about boats. Ancient Greek had their means of travel sorted. What's the Oddysey other than 2D Star Trek? There are no bikes in Star Trek.

Not sure how you are defining pre-mechanical age. But trade has existed for a long time. Trade on the silk road was active by 200BC. Europe is covered in Roman roads and droving routes. And it was common to use boats to transport goods by sea and navigable Rivers in medieval times. Of course all these modes would have had baggage that couldn't be carried on bikes.

That trade was almost entirely seaborne, though high-value, low-bulk goods (spices, silks, possibly jewels) mighht travel by caravan.

China's Jing–Hang Grand Canal (京杭大運河) dates to the 5th century BCE, though it wasn't fully linked until the Sui dynasty (581--618 CE).

Italy's geography made sea travel far more tractable (a mountainous narrow peninsula), and Europe's numerous waterways allowed for inland travel without extensive canal construction, though Rome did construct numerous canals, mostly comparatively short at a few tens of km, for drinking water, drainage, irrigation, and transport.

A notable feature of canals over land travel is that water affords a "self-healing" surface, unlike mud or even stone. The capabilities of even minimal drayage are prodigious. A single horse or mule on the Erie Canal (US, 19th century) could haul a 40' (~12m) canal barge with some 80 tons of cargo, vs about 0.5--2 tons in a cart or wagon over land. All lifting was provided by the canal otself, via locks.

> And a need to travel distances.

Specifically short distances that aren't already covered by walking, horses, or walking with a hand wagon. Yes bicycles could have been better suited but with the condition of roads it would have been incremental, not dramatic except for specific use cases. Maybe a specific company/industry could have benefited greatly/sooner than others like how the elevator came to be.

> And a need to travel distances.

I suspect this one mostly.

As has been pointed out in a wonderful series of articles posted here on HN as well (https://acoup.blog/) the VAST majority of people historically spent their time subsisting and then taking any surplus and spending it to help themselves improve their probability of not dying next year. Travel of any distance further than a walk simply wasn't on the agenda.

This is similar to the Cotton Gin. It wasn't that huge a leap and people already knew about gins long before then. However, who cares about a 1000x production increase in cotton until there is sufficient demand to feed into?

Bike frames are made from bamboo[2] today like this one [1].. There is many other...

[1] https://www.my-boo.com/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bamboo_bicycle

Notice that it is not full bamboo, though. The crucial parts that take a lot of stress are still precision metalwork (e.g., axes, bearings, even the frame corners). I doubt an ancient civilization without very advanced steelmaking could pull such a "bamboo" bike.

Of course a modern wood bike still has steel parts because the alternative is so far inferior nobody would buy it. That doesn't mean it's impossible or that back then nobody would have considered it. Today nobody would seriously use wooden gears, but back then they were the best you could get and were still good enough to be worth the effort.

Do you think that you can build a wooden axle and bearing that stands the weight of a person? It seems to be very hard. The greeks and romans used bronze axles lubricated in lard.

...which only supports the point that they had the necessary tech to assemble rudimentary but functional bicycles.

Such a machine might have been "functional" but be too heavy to be worth it.

Even ignoring the weight. I wonder what would have been the efficiency. As I would say that is the main point of bicycle.

All of the losses would likely add up and make up something that is rather unpreferable to drive and use. Anyone who have used very poorly maintained bicycle know that it's not fun.

The first bicycles didn't even have pedals, were used on rather bad road surfaces but apparently were still fun enough for some people to make multi-day journeys. It was bad but the best you could get without a horse.

A little later during the Roman empire there was the need to travel distances, but it also didn't get invented.

There was a need for armies to travel distances on roads to inland places that weren't ports.

Most travel was still by waterway.

And the normal people didn't travel very far at all.

And the armies had wagons with them, that is what ultimately capped their marching speed, not individual travel mode.

What about messengers?

I'd imagine that they traveled mostly by boat as well. The Mediterranean world was very much water based and large cities were based near water. It's a bit of a mind-twister for us moderns. We see water as an impediment, but for those about the Mediterranean sea the water was the thing that allowed them to meet and greet. Before the days of expensive roads the flat-ish sea with ample wind was much simpler to get around on. One thing to remember is that the Mediterranean is relatively calm and the currents are also relatively gentle when compared to the oceans.

Compare this to the many Persian empires, the Inca, or the Chinese dynasties and we can see just how central water was to communication and trade, and we can see just how much money was spent on roads where there was no waterway.

One point about land travel in the Roman era was how difficult it was. Caesar's Comments on the Gallic Wars is a good example of how little information travel there was between the proconsul and Rome herself. So much so, that Caesar basically had to write it all down to explain what the heck he had been doing for a few years up in Gaul with all those legions.

Many ran. The modern-day Marathon event commemorates one such message delivery.

The King's Highway of Asia Minor spanned ~1,000 km and featured expedited horseback messengers reminiscent of the US Pony Express (1860--61), and represented a roughly 1,500 year plateau in physical message delivery rates. The prime period of the King's Highway somewhat post-dates peak Rome, though earlier trade routes offered at least roughly similar capabilities.

Ships were required for overseas communications (e.g., across the Mediterranian), and excelled at bulk cargo. Horseback (or even a swift runner) was still faster for messages, in general.

There were some remote signalling methods, though these were typically capable only of transmitting a set of pre-arranged messages. Typically with flags or fire, with ranges limited to a few km, and relays required for greater distances.

(One such visual relay system did run along the King's Highway IIRC.)

they could have used carbon fibre

… or nanotechnology. The Greeks already had all the right words for it.

Steel is too difficult, let's instead use something that was invented in the 1960s?

I think you missed a joke here ;-)

Carbon fibre for the ancient olympics?

Joking on HN risks downvotes

Noting that joking on HN risks downvotes risks downvotes

Noting that noting that joking on HN risks downvotes risks downvotes risks downvotes

OT, but this reminds so much of:

I had to learn latin in school at age 12. I vividly remember when the first latin text we worked on had the latin word for "bicycle" in it. I asked my teacher why they had a word for something that didn't exist back then. She said "good observation, we just invented a word that we think they would have used".

I was already not very convinced of the usefulness of learning a dead language, but that sealed the deal. In the very first lesson.

I managed to pass all the exams by learning all the greek stories. For some reason, every exam was translating short versions of some greek mythology. I could get by with just recognizing the names, remembering the story and retelling it, while using some of the vocabulary I learned to anchor my retelling against the original text. Sadly tough, none of the stories stayed with me, I forgot all of them.

I’m reminded of this Latin Bowl question: Name two reasons why Julius Caesar did Not feed Christians to the lions at the Colosseum.

1. No Colosseum 2. No Christians

That a very strange story, and dare I say it, it doesn't make a lot of sense. I think I've seen most common Latin textbooks that are used in introductory courses (there aren't that many) and none of them uses "invented" words. I also have my doubts about having to translate Greek mythology texts from Latin, that is highly irregular, especially for introductory courses and I am not aware of a curriculum or a collection of texts that would commonly be used for that.

Secondly, you are wrong in that Latin is a dead language. A surprising number of people speak it actively and Latin is still the main official language of the Holy See. They even publish a Latin dictionary with modern vocabulary that contains words like smog, gangster, radar, telenovela and hand grenade ("Lexicon recentis Latinitatis"). There are other modern Latin dictionaries available online as well.

There is a chance that your "bicycle" word came from that dictionary and your teacher just didn't know that.

These words are no less made up than the word "computer" is made up in the English language (of course, computer also comes from Latin, "computare", to count). I mean, someone called it that or in some countries groups of linguists come to the opinion that this is what a thing should be called, and voilà, you have a new word. Why shouldn't that happen in Latin?

Latin also was an official language in Hungary, Croatia and Poland until the mid 19th century, so it wouldn't be a surprise to find some fairly modern vocabulary in it as well.

As for the usefulness of Latin today, even if you're not in the Vatican or speak it for fun: It does give you a surprising leg up in learning Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, English and basically all technical terms found in the fields of medicine, botany and many more. About 60 percent of English words are borrowed from Latin (or Greek), in scientific or technological areas this number rises to more than 90 percent. About 10 percent of words are purely Latin, the rest found their way into English via French and other influences. Of course that helps you both ways... you will be able to recognize many Latin words without much effort and this can make learning Latin a lot of fun!

That's for the vocabulary only.

As far as what you can read when you study Latin: It opens a whole new world of thought, history, philosophy etc. for you. You will find that in many ways, there where very insightful (and arguably more mature) ways of thinking about things some 2000 years ago. You will also find, to your amusement, that there are several quite popular "self-help books" on the market today which are just badly ripped off versions of ancient Latin texts...

Latin is quite possibly the only language that played a major global role for thousands of years continuously (until maybe the 18th/19th century). That means something. Of course you can read much (but not all) of it in translation (not many people bother, however).

I encourage you, if you're keen, to pick up a better Latin textbook than the one that caused you so much frustration and anger towards Latin. Check out "Lingua latina per se illustrata" for example, which is a simple, amazing book that you will be able to read without doing any translation or learning grammar (much like immersion). Try to translate the title I just mentioned, I'm sure you can understand every single word of it even without knowing any Latin! Well, now you do know some Latin! ;-) It's fun, I highly recommend it.

> As for the usefulness of Latin today, even if you're not in the Vatican or speak it for fun: It does give you a surprising leg up in learning Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, English

Much as I would like to believe that (and personally I have never regretted my 7+ years of Latin), the empirical foundations of that claim appear to be quite shaky. For most people, the time would probably be better invested into learning a contemporary foreign language: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1061961.pdf

I've always liked Ben Franklin's thoughts on this topic: "It is true that, if you can clamber and get to the top of a staircase without using the steps, you will more easily gain them in descending; but certainly, if you begin with the lowest you will with more ease ascend to the top"

I once left a Latin course in high school and went to a doctor's appointment. Sitting at the lobby I listened to some Italian songs playing from a CD, probably. One song was "Parole" and I remember realising that not only could I understand every word, I could also parse the grammar in the way we did in class. Unfortunately I don't remember any of it today.

Stuff like Herakles, Odysseus und Ödipus - we commonly refer to those as "griechische Sagen" - greeks Sagas(?) in German.

What is that surprising number of people speaking latin? How much of that is outside of church? You do know that church used latin as gatekeeper?

I always hear all those magical properties that learning latin supposedly has. Why does learning italian or french not have those? Plus the added benefit of being actually useful in your life, even if you don't end up becoming a linguist.

The leg up in studying other languages that latin supposedly gives me is pretty useless if I never study other languages. Most people never go back to learning a new language after school.

I think having 12 year olds learn latin as a third language is a tremendous waste of time. The rudimentary spanish or french I could have picked up in those two years would be far more useful than me studying the declination of the 6 cases and parsing sentences with no word order.

I don't know. I live in the UK but I'm Greek and very often I realise that people around me have trouble with Greek words borrowed into English- like phenomenon, automaton, etc. The trouble is not in using these words properly but in understanding what these words mean. To me it's quite clear because, well, they're Greek. But they're, ah, Greek to others.

I disagree in general that there's anything wrong with teaching kids new things of any kind. Knowledge is knowledge. We learn a new thing. We file it away. We may need it one day, or we may just feel the warm glow of intellectual richess that can sustain one through difficult times. Why deprive kids of this opportunity? One might as well argue that children don't need to know their native language and should learn English instead (when it's not their native language).

We deprive them of learning any other language than latin in the same time. I'm not arguing against a 3rd language, I'm arguing against that language being latin. Let them chose.

Scholarly use of Latin in a time before Gutenberg also reflected the fact that it was easier to bring readers to the books (by learning Latin) than books to readers (through translation). As well as the likely compounding of errors by the dual process of transcription and translation.

Scholastic Latin had a stability vulgar vernacular toungues did not ... the task would have had to be ongoing.

And of course, literacy was sharply limited ... 5--20% of the population, possibly less.

Before modern computers, the word "computer" described a person who performed computations. It was not a word invented for the machines that did that.

>> I managed to pass all the exams by learning all the greek stories. For some reason, every exam was translating short versions of some greek mythology.

The Romans shared the Greek pantheon and much of the Greek mythology, e.g. the Greek god Zeus was the Roman god Jupiter, the Greek goddess Athena was the Roman goddess Minerva, etc. Could you be remembering the Roman versions of the mythologies and deities as Greek?

>> Think of how different human history would have been if cycling had become popular in, say,1000 B.C. Commerce would have been stimulated, armies would have moved much more quickly and follow-on inventions likely would have advanced technology at a faster pace.

Somehow I don't see the Mongol hordes conquering the world on bicycles.

No really. The Mongols, being steppe archers, had a tricky manoeuver they mastered, where they turned around on the saddle and unleashed three arrows in quick succession at the enemy on their back (they charged at the enemy first, then when the enemy braced or worse went to give chase, they turned around and galloped back, but still kept shooting. Nasty).

I can't imagine how that would work out on a bike. And for bikes to run fast enough for ancient warfare on rough terrain they would at least need vacuum chamber wheels that were not necessarily as easy to invent as a bicycle with wooden wheels.

Then there were all the heavy horsemen of antiquity: Alexander's Companions, Eastern cataphracts, European knights... Kinda hard imagining a joust from bicycle-back.

Learning to ride a bicycle without using your hands is pretty simple. I can only imagine shooting a bow from a bicycle is going to be easier than doing it from horseback.

That said: bicycles aren't amazing on even moderately rough terrain so speed would likely be an issue. Not to mention the amount of stamina needed to pull this off on a bicycle vs on horseback.

Because everything before "safety bike" was bloody dangerous. "Safety bike" requires precise racks, chains, and rubber (so industrial oil refineries must exist).

> so industrial oil refineries must exist

Rubber bike tyres were patented in 1868, with decent ones in 1887.

Synthetic rubber was invented in 1909.



The importance of good bearings seems always neglected in these expositions. They depend on excellent quality metals and workmanship not available until very recently.

Until mid 20th, century China had a wide variety of single-user, single-wheel mostly cargo vehicles, optionally wind-powered, deployed in huge numbers. Marco Polo wrote about them, but was not descriptive enough for Europeans to get a good idea of their extreme utility.

Excellent point. Ball bearings, cups, cones, and races must be hard, precise, and durable. Water resistance also helps.

Link chains and cogs (chainring, rear wheel) also. Even without gearing.

Brakes long relied on steel cable. Another underappreciated material fabrication.

Most striking "non-invention" to me seems heliograph. We could have had telegraph communications 2000 years ago.

There are recorded uses of mirroring for signaling from before 2000 years ago. For example from Archimedes in the siege of Syracuse to emperor Tiberius using a system of 3 relay stations to signal from rome to Capri

We would have still needed a reliable code like Morse. Hard to develop, since it's a non obvious invention.

Non-obvious? It was invented shortly after it was discovered one could send a click down a wire.

Prisoners in solitary have reinvented and used tap codes ever since they became literate.

Ok, let me define that properly.

Invention on its own is worthless, you should know that as a compiler writer. All the blood, sweat and tears to make an invention practical, that's the real innovative work. Ideas are cheaper than execution ("ideas are a dime a dozen").

Getting back on track, Morse code can be used with tap codes, with mirror/lights and other equivalent systems, it can be used in writing, it can be used in many, many practical ways.

Morse code could have been applicable since thousands of years ago. The fact that it wasn't invented earlier and adopted for practical things (of which there were many, and of super high impact!), proves that it wasn't as obvious an invention as you say. The Chinese had mirrors 4000 years ago (!), coupled with a code such as the Morse could they could have caused a battlefield (and also country management) revolution.

In a similar vein, many pseudo-writing systems (your prisoners tapping) have been invented across the centuries. However, throughout history there have been only a handful of full-blown real writing systems invented, and most of our writing systems actually derive from those. An entire continent basically didn't have writing because of how hard it was to come up with that "simple" concept, only 500 years ago.

Your comment strikes me a lot like being straight out of this famous story: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egg_of_Columbus :-)

Some good observations, allow me to deconstruct them :-)

I did mention literacy as a prerequisite. I'll add another one - an alphabet. Both those are non-obvious, and took a looooong time to invent. (The Chinese writing system probably prevented them from inventing the printing press with movable type, simply because trying to cast several thousand letters was out of the question.)

I'll add have you ever tried signalling with a mirror? I have (as a boy). It's really hard. The big problem is you don't know if the beam actually crossed the recipient's eye. About the best one could do is he sees a random flash now and then, not an organized system of timing sensitive flashes. Navy ships use signaling lamps, which solve that problem nicely, and they use Morse with it.

Signaling towers were used in Europe before Morse, where different positions of levers were used for different letters. This system worked, but it was slow and very expensive, and didn't work at night.

Morse actually came up with Morse code first, then tried to invent an electric telegraph system. His predecessors had come up with other various encoding schemes, but they were all impractical because they were too complicated for the primitive electric technology of the time.

The point is, people had no trouble coming up with encoding schemes for the alphabet.

Anyhow, see "The Victorian Internet" by Standage for an entertaining history of the topic.

African drum languages were an interesting alternative.

A revisionist experimental archeologist should build a period specific Roman bicycle using period specific materials for those beautiful Roman roads.

Bicycles need those good roads - bicycle movements were actually really involved in getting good roads built in the late 19th and early 20th Century (today some drivers don’t wanna share the good roads, that’s really ignoring the history of how cyclists helped them exist): https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Roads_Movement

Although wood was available, the precision metal tools and skills required to fabricate light-weight spoked wheels were not widely available

Precision machining was possible, e.g. Antikythera mechanism, but so rare that only one instance has been found.

So maybe... the ancient bicycle existed - we just haven't found it!

BTW: TFA includes several pre-chain bicycles, but every so often I marvel at bicycle chains. I couldn't make one from scratch. The precision machining and the steel itself were impossible to manufacture just a few scant centuries ago.

> the precision metal tools

I was wondering about how those came about not long ago, and stumbled over this[1] nice video, "Origins of Precision".

[1]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNRnrn5DE58

Excellent video.

See also Simon Winchester's The Perfectionists


Is it because the ancient Olympics had a lower tolerance for drug cheats?

And nowadays Shimano dominates the production of most bicycle components. And that comes with all the disadvantages that a de-facto monopoly has.

This is only partially true.

For mid to high end bikes Sram is compelling at most price points. And Campagnolo remain the choice many for high end.

At the low end Microshift and other Chinese brands are seen quite often.

The available choices are broader now than at any time since the 1960s.

Microshift is Taiwanese, not Chinese. Which also makes sense because the great majority of bicycle components are manufactured in Taiwan (also including Shimano components).

There are also some other high end companies like Rohloff and Pinion.

I didn't know that about Microshift. I thought they were avoiding patent infringement suits, but maybe not!

Also Rotor has their hydraulic groupset and FSA an electronic one.

there is also Enviolo's NuVinci continuous variable transmission

It seems though, that shimano has effectively taken several market chunks where no competition exists - I’ve yet to see a cargo bike or electric bike with a derailleur that’s not shimano. From conversation with some mechanics I gather that no competitor produces sprockets with the required strength to survive the increased torque. On some high end models you see Rohloff hub shifts or sometimes even pinion, but I’ve yet to see sram or any other. Granted, that’s observational data from my limited view, so I may well be wrong.

The sprockets aren't the issue. Shimano is the last still making cup and cone hubs with the drive side bearing race inside the freehub for better load support.

There are plenty of other components in a bike besides the drivetrain where shimano doesn't dominate at all (frame, fork, shock, wheels, tyres, brakes, dropper posts, ...). On MTBs SRAM has bigger market share even in the drivetrain compartment.

Yeah I always wonder why the only option for so many bicycle components is Shimano. Most bicycles bought complete in a shop are all Shimano. Only in regions with bicycle commuting culture (e.g. Netherlands) one has broader choice.

There's also SRAM that have group sets at every price point, and some smaller manufacturers like Campagnolo or Sunrace.

If my understanding of the history is correct, Shimano may have made the first reliable indexed shifting system; but of course, that worked best if you had matched derailleurs, shifters, and rear cassette/freewheel. With friction shift, whoever was picking components could mix and match all those parts.

And then you're buying a bunch of parts from them already, might as well try their other stuff, and then you end up with all the parts that have room for a logo saying shimano.

Most low and mid-range mountain bikes with a 1x drivetrain use SRAM SX or NX cassettes which have a much narrower range than Deore, only 11-50T instead of 10-51T.

I hate SRAM pushing this 1x crap with granny gears on all bikes. Not everyone rides at professional competitions. Now if I want a bike with a speedier range I either have to look at older bikes with a 2x drivetrain, or put more money into more expensive bikes that use SRAM GX. I miss the wide range provided by 3x10 drivetrains.

The whole concept of a two-wheel vehicle with no inherent balancing mechanism is very unintuitive (at least to my mind).

Maybe this isn't a tech problem and it is just that the need for such a transportation mode didn't develop until the early 19th century?

Bicycles are most useful for mid-range (mostly) solo traveling with little or no luggage. And maybe that wasn't in high demand back then.

Also I would venture to guess that horses were tad more practical and if you needed that mid-range solo travel. And if you were doing it for reason you either had money or someone supporting you.

It's very often forgotten just how little average people in agrarian societies tended to move. And on other hand the "downtown" of even Athens seems to have been quite small that is 1,5km in diameter...

Yes. And horses are much easier to come by, need much less maintenance and were much more useful in off-road settings which were probably the norm back then.

So even the tech of the era allowed for the development of the bicycle, the urgent need that would make it worthwhile for someone to put the effort to come up with one wasn't just there.

Horses need less maintenance? Certainly not once bicycles were made at industrial scale.

A horse needs to be fed every day, and its shoes need looking at every 4 to 6 weeks (hooves grow; nails do get loose)

A bicycle on the other hand, you can keep unattended for a month and still use afterwards.

On an agrarian society, yes, horses need much less maintenance.

> A horse needs to be fed every day

And it can take care of that need all by itself.

> and its shoes need looking at every 4 to 6 weeks

Horseshoes are only necessary for horses that run on hard terrains. And caring for their hooves is only necessary if they will run (not walk) a lot.

> And it can take care of that need all by itself.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horseshoe#Environmental_change...: “In the wild, a horse may travel up to 50 miles (80 km) per day to obtain adequate forage.”

⇒ If you want your horse to be available when you need it, I think you would need to build a relatively small enclosure, and bring food there.

> Horseshoes are only necessary for horses that run on hard terrains

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horseshoe#Physical_stresses_re... disagrees with that (“Horses' hooves can become quite worn out when subjected to the added weight and stress of a rider, pack load, cart, or wagon.”)

Chariots were invented, but lightweight chariots were VERY hightech and expensive, something like Ferrari today. See youtube link.


Chariots go back to the Bronze Age. To extend your analogy, charioteers were the fighter pilots of their era - a loss of even one was a blow militarily and financially.

There was a whole logistics train of chariot craftsmen, etc. to maintain them, and charioteers took decades of training to master fighting from them.

The advantage of the chariot was that they travelled twice as fast as the average soldier, but if your soldiers could run fast while fighting, that advantage disappeared.

(There's speculation the Seas People, who were involved in sacking all of the major cities of the time, could run.)

A century before the "Catastrophe" of ~1190 BCE, when all the cities of the Mediterranean were sacked, northern Italy began exporting iron swords. Around that time, also, tactics were worked out using a small javelin unskilled soldiers could each carry a bunch of.

The city would have a standing army of 1-2000 charioteers, whose speed gave them a big advantage on infantry. But 10,000 infantry armed with iron swords, and with javelins to take out the horses, could easily overwhelm them once they were on foot.

It is not hard to imagine a band of adventurers recruiting from oppressed people surrounding each city by promising spoils, sacking it, and moving on to the next.

The "Sea Peoples" is largely a modern invention. The only contemporary mention was the Egyptian account. An invading force arriving by sea didn't really tell you much about their regular culture.

Egypt could field a lot more troops than any of the city-states that were sacked, so survived to write about the experience.

Bicycles are great for moving people, but not for moving large amounts of stuff. And the need to move people might have required developments in economics, such as factory work and the ability for an enterprise to manage a larger workforce, with specialized workers, etc.

In an agrarian society, everybody lives at their workplace, and only needs to travel when they need to transport stuff. Even in a city, an artisan or clerk might have lived at, or very close to, their workplace. In an industrial society, you need to transport yourself to a centralized workplace that might be a couple miles away. A bike is perfect for that.

You'd be surprised how much stuff you can move on a cargo bike[1]. A horse drawn carriage can probably carry more, but it's probably not a huge difference once you account for the number of horses vs the number of cargo bikes.

[1] https://2.bp.blogspot.com/-iooO4auj9uw/TmNXFCxkTUI/AAAAAAAAA...

Disk brakes on bicycles - now seemingly taking over from calliper breaks - have been around for 70 years on cars - but have only got widespread adoption in the past decade, the technology isn't that much more advanced than derailleur technology.

I'm sure a version could have been created in the 70s/80s that would have better performance than calliper breaks, but it just wasn't, no one thought of it or spent enough effort to make it work.

The 1980ies had drum brakes as their alternative bike brake tech. For the decades you are talking about, the high end was all about super narrow tires (much more narrow than what you see today) and brake calipers for narrow tires can be built to have very little flex. And that flex is the only difference between a disc brake and a rim brake, if you take a step back and consider the rim a very big disc. For a fat-bike with 100+ mm tires it would be almost impossible to create a reasonably well-working rim brake, due to all the flex happening along the way But for the 20mm tire that defined the entire performance market in those years, caliper flex is a much smaller problem, almost as good as that of a disc brake caliper. Even when mountain bikes took of with their ca 50mm tires it took decades for disc brakes to establish themselves (with quite a few failed starts) and people were happily buying "brake boosters" to reduce the flex (cantilever brakes flex the frame/fork).

Road bikes more use tires typically about 50% (or more) wider than in late 20th century, and quality calipers have become a rather tight fit (or wouldn't for at all, for the wider-tired subspecies), but calipers have still improved generation over generation.

Maybe it is related, maybe it is not but: Evolution has also ignored bike-type of solutions for movement.

The advantage of the wheel quickly disappears without a smooth pavement. However the Greeks had roads good enough for wheels so that's not it.

/me looks at you in MTB.

The Mulefa creatures in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials use wheels for movement https://hisdarkmaterials.fandom.com/wiki/Mulefa

Don't forget hoop snakes :)

Why did it take over 4,000 years for the bicycle to be invented after it became feasible from a technology standpoint?

Equally interesting questions:

1. The boomerang is an airfoil (actually, two) Why didn't Australian aboriginees invent simple flying machines, like a glider?

2. What other simple machine with low technological requirements is there that we haven't yet invented?

Citations would be nice...

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