When it comes to advancement as a species, the last 150 years have been the most prolific years in human history. The car, flight, electricity, computer, internet and telephone are just some of the significant inventions that have changed the face of modern society. However, when JK Starley invented the “safety bicycle” in 1885 as a safer alternative to the dreaded “boneshaker” high wheel bike, little did he know the impact it would have over the next 127 years. The bicycle has undoubtedly become Man’s Most Perfect Invention.
Of course, it should come as no surprise that a bike-obsessed author would make such an absolute statement on a bike-oriented website, but how is this statement quantified? There are dozens of monumental inventions in the last 150 years, why the bicycle? If you proclaimed to someone in Oklahoma that the bicycle is Man’s Most Perfect Invention, they’d probably laugh in your face. But say it to someone in third-world countries such as Ghana or Cambodia or even first-world nations such as the Netherlands or Germany and they’ll likely wholeheartedly agree.
A great invention changes the face of society for the better, but a truly great invention like the bicycle changes society without itself changing. For example, JK Starley’s Safety Bicycle of 1885 is essentially the same device we use today; a triangulated structure with two matched pneumatic wheels driven by a chain and cogs. No matter how much the bicycle industry has tried to ‘reinvent the wheel’ over the last 150 years, nothing is more efficient, reliable and cost effective than a chain and cog drivetrain. Although we might use more advanced materials these days to make bikes lighter and stronger, the bicycle is essentially unchanged; simple, efficient and affordable. That fact alone would qualify the bicycle as Man’s Most Perfect Invention.
But what really makes the bicycle Man’s Most Perfect Invention is the undeniable impact it has had on society. The bicycle offers an unsurpassed combination of benefits including recreation, mental and physical health, stress relief, reduced traffic congestion, reduced environmental impact, and perhaps the most important aspect, affordability.
In countries like Cambodia where people struggle to feed their families, let alone buy fuel for a motor scooter, the bicycle is a lifeline. It’s relied on for travel, to find work and for transport. And with recent innovations like the bamboo bicycle, third world nations such as Ghana can even make bicycles from scratch with their own natural resources, providing not only a self-sustainable means of transportation, but also a viable product for export.
One of the true ironies in our ever increasing global society lies in the Far East. China manufactures more bicycles per year than any other country in the world, and for a century, relied on the bicycle as an essential form of transportation. But now the fastest growing economy in the world that once depended on bicycles is now opting to drive millions of cars.
It’s a cycle that many countries go through. Take for instance the Netherlands, a country decimated by World War II, but that thrived in the post-war world via a soaring GDP and prosperity from new construction. But there was one glaring issue, the bicycle was neglected. Suddenly roads became clogged with traffic, air quality fell and bicycle-related fatalities skyrocketed. After mass public protests against the senseless bicycle-related deaths, the Dutch realized their folly, and in the early 1970s refocused on Man’s Most Perfect Invention.
Bicycle lanes were built and infrastructure was completely refocused, catering towards the bicycle as a viable means of transportation. Today, more than half of the Dutch population travels daily by bicycle. Not surprisingly, the Dutch have one of the highest life expectancies of any nation, 80.7 years according to the World Bank. Compare that to 78.2 for the United States. Could it be from all the riding they do?
There’s no denying that the invention of the automobile put a monumental dent in the continued growth of the bicycle. In the early 20th century before cars became mainstream, velodrome racers like Major Taylor were among the highest paid athletes in the world. The bicycle even served a brief stint as a military tool. In 1897, the 25th Infantry Army Bicycle Corps traveled from Missoula, Montana, to St. Louis, a 1,900 mile journey completed in a just 34 days.
These physically fit African Americans were known as “buffalo soldiers”, averaging 56 miles a day; more than double the speed of a horse-driven cavalry unit. Riding 70 pound single speed bicycles, every mile was off-road, making them the truly original mountain bikers. But as effective and cost-efficient as the bicycle was, it could not compete with the combustion engine.
There’s really no need to dive into the physical and mental benefits of cycling, because if you’re reading this article, you are already well aware of the incomparable bliss of riding a bike. Whether you are five years old or 55, the incredible sensation of happiness and freedom that comes free with every bike ride is the same. Riding a bike makes you feel young. It makes you feel happy. It’s good medication for stress and an amazing device to use when you just need to think about life.
The bicycle enriches our existence as humans. It helps us appreciate the simple pleasures of being alive. It brings communities together. It gets us out of our cars and puts us in touch with our natural surroundings. We can breathe the air, smell the flora, hear the fauna and feel the wind in our hair. It is the ultimate form of freedom, and the first form of freedom many children have. It’s a tool and a toy all wrapped into one magnificent human creation.
So the next time you have to try and sell your spouse on that brand new bike you’ve been drooling over for the past year, be confident. You are spending your hard-earned money on Man’s Most Perfect Invention, and whatever the cost, it’s worth every single dollar.
“When I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the human race.” – HG Wells