Editorial: The Bicycle – Man’s Most Perfect Invention

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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

Editorial: The Bicycle – Man’s Most Perfect Invention Gallery
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Starley Rover Poster

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Starley Rover Safety Bicycle 1884

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Rover Safety Bicycle 1885

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1888 Rover Bicycle

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JK Starley Rover Safety 1889

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Ladies Safety Bicycles 1889

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JK Starley

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China Traffic Jam City

This is what happens when cities get overexcited with prosperity and industrialization and forget the virtues of the bicycle.
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Bike Riding

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Bike Riding

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Bike Riding

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Bike Riding

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Bamboo Bike

why-the-bicycle-is-man%e2%80%99s-most-perfect-invention
About the author: Kurt Gensheimer

Kurt Gensheimer thinks the bicycle is man’s most perfect invention. He firmly believes ‘singlespeed’ is a compound word. He sometimes wears a disco ball helmet. He is also known as Genshammer. He is a Gemini and sleeps outside in a hammock.



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  • Ben Schwartz says:

    Kurt,

    After reading your mention of the 25th Infantry Army Bicycle Corps, I went on a search and came across this great PBS documentary:

    http://watch.montanapbs.org/video/1499356776/

    Thanks for the info.

  • Kurt G. says:

    Ben, thanks so much for that link. Terrific documentary. Perhaps the greatest paradox of the bicycle is the invention of the automobile – which was both the death and savior of the bicycle. If it weren’t for the invention of the automobile, the bicycle may well have become an instrument of death for military use.

  • Accra Navigations says:

    I’m curious why you’re dedicating so much attention to Ghana. I’ve been living in Accra, the capital city, for the past six months, and I can’t imagine that more than a handful of people here would agree with the statement that bikes are mankind’s greatest invention. While it’s not rare to see someone on a bike, I definitely wouldn’t say there’s a bike culture to speak of. In fact, I would guess that most of the people who do ride bikes, especially the most bike-friendly demographic, youth and young adults, would be riding a motorcycle but for economic constraints. I say this in part because a motorcycle affords its owner much greater status than a bike, and Ghana is largely a status-conscious country. Besides, seeing how hard some of these guys ride, you can tell they’re in a hurry, and seeing the clothes that most of them wear, they don’t look like they have the money for a faster set of wheels. I’ve never heard anyone talk about a bike the way I routinely hear people talk about powerful motorcycles and cars, or even beaters for that matter. Besides, it’s hot most of the year here. You’ll see some pedestrians hurrying while others walk very slowly, because you can easily break a sweat at a moderate pace. Older people in particular tend not to want to exert themselves, so I just can’t imagine them hopping on a bike and trying to make their way through the agressive and fast-moving car traffic. While bikes are cheaper than cars, there is a lot of poverty in the city, and a bus ride often costs no more than 25 cents US, making the bus a viable means of transport to those who finds bikes prohibitively expensive. Maybe things are different in cooler, more rural areas, but the little bit that I’ve been around the countryside I saw a lot more cars than bikes.

    As far as locally made bikes go, I’d imagine those are mostly for export. Most of the bikes I see people riding look like second-hand imports from Europe and beyond, just like the all the van-buses, most of the refrigerators, and many other goods. Most bike shops sell these types of bikes exclusively. Unfortunately, in spite of all its natural resources, Ghana does little in the way of manufacturing market-ready products.

  • Chris L says:

    The bicycle is without doubt man’s best invention. Cars and planes have their place, however anything with a combustible engine has contributed detrimentally. The bicycle on the other hand is a sustainable mode of transportation. The bike in it’s truest raw form is the track bike, and close to that the road bike. Both of with have created great spectacles for us to observe. The mountain bike is as well, however for me takes away from the raw form.
    If we were to pick the most useful type of bike, it wouldn’t be any of these (sorry MTB fans), but something of a commuter that the average person can utilize for transportation.

  • Héctor says:

    Yes of course, Bernand Hinault in his book tell us “the bicycle is the perfect symbiosis between a man (or woman, o kid) and a machine” I think that never describe better these relationship that take us beyond as a human beings in the invention and use a machine.

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