Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Bicycles at the Smithsonian

There's a new exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History called The Object Project which looks at the historical importance of various consumer products as markers of societal shifts. The exhibit explores the interplay between the consumers, the inventors, the manufacturers, and even the marketers, and how certain products changed our way of life. Some products have a "ripple effect" that spreads their impact far beyond the inventor's original intentions. Among the highlights in the exhibit is the bicycle, which gave birth to countless innovations and improvements that we now take for granted.

Consider the role that the bicycle played in manufacturing -- like the parts standardization that laid the groundwork for the mass-production assembly lines, electric welding, lightweight steel tubing, ball bearings, chain drives, and of course pneumatic tires. Consider the role that early bicyclists played in the paving of our roads and increasing people's mobility. Or the role that bicycling played in women's liberation - or to the liberation of all people to travel longer distances swiftly and efficiently.

While not everyone will be traveling to Washington to view the exhibit, one can see some highlights on the museum's website (HERE). It's worth taking a look.

A picture of the Schwinn factory in Chicago in the 1890s, from the Smithsonian exhibit. Many of the methods perfected in the manufacture of bicycles were later transferred to manufacturing automobiles.  Many of the automotive industry pioneers got their start making bicycles. It's almost ironic to point out, but without bicycles, there'd be no cars.

From the Smithsonian's collection. At the height of the bicycle craze of the 1890s, bicycles and their riders became the subject of numerous popular songs, like The Scorcher by George Rosey ("Scorcher" was a common name, sometimes an epithet, given to fast-paced bicyclists of the time). Before phonographs became common household items, sheet music like this was the primary avenue for getting popular music in the home. But the picture that accompanies the music also illustrates the transformative power the bicycle had on women -- for their liberation, their health, and even in the move towards more rational clothing styles.

Even race relations, or the "color barrier" in sports were affected by bicycling.  In the 1890s, bicycle racing was one of the most wildly popular sports of the time - and one of its greatest early champions was Marshal "Major" Taylor - World Champion in 1899.

The importance of the bicycle in numerous aspects of life was highlighted in a recent New York Times piece which coincided with the opening of the Smithsonian's Object Project. 

If you're interested in more, click on over to the National Museum site, follow some of the links to companion essays, and check out the New York Times piece. It's all a cool look through bicycling history.


  1. Thanks for alerting us to the exhibit.

    The Wright Brothers and Henry Ford were bicycle mechanics. (Ford would also become a bike-maker.) And Susan B. Anthony said that nothing has done more to liberate women than the bicycle.

    How many other consumer items have had such a wide-ranging impact?

  2. I find the photo of Major Taylor fascinating. An 1899 image that looks very similar to one that would taken today: 116 years later.
    The structure of the bike.
    The position of the rider.
    Spokes. Cut outs in the crack ring.
    Where is my time machine so I can put him on a carbon frame?