Issue number 18                                                                                                                                      
January 2018
If the wheel is the most important mechanical innovation of all time, why did it take more than three thousand years to put two of them together and create... the bicycle? Ideas seems so simple after someone has had them.

As an engineering invention, the elegance and utility of the bicycle is hard to beat. And unlike the internal combustion engine, it is fuelled by that pie you had for dinner - thus helping you fit good, clean exercise into your busy day. So, in honour of the better life so many of us aim for in our most common New Year's Resolutions, this first newsletter of 2018 is dedicated to the bike, and all who ride it.
Humanity's love affair with two wheels and a frame
Tenuous Link alert!  What on earth has "Fully Sweetened" foamy sherbert to do with the invention of the bicycle? Well, it's just engineering timelines' toast to the bicycle's explosive origin, as you will read below... The volcano involved was actually Mount Tambora, not Krakatoa at all. But sadly for our current purpose, no-one has yet invented Tambora Foam...

photo : copyright engineering timelines

For any of our readers still believing/ hoping that Leonardo da Vinci invented the bicycle, it seems that all those pub quizmasters may have misled us. gives one short and readable account of the forgery behind the myth; cyclepublishing provides a longer and more detailed one. And there are experts who still hold out for the Renaissance master's claim.

Majority consensus, however, is that the true "grandfather of the modern bicycle" was egalitarian German aristocrat Karl von Drais, whose two-wheeled contraption undertook its maiden voyage in Mannheim in 1817. The eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, two years earlier, had led to crop failure and widespread famine across Europe (and the world). One of the many effects - which included massive social and political upheavals - was a shortage of horses. The prolific inventor responded with his Laufmaschine, which had neither pedals, steering nor brakes - which were added to later (some possibly simultaneous) inventions in France, England and in due course, America.

It's unfortunate that we've missed last year's celebrations in Karlsruhe (von Drais's birthplace) to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Laufmaschine's first journey, but you can still enjoy the Telegraph's report, which depicts versions of the earliest bikes in use.

The internet of course provides many summaries of cycling history for those who find their knowledge is patchy. Engineering timelines enjoyed pedalling through the lively and nicely illustrated account by Crazyguyonabike. For a more conventional and considerably more concise take, read's Who invented the bicycle?  But whichever version you discover, you are unlikely to escape the writer's opinion that the bicycle's origins are "mired in controversy" - or the conclusion that the early bicycle crazes petered out because the machines were uncomfortable, awkward and unsafe.

These failings were eradicated when Coventry sewing-machine manufacturer James Starley produced his so-called safety bike (below), and the modern bicycle was born.
At last! A bike that anyone can ride. As author and bike-museum curator Ian Jones summed up the text of his 1986 Shire Album (illustrated), "...the large-wheeled diamond-framed safety, first produced in 1885, remains supreme."

photo : copyright engineering timelines

Having whetted used retro publications (above) to whet your appetite, we suggest paying a visit to one of the many, many bicycle museums and collections around the UK and, indeed, the world. Harlow Museum is the site of the above photograph and is still in operation, although the British Cycling Museum, a collection of more than 400 bicycles in Cornwall, has unfortunately closed. However, you can still visit the National Cycle Museum, presumably of the whole UK, in Llandrindod Wells. And if mid-Wales is a long way to go, London's Science Museum has its own collection, although largely in storage. Sadly there doesn't seem to be a plan to repeat 2015's programme of bike tours through the Science Museum...

Or, for a dynamic investigation of British bike engineering, look out for the London-based Engineering Club's special cycle-specific event, rumoured to be scheduled for 22 March.

If you're still confused, or you're not in the UK, never fear.  Czech history-of-biking collective,, provides entirely partisan and therefore utterly engaging reviews of bicycle museums across Europe.  Read up before you pack your panniers...

...because a woman, clearly, needs a bicycle. The social history of cycling delivers much of what its egalitarian originator, Karl von Dais, dreamed of, although his concern was to assist the poor rather than the female. With the invention of the safety bicycle, cycling ceased to be a daring young man's craze and began to spread throughout the population. In particular, the place of the cycle as a critical tool in the emancipation of women is the subject of much historical study - try this readable US round-up published in The Atlantic.

The website of cycling historian Sheila Hanlon provides a comprehensive resource for anyone interested in the history of women and bicycles. For those within striking distance of Sheffield this summer, there's the opportunity to attend the Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Lecture on Saturday 17 August at Wortley Hall, where Dr Hanlon will be speaking on Cycling to Suffrage. It would be appropriate to bike there.
The University of Warwick holds many issues both of Cycling World Illustrated (above) and various historic women's cycling magazines in its digital archives. The first ever issue of Cycling World Illustrated may have depicted the Countess of Warwick on its cover (Dr Hanlon - again - provides a useful online biography of the feminist aristocrat), but it is Lady Colin Campbell (not the one from I'm a Celebrity) aka Gertrude Elizabeth Blood whose work is published inside.  Engineering timelines heartily recommends her column, "The Tempestuous Petticoat", to all our readers.

photo : copyright University of Warwick archive

Remarkably, given the significance of bicycles in women's history, in post-WWII Britain female cyclists are a notable rarity in comparison to men - as discussed in a BBC report only this month. Cycling UK goes into more depth in an authoritative article published online last spring.

The issue doesn't stop with riding: female bike designers and makers are in equally short supply - a fact possibly not unrelated to the relative dearth of women cyclists.

Notable recent exceptions - and part of a now-growing body of successful British bike companies - are Islabikes for children, from former competitive cyclist Isla Rowntree, and Bobbin Bikes from husband and wife team Tom Morris and Sian Emmison. The latter's bikes feature regularly in reviews of bikes specifically for women.

If you're already a woman with a bike, you may find further inspiration in online mag,  Incidentally, Rowntree's company has also been featured there.

The current boom in British bike design and manufacture is rightfully celebrated by bike-mad bloggers across the web. For a window into bike-mad world (and there are more such windows than in Paxton's Crystal Palace), check out the work of veteran blogger and UK-based New Zealander, Scott Purchas, aka Girodilento. Here, he interviews James Olson, formerly of the original design team at Genesis (founded 2006) and now Brand & Product Manager at venerable British firm, Evans (founded 1921).

Embedded in Girodilento's article is a (really nice) promo video by Evans. "We’re not creating totally wild, off-the-wall bikes..." says Olson, of his work as a designer. "There are some products out there - like the Moulton - where I think, wow, that’s a bike... that’s changed the way people thought about a product."

Sir Alex Moulton, engineer and inventor, died in 2012 and his bike factory in Bradford upon Avon is run by his great-nephew today. His biography is shortly to be featured on engineering timelines - watch this space

For readers who are curious, meanwhile, about how his lightweight, full-suspension, small-wheeled bike - originally launched in 1962 - stacks up with today's enthusiasts, there's an informative video review provided by and comparing the Moulton with another British classic, the Brompton bike.  Be warned: you may end up wanting one... or both.
Sir Alex Moulton rides his own creation, the full-suspension, small wheeled Moulton bike, as depicted in this BBC report made on the occasion of his death in 2012. He had previously worked on the design of another British icon, the Mini, and was a lifelong advocate for and supporter of innovation in engineering.
video still :

So when did a bike become a "road bike", and cycling become "road biking"?  The answer is obvious, of course: in the late 1970s, when the mountain bike was born.
Joe Breeze, pictured here, is usually credited as the father of the mountain bike, with his purpose-built off-road "Breezers" launched in 1977 and 78. As is usual in the history of bicycle design, there are near-simultaneous claims. For Breeze, a passionate advocate of the cycling life, it's probably a moot point: just as long as people are biking. (Incidentally, the aforementioned Sir Alex Moulton took out a patent for a Mountain Bike design in 1978.)
For more recent developments, engineering timelines looked to the work of Jeff Jones, the only other designer (along with Moulton) name-checked by James Olson as a radical innovator in the field of modern bike design. The bikes speak for the man. There's plenty of information about Jones's custom-built, customizable off-road bikes, but stunningly little about Jones - although this article from does shed a little light. One thing's clear throughout: he's answering questions, but he'd rather be working on bikes.

If you're of a similar mindset, you may already have booked your tickets to - or be exhibiting at! - the North American Handmade Bike Show in Connecticut from 16-18 February. And in case the cost of getting/ staying there is going to clean you out, there may be a way to avoid the entrance fee. They're still looking for volunteers to help out.
And why has it made those six men so happy to be dumped in the middle of nowhere?
Canada's Aerovelo (pictured) holds the world record for the fastest human powered vehicle. In 2016, it achieved almost 90mph to secure the title previously snatched from the Dutch, whose VeloX 3 reached 78mph in 2014. Treat yourself to a view of this nice little video about the design and operation of the winning capsule: "Under the hood of the world's fastest bike".
photo : copyright
Purists have been known to balk at the categorization of recumbent vehicles as bicycles, but in terms of engineering they're an impressive development - and there's someone inside there pedalling like crazy! 

You'll have to travel to Battle Mountain in Nevada, USA, in September if you want to witness the annual World Speed Challenge - smashed in 2016 by the Candian Aerovelo (above).  It seems the British Human Powered Vehicle (HPV) teams may have some way to go if they're ever to catch up - but they're clearly having a lot of fun trying.  Plus, their website bills the 2018 HPV World Championships as taking place in Kent, England in July - which (at a guess) some of our readers may find easier to get to.

While the HPV teams seek new ways to shave seconds off their records, a 2016 article in Nature suggests that even the mathematics of balancing on a good old-fashioned bike are still not completely understood.

However, even if the future of the road bike may not be a carbon pod, new materials are of course having an impact on bicycle design. This article in gives a clear comparison of the pros and cons of those most commonly used. And while British innovators, Dassi, are as yet the only manufacturers of graphene frames, the industry watches with interest.

It's certainly fun to dream about the future, as in this graphic roundup of 10 prototypes from But bear in mind that the handmade products of The Cargobike Company, pictured below, may well prove more useful in the short term to the sustainable cities we aspire to. Hybrid vehicles - such as the electric-assisted bicycle - may also increasingly become part of the transport mix in America as much as in Britain.
The future may not be fancy, but it's got a different kind of appeal - such as, in this case, taking the party with you! The sturdy and infinitely customizable cargo bike is capable of tackling a range of transport issues and is already proving its worth in usage all over the world.

Despite its significant role in the historical development of the bicycle, not to mention more recent international successes in the sport, Britain is not (yet) a nation of cyclists. The internet abounds with "Top Ten" lists of cycle-friendly cities and biking nations in which the UK is mentioned only as a joke: engineering-timelines liked this 2015 list from action sports site,
Okay, so Holland is legendarily flat but that doesn't give the rest of us an automatic excuse for lagging quite so far behind: look at the weather they put up with!  Dutch blogger Mark Wagenbuur serves an international audience with his personable and informative site (in English) about cycling in the Netherlands - famously, the world's most biked and bikeable country.

photo (used with permission) : copyright
But the news for Britain's cycling future is far from all bad. UK Government figures show that the number of people cycling, the number of journeys made and the miles covered have all been rising steadily since the 1990s. This has coincided with the proliferation of successful new bicycle designers and the continuing good fortune of established brands.

Now all we have to do is keep pedalling.

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