Published: May 22, 2001
The Bicycle Takes Off:
NORWALK, CONN. – Early bicycles with lyrical names like “Phantom,” “Star,” and “Rover” evoke the age-old yet elusive quest for a practical human-powered vehicle – one that culminated in the 1890s with the great bicycle boom. “The Bicycle Takes Off: ,” an exhibition created by the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum, will be on display from Saturday, June 2 through Sunday, September 16.
According to Zachary Studenroth, executive director of the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum and project director for the exhibition, “The Bicycle Takes Off” focuses on the 30 years of explosive development between the invention of the original pedal-powered two-wheeler (patented in Connecticut in 1866) and the great boom of the 1890s. Mass production of the perfected chain-driven safety bicycle ushered in, not only the Twentieth Century, but also the modern age of the automobile and airplane.”
This unique exhibition offers a fresh and compelling overview of bicycle development, from the first fanciful “self-acting” carriages of the Seventeenth Century to the modern safety bicycle. About 20 historic machines from private and public French, English and American collections will be on view, including three of the oldest and rarest forms of human-powered vehicles: an 1819 kick-propelled hobby horse, an 1850s English quadricycle and an 1865 wooden bicycle from France – possibly the oldest bicycle in existence.
These machines are complemented by numerous interactive elements – mannequins attired in authentic cycling attire and period objects never before exhibited, advertising posters, trophies, medals and other objects that illustrate this extraordinary transportation revolution. Of special interest is newly discovered archival material from the Olivier family clarifying the origins of the boneshaker, its early development and the launching of a bold, new industry destined to revolutionize transportation.
The exhibition explores why the bicycle, even in its crudest form, aroused such international interest and how mechanics and entrepreneurs tackled and resolved the technological and social changes it presented. Visitors can examine the impact of the bicycle through interrelated themes that continue to shape our world, including technology transfer, the power of monopolies and the creation of mass markets.
David Herlihy, bicycle historian, is exhibition curator. During the past 10 years, Herlihy has made more than 20 trips to France and England to research the evolution of the two-wheeler. Drawn in large part from private archives, his findings debunk numerous longstanding misconceptions and present a fresh and provocative interpretation of cycling history.
The emergence of the modern bicycle is an engaging tale, rich in human drama and social significance, although this ever-popular vehicle continually reinvents itself (e.g. the mountain bike), it is, in essence, a triumph of Nineteenth Century technology.
“While most bicycle histories examine only the boom years as a prelude to the automotive age,” says Herlihy, “that is only part of the story. We explore the years of quiet, yet significant development, that ultimately triggered the boom.”
Relying on Herlihy’s extensive research, the exhibition’s ten sections reveal how the bicycle’s basic form, utility and appeal were all firmly established during a frenzy of development between 1865 and 1900. “The Bicycle Takes Off” devotes special attention to the much-maligned “boneshaker” of the 1860s, the crucial stepping stone en route to the modern bicycle. Despite its heavy and crude construction, this original bicycle established the principle that a two-wheeler could be steadily and continuously propelled by means of foot-cranks (attached, in this case, directly to the front axle). Artifacts from the original bicycle company, Michaux of Paris, underscore the boneshaker’s enthusiastic reception around the world. Observes Herlihy, “At last, a practical mechanical horse seemed within reach.”
As it turned out, a generation of intensive development still lay ahead. The exhibition chronicles key advances made in Britain in the 1870s that led to the fleeting, yet precarious, highwheeler. The 1871 Phantom shows the first production model with iron spokes and solid rubber tires. Racing artifacts from the early 1870s attest to the growth of the sport in Britain. The 1877 Weston bicycle, one of the first highwheelers imported to the United States, shows how designers settled on a maximized front wheel to improve gearing. This machine also incorporates the significant material improvements that helped spawn a small but vigorous cycling community composed primarily of upper-class males. Mark Twain’s personal mount from 1886, modified to suit his tastes, is also on display.
The social side of highwheeling led to the establishment of numerous bicycle clubs. An interactive section features a stylized wheelmen clubroom equipped with period cycling literature, memorabilia and a stereopticon. Videos explore club life, as well as contemporary highwheel riding, collecting and restoration. George Hendee’s trophy and medals from the annual meets in Springfield, Mass., form the backdrop to a discussion on highwheel racing. Visitors can climb onto a reproduction highwheeler to experience its challenging mount and feel the thrill of riding high.
Despite its success, the highwheeler’s high price and its propensity for tipping, effectively locked out legions of would-be cyclists, particularly women. “Throughout the 1880s, many alternative schemes were proposed to create a safer bicycle,” says Herlihy, “but the allure and simplicity of the highwheeler proved difficult to surmount.” By the late 1880s, however, the British-designed, chain-driven Rover finally toppled the elitist highwheeler. The introduction of the pneumatic tire shortly thereafter helped spark a worldwide boom.
Women, in particular, seized the newfound opportunity to cycle and helped propel sales to dizzying heights. The exhibition discusses the social impact of the safety bicycle on women in the late Nineteenth Century. Audio presentations explore the controversies surrounding female cyclists, including concerns about the propriety of their dress and the consequences of their increased mobility.
“The triumphant two-wheeler ultimately revolutionized personal transportation,” explains Herlihy, “and bicycle manufacturing became one of our nation’s largest industries.” More than 300 firms such as Arnold, Schwinn and Company of Chicago, rushed into the business and produced some two-million units during the peak year of 1897. Many cycling innovators, including Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers, went on to launch our nation’s automotive and aviation industries. “Although the boom subsided before the turn of the century,” observes Herlihy, “the bicycle left an indelible impression and a profound legacy that continues to this day.”
A 32-page, four-color exhibition catalogue is available. Bicycle tours, highwheeler demonstrations, safety workshops, lectures and other bicycle-related special events will be held in conjunction with the exhibition.
In addition to the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum, the exhibition was already displayed at The Museum of Our National Heritage, Lexington, Mass. Future venues include: The New York Hall of Science in Corona, N.Y., from mid-October 2001 to early March 2002; and The Springfield Museum at the Quadrangle in Springfield, Mass., from April to June 2002.
The Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum, a 62-room Victorian “summer cottage,” is featured on A&E’s America’s Castles series. This National Historic Landmark is located at 295 West Avenue. For information, 203-838-9799.
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