The Possibility of Mobility:

The Automobile Takes Over

As the 1890s began to come to a close, the bicycle showed some definite signs of slipping from its place atop the public's collective consciense. Sales were falling greatly, down ninety percent in 1901 from their peak in 1896, and the fickle American public began to take their interests elsewhere. One can speculate as to why the bicycle rose so quickly only to fall so long and hard within a decade, and more than one theory seems plausible. Some claim that the bicycle simply ceased to be hip, with the leisure class no longer taking the interest in it that they once had, the lower classes no longer felt the pressure to emulate them with bicycles of their own. Others blame "the bicycle trust", a conglomerate of forty-two of the country's largest cycle companies. With a virtual monopoly on the market, the trust abandoned the time-honored selling techniques that had so effectively publicized the machines. Instead, with their emphasis upon management and market-control, the trust forgot the methods that had made the cycle's rise possible. Whatever the case, the bottom line was clear-people wanted bicycles less; indeed, the craze was over.

Although the craze may have ended, there surely would still have been a more prominent role for the cycle in early 20th century America were it not for the rise of another machine of mobility, the automobile. Although the advent of the electric automobile played a key role in capturing the public's affection for novelty, it was the internal combustion engine that would make so many of the bicycle's functional possibilities obsolete. However, the function that the bicycle industry played in engendering the success of the automobile industry is not to be underestimated. Indeed, many of the techniques and systems that would make the automobile into what it would be were pioneered in the bicycle industry. A list of these important innovations would have to include "lightweight steel tubing, wire spokes, chain and shaft drives, drop forging, adjustable ball bearings, variable gears, single tube pneumatic tires, reliable brakes, steering wheels, uniform interchangeable parts, and assembly line techniques for mass production."(Dodge, 152). Also, one should not forget that none other than Henry Ford himself began his career as a bicycle mechanic.(Dodge, 6).

While the bicycle industry may have made the quick rise of automobile production possible, the public's ability to enjoy the automobile was also largely engendered by cyclists who had long since lobbied their communities for better roads. The push for better roads essentially came hand in hand with the bicycle craze; after all, there seemed little point in championing the effects of the cycle if every ride left one muddy, jarred, and bruised. Spearheaded by groups like the League of American Wheelmen, and frequently backed with funds from cycling companies, the push for better roads had an astoundingly effective run in the 1890s. Indeed, non cyclists soon took up the cause, as those who lived along country roads, farmers in particular, watched as smoother roads led to a large jump in their land values. Soon, more and more of the public clamored for better roads, and politicians began to include promises for improvements in their platforms.(Smith, p.208).

The automobile is forever indebted to the path blazed by the bicycle, for everything from construction techniques to the push for better roads helped make the automobile into the preferred means of travel in the 20th century. So, as people took their automobiles to the roads in record numbers, their bicycles were left behind and relegated to a much less extraordinary sphere of activity.

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