Humanity’s? Man’s? Woman’s? Greatest Invention.

by Sabinna on April 18, 2010

The record-breaking woman cannot be graceful; the peculiar action of cycle propulsion at high speed will not permit it in her case, and as she poses in scorching attitude, twists her pedal as rapidly as she is able, and in fact centers all her attention and energy towards the attainment of speed, she cannot fail to be other than an object of ridicule. (1892 cycling magazine article excerpt).

Yeah, okay. . . it was the 1890s. . .

Now that I’ve recovered from having a good chuckle over this (did they ever get that wrong), I would like to draw readers’ attention to Soren O’Malley’s post regarding the role the bicycle played in the early women’s liberation movement. The quote above comes from this article.

But women’s lib is not the focus of my post today (guys…stay with me). Rather, I want to spend a little time on re-situating the basic idea or theme that Soren writes about in her post. (Further detailed background on women’s early relationship to the bicycle can be found in the relevant chapter of Julie Wosk’s Women and the Machine).

I found Soren O’Malley’s article having come across a blog in which the founders outline their blog’s rationale through a quote from writer Elizabeth West. In her novel, Hovel in the Hills, she celebrates man’s invention of the bicycle. It is often characterized in this way, specifically as man’s greatest invention such as here, and here and in plenty of other places. There are also many more examples employing Elizabeth West’s words in connection to bicycles in one way or another.

Still, there are also those who put it differently and talk about humanity’s greatest inventions. Okay, maybe it is just about what words you use. Perhaps. I actually think there is more to it than that. And it’s got more to do with business as a process of producing goods, than gender politics. Or at least, that’s what I’m talking about here.

From the clearly visible historical record (behind every great man . . .) we know that the blacksmith, Pierre Michaux, was a central figure in the bicycle’s invention. A good story loves a central figurehead, especially when it comes to inventing things. But things are not that simple. Because here it was not just one man, Michaux, but men working together, extending on what the others are doing. No one ‘man’  but several men. Yes, I realize that that is what is actually meant by ‘man’. But I need to point this out to develop my idea below.

To continue,  we see that the probable (although unproven) collaboration between the Olivier brothers and Pierre Lallement (who filed the original patent for the bicycle in the US–now there was a smart business move, although it seriously restricted the growth of the bicycle industry in the US in later years) was most likely the key event in the invention of the machine that Michaux came to produce.

While the initial spark that brought about the invention of the bicycle was by men (although, again, behind every great man . . .), the further development of the bicycle gets even more complicated as I see it. So, let me air a few thoughts on the role of women in the development of the bicycle, and what product development may actually be about.

My main point is that invention and creation are the result of individuals working together, sometimes in harmony, sometimes not, to achieve, mostly, shared goals. (And note that this need not necessarily mean those who we might traditionally regard as the key players in this, all those on the purely production side of things.)  The job as a business owner or manager is to get as much synergy from the connections as possible, both internal and external. (I was working with similar ideas in a recent post).

It is important to recognize that the technologies that exist at a particular point in time, and the skilled individuals who can employ and extend these technologies, make it possible for figureheads to do their thing. Not to take anything away from the great inventors, but they were never monks living in caves achieving satori-like flashes of inspiration.

Fast forwarding from the 1860s to the decade preceding the bicycle boom of the ’90s, and the appearance of the modern bike, we find that the Ordinary is not all that safe and hard to use. Things start to really heat up, with a great variation of innovation in design. The picture of development in the late 19th century is of a mass of creative fervor (and I can’t help but see a parallel with what is going on in Taiwan in the present day). Three-wheelers appear to mount a challenge to two (check this out as well). And of course there is the move towards the safety.

As it happened, tricycles became the preferred machine for women, tricycles which were mostly featured chain drives, which were central to the safety’s design. It may well be, also, that the developers of the safety had all these tricyclists in mind when developing a safer alternative to the Ordinary that was simpler in design than the tricycles. Put this together with the popularity of the three-wheelers as they competed with two-wheelers for dominance and I would conclude that women had a great impact on the development of the machine.

Putting it basic economic terms, demand creates supply, and supply feeds back into demand. On one level, this involves people working together across boundaries in small or large-scale industrial firms to create useful and beautiful products. Well they had better be useful and beautiful or else consumers will pass right on by, and rightfully so.

And that’s the other level that applies. Supply addresses consumer demand and in this case, women are a key force driving demand. That’s the power of the consumer. Come the boom of the ’90s you have the further impact of women on the mass production of the safety (30% of the market), and the impact it had on them in challenging gender roles. In the mid 1930s it would seem that women were the drivers behind resurgence in demand in the US.

Blogger Dave Horton, in a recent post called “Understanding Cycling” (a criticizing some UK MPs’ inability to discover cyclists real needs–I recommend the post),  recently commented “we cannot understand cycling only (or even mainly) by seeking to understand what goes on behind the ‘closed doors’ of households“.

Taking the essence of that, I couldn’t agree more. It’s not about individuals or consumers neatly segmented in their own little worlds; it’s about people connecting in the real world, what most of us take for granted anyway. And, for my purposes here, women exercising their power as consumers and therefore impacting design should be recognized in this real world process of real people connecting. In the late 19th century Women came out of households into public places and European society was changed forever. (Sidebar: Around the same time, Shanghai was China’s cycling city–women cyclists were sex-workers who, since they were freed from the constraints other women faced, and having high disposable incomes, were able to take up cycling, in a way, the opposite to the situation in Europe. In Shanghai, a degree of already existing freedom made it possible for them to be cyclists).

Fast forwarding again to the present moment, producers and consumers are more tightly linked together more than ever before. This is, of course, taken to a whole new level as the more savvy marketers keep telling us, with Web 2.0 technologies and associated practices. But I would add my own 2 cents to that conversation and point out that it’s not just about people using machines, but about machines extending what it means to be human, getting back to what I was talking about with regard to technology earlier.

The technology we use to connect, to do what we have to do, or just to have fun is just an extension of who we are in terms of the groups with whom we identify and that define who we are. As cyclists at whatever level of performance (occasional, moderate, dedicated, absolutely mad for cycling), whatever our preferred machine, each of us contributes to the conversation over what goes into making a good bike for each of us.

Anyhow, I would hope that Elizabeth West classic quote earns some well-earned rest in the future. Time for coffee. Thanks for reading :-).

Oh, one more thing. I cant wait to read Iain Boal’s soon to be published (I hope) The Green Machine. It promises a lot of interesting insight.

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