Exhibit explores the history of two-wheelers

Exhibit explores the history of two-wheelers

Head over heels.

The expression makes more sense when Margaret Schlesinger explains that the origin of the phrase comes from penny-farthings, a Victorian bicycle pretty much designed to make you fall on your noggin.

The high-wheeler, with its huge front and tiny rear tire, was made to make bicycling easy, but luckily it has fallen out of the gene pool of bicycles now being displayed and discussed at Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Schlesinger, the curator for the Museum of Science and Industry, said the penny-farthing (named for the similar difference in size between two British coins) made it easier to ride — and to fall.

The first machines to be named "bicycles," they weren't the first two-wheelers by any means.

Perhaps the first thing to use two wheels was a German device named a Draisine, named for its German inventor, and also called the dandy horse.

You couldn't ride it, Schlesinger pointed out. It was meant to be pushed.

Baron Karl Drais patented it in January 1818.

"It was a wooden walking machine," Schlesinger said.

But part of its charm was that you could ride it downhill at full throttle.

Also called the hobbyhorse, it was the big thing for dandies in 1819.

By 1820, the fad had passed, Schlesinger said.

"Almost immediately," she said, "The next bike is called the Macmillan, a bicycle developed by a Scottish blacksmith. It had two wheels like a Draisine, but instead of wood, it was made of iron."

Another big difference was that Kirkpatrick Macmillan attached pedals to the front wheel around 1840, making it useful for more than showing off how dandy you were.

It was still very heavy and required a lot of effort to ride, Schlesinger said. But it was a big improvement.

The bicycle idea developed slowly for decades until the era just before the Civil War, when the velocipede flourished.

"It was faster than the Macmillan," she said. "It was still a very simple design, with iron or metal tires that were equal sized."

The velocipede was an improvement in shock absorption over the heavier Macmillan.

"They were beginning to understand the mechanics of placement and human design. There were rudimentary brakes on some, metal on metal," she said.

But these bicycle forerunners were neither easy to use nor affordable for most people. The 1870s brought the high-wheeled penny-farthing, or ordinary.

"The (adopters) were thinking, how can I propel myself further without over-exerting myself," Schlesinger said. "That was the point of the large wheel. It was a feat in itself to get up to the seat."

The pedals, attached to oversized wheels and leather tires or a gummy surface, took some of the jolt out of riding.

Velodromes were built so that potholes and gullies no longer threatened the riders' bottoms

"The result was gentlemen risking life and limb on a wooden track," she said.

The safety bike came into being just before the Gay 1890s, she said.

"It had rubber tires, a diamond frame and gears, rudimentary derailleurs, brake systems, and seats or saddles," Schlesinger said. "Now we're talking about mass-production."

It was a significant invention in that women were better able to ride them, one of the most famous being the suffragette Susan B. Anthony.

"Bicycles did more for women's liberation than any other device," the curator said. "It gave them freedom. They were no long wearing bustles and restrictive corsets, and they were getting out on the road."

Pneumatic tires came about 1901. Rubber factories sprang up.

The Columbia bicycle came from Chicago. So did the Schwinn, the Chevy of bikes, which accounted for almost 20 percent of the U.S. market before it went bankrupt.

"For bicycle factories, Chicago was significant as early as the 1850s, and it stayed that way until the city lost Schwinn to Canada" circa 1990, she said.

By 1955, the Chevy comparison was even more obvious, with Schwinns that were chrome-plated and had red taillights.

"From the back and front, it looked like a 1950s automobile," she said.

By the '60s, bikes mirrored space exploration with souped-up models that looked like "you'd shoot out of garage." The Sears Spaceliner is an example.

The museum has a Stingray exhibit that shows how children could learn to personalize their bikes by swapping out parts, putting on banana seats, and putting handlebars up high.

"This was the child's opportunity to put baseball cards in spokes, and tassels were floating 'when I'm riding like the wind,'" Schlesinger said.

The museum display isn't all about the past, though: It shows off the latest designs, such as inexpensive cardboard bikes.

Josh Bechtel invented the bicymple, a favorite of Schlesigner's, using a Kickstarter account.

"The idea came about after building a very simple single-speed bike with coaster brakes," Bechtel said. "I loved that there were no brake levers, no cables, and very little going on at all, really.

"The idea of pursuing the idea of ultimate simplicity was intriguing to me, so the next step in my mind was to set about on removing the chain from the equation. After several iterations, I think the design is relatively easy to ride, stylish, fun and unique."

If you go

What: The Art of the Bicycle, a new display at the Museum of Science and Industry

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily; exhibit is open through 2018

Where: 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago.

Tickets: Included in general admission ($18 for adults; $17 for ages 65-plus; $11 for ages 3-11)