Guroff, Margaret. The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016. Pp. 295. Abbreviations, bibliography, notes, index, 10 b&w photos, and 5 b&w illustrations. $24.95 hardcover.
Reviewed by Lindsay Parks Pieper
I recently visited Washington, D.C., to conduct research in the Library of Congress. The proximity of the library to the Capitol ensured that I saw several people hustling toward the Hill for work. What surprised me was how many of those I passed were in professional garb and commuting on red Capital Bikeshare bikes.
SmartBike DC, the predecessor to Capital Bikeshare, debuted in 2008 as a service that allowed the public to share and use bicycles for short periods of time. The company launched with 10 stations and 120 bikes. It quickly expanded. Capital Bikeshare replaced Smart Bike DC in 2010 and one year later had 100 stations and over 1,500 bikes. Today the publically funded company maintains 3,500 bikes at over 400 stations across DC and the surrounding suburbs. Other locations have similar systems. In 2016, over 50 cities in 29 states operate bikeshares. The growth of bikshares seems to suggest a resurgence in the popularity of riding; however, history shows that such surges are not new–nor always permanent.
Magazine writer Margaret Guroff has witnessed the recent uptick in pedaling commuters in DC; she also bravely navigates rush hour in the nation’s capital by bike. Her experiences on the roads encouraged her to explore the significance of the bike in the United States. Guroff’s work, The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life, thematically and chronologically examines the connection of the bicycle to American culture, from its introduction in the early 1800s to the implementation of bikeshares in the 2000s.
Each of the eleven chapters explores one moment of the bicycle’s evolution. The first three chapters focus on the creation of the mechanical horse and the reasons for its nineteenth century expansion. In February 1819, the draisine, named after its German creator, appeared in a Maryland exhibit. According to Guroff, the draisine was an ancestor to the modern bicycle, although it had no pedals and required a person to push along the ground to gain momentum. Perhaps the draisine’s most direct link to the modern bicycle was people’s reaction to it: some appreciated the new technology but many worried that the draisine clogged roadways and collided with pedestrians. The addition of pedals to the later velocipede (but not breaks), helped launch a bicycle craze at the end of the 1860s. Guroff argues that updates to the machine, as well as the origin of leisure time, added the bike to a growing list of new mass amusements; other newfangled enjoyments included baseball, croquet, long-distance walking exhibitions, and roller-skating. Yet, it was the creation of the safety bike, she writes, that dramatically increased the popularity of riding. Safety bikes had two high wheels, air-filled rubber tires, and rear-wheel drive. Women notably took to this version of the mechanical horse, changing norms of acceptable clothing and feminine activities in the process.
The next three chapters detail the influence of the bicycle. Guroff argues that bikes made car culture and aviation possible. The need for paved roads, the complexities of bike mechanics, and the benefits of self travel–discovered by riding–opened the door for cars. Likewise, the Wright brothers used bicycles in the creation of air gliders. Paradoxically, it was the development of motorized transportation that eventually diminished the use of bicycles in the United States.
Guroff also discusses the uses of bicycles in war. Bikes were quieter, cheaper, and more nimble than horses, she writes, which encouraged their deployment on stealth missions. While the US military did not recognize the tactical value of bikes, leaders in Europe and Asia embraced the technology. For example, in WWII, Britain, France, Germany, and Japan turned to bicycle riders to transport information and gasoline, and navigate difficult terrain. Guroff also argues that bicycles held important roles outside of battle. Many Jewish Germans took up riding after the Nazis barred them from street cars. In Britain, citizens rode when rationed gas was expensive and hard to find. As she explains, “The bicycle had become not only a tool of resistance to superior military power, but also a symbol of victory over it” (p. 110).
Guroff then shows how the bike become linked to childhood in postwar America. After WWII, marketers started to advertise bicycles directly to children in a conscious and purposeful fashion. She suggests that a mass movement to the suburbs also increased adolescent bike use. Yet, it was the 1970s exercise boom that returned the bicycle to realm of adulthood. A steady supply of affordable bikes–complete with gears–and a changing attitude toward adult fitness encouraged people to ride. The simultaneous oil embargo also increased bike use. According to Guroff, bicycles outsold cars in the early 1970s. But the boom was short-lived and over by 1975. Increased movement from urban centers to the suburbs increased society’s dependency on motorized transportation. Nevertheless, the brief bike surge allowed the machine to shed its kid-centric image.
The final two chapters discuss contemporary meanings of the bicycle. Guroff writes that courier services and the development of the mountain bike in the 1980s revitalized the technology. Daring couriers on city streets earned an “urban warrior image” that associated coolness with riding. This lasted until the development of the fax machine, which minimized the need for couriers (p. 144). But the development of the mountain bike had a more long-lasting impact on bicycling. Developed in California in 1976, mountain bikes sparked another uptick as these bikes became the choice of yuppies in the 1980s and continue to dominate the bicycle market.
Guroff closes with a discussion of bikeshares, the latest “dewy-eyed affair” with the bicycle (p. 157). She suggests that bikeshares fueled an uptick in biking as riding became both a practical means of transportation and a fashion statement. In DC, the number of pedaling commuters quadrupled between 2000 and 2013. With more bike lanes being opened, Guroff argues that “it is starting to feel as if the bike is finally living up to its original promise” as a “reliable, affordable, socially acceptable mechanical horse” (p. 162).
The Mechanical Horse is a well written book that examines the meaning of the bicycle in several different historical contexts. Importantly, Guroff illustrates how people’s relationships with the bike fluctuated in relation to the larger culture. She highlights how external factors both helped and hindered the advancement of the technology. For example, the first bike boom occurred in conjunction with the onset of leisure time and the creation of mass amusements. Conversely, American’s resistance to the bicycle at various moments was not predetermined. Guroff contrasts bike-friendly Europe against the United States throughout The Mechanical Horse to substantiate this point.
While Guroff connects the bike to American culture, some external factors needed more dissection–notably the intersections of race, class, and gender with the bicycle. She does note the connection of the women’s movement to the technology in the late nineteenth century, but glosses over other elements of gender later on. Elements of race and class are also only briefly mentioned. For example, Guroff points out that prohibitive costs limited riders initially, and the introduction of the less expensive safety bike expanded the pool, but does not incorporate class in the postwar conversation about consumption. Likewise, she points out that people of color were excluded from the original bicycle clubs, yet does not examine later race-based exclusions. Despite some analytical shortcomings, The Mechanical Horse is an accessible and enjoyable overview of the bicycle in US culture.
As Guroff shows, from the draisine in the 1800s to the bikeshares of contemporary times, Americans have found different purposes for the bicycle, each with a specific tie to the context. Only time will tell if DC’s Capital Bikeshare is a momentary phenomenon or a lasting use of the bike.
Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College and the Book Review Editor of Sport in American History. She can be reached at email@example.com and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. Check out her website at www.lindsayparkspieper.com.