The bicycle: 200 years of freedom - News - Gondwana Collection


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The bicycle: 200 years of freedom

Avatar of inke inke - 08. décembre 2017 - Discover Namibia, Culture

Driving along the streets of Windhoek, I notice a cyclist careening past me, dressed in close-fitting lycra cycling gear with a cycling helmet on his head, sleek as a racehorse. I take a few moments to entertain my active imagination, exchanging his modern bicycle with one of the first wooden bicycles of the 1800s, which without pedals would have required him to propel it forward with his feet on the road, rather like a child’s scooter. Cars hooting behind me bring me back to the 21st century, with a chuckle. The bicycle has come a long way. Indeed.

This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the bicycle. At the beginning of the century, it was estimated that more than 1 billion bicycles had been manufactured worldwide.

The forerunner of our modern bicycle was called a ‘Dandy horse’, ‘Draisienne’ or ‘Laufmaschine’, and was invented by Baron Karl von Drais in 1817. People were hugely impressed to be connected to such a small patch of ground as they propelled themselves forward; it was almost like flying! The only limit to your speed was your muscle power and endurance. There was a strong, promising feeling of freedom in the air. And, the world was ready for it.

In 1842, one of the early pioneers, Kirkpatrick MacMillan, was convicted for committing the first cycling traffic offense. The Glasgow newspaper reported that an anonymous gentleman from Dumfries-shire knocked over a little girl in his velocipede of ingenious design. He was fined five shillings.

The next leap in development of the bicycle took place in the early 1860s when Frenchmen Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement added a crank drive with pedals. Later that year, lightweight bicycle wheels with wire spokes were patented by Eugène Meyer. By the 1890s bicycles were the rage in Europe and cycle clubs popped up throughout the continent. Until then, personal transport was limited. Travel was by horse, or by foot. The world was hungry for alternate transportation. The humble bicycle ushered in an era of mobility. 

The bicycle was also readily available to women, whose clothing had limited them on horseback, providing them with a freedom and independence that was unheard of until then. Some even say that the bicycle – or ‘freedom machine’ as it was known by the late 19th-century suffragettes - led to a movement for more comfortable clothing, replacing the restrictive dress of the time. Who knows?

When the motor vehicle was invented, it was far too dear for the masses – and bicycles remained a firm favourite, and a means not just to commute or carry goods and messages, but to enjoy the countryside. And, after all, the early vehicles travelled at more or less the same speed, needed fuel, were noisy and messy, and were far more labour intensive. Eventually motorcycles and motor vehicles took over as the most popular and quickest form of transport, although bicycles remained in use for carrying mail and for general deliveries for many years to come.

The bicycle was revived during the oil crisis of the 70s when fuel was in short supply and prices skyrocketed. It is still popular at universities and many large cities worldwide are implementing bicycle programmes, where the bicycle provides an easy (healthy) alternative to braving the traffic. Cycling has also evolved into a popular recreational activity and a sport. Some cycle races, like the multi-stage Tour de France, have gained international prestige. With the advent of mountain bikes, a variety of gruelling mountain-bike events like the Desert Dash now fill the cycling calendar. Adaptations and developments are continual. The latest advancement, the e-bike - an electric bicycle enabling the rider to reach faster speeds with less effort - is the ultimate bicycle to date, catapulting us into the future. Gondwana’s Kalahari Anib Lodge now offers e-bikes to its guests as a leisure activity.

In Africa, and specifically in Namibia, the bicycle came much later. As the story is told, Hans Emil Lenssen came to southern Africa from Germany in 1898 and became a trader in the colony. In the years between 1906 and 1908 he was based in Okaukuejo, where he opened a shop. It was located on the main route between the northern and southern parts of the country, and Lenssen came into contact with many a passer-by. His bicycle made a huge impression. One of the first encounters caused a stir when he approached a group of men on his bicycle at tremendous speed. It appeared larger and larger as it drew near, causing them to drop their luggage and flee into the bushes. It was a misunderstanding that was easily resolved, ending in laughter.

Bicycles soon found their way to the north, becoming a luxury - and a much-treasured - item. An extra metal or wooden seat at the back transformed the bicycle into a taxi that could transport passengers, goods, firewood or water. In many areas, it remains a valued and important means of transport. 

What’s in store for one of the world’s friendliest inventions? It is anyone’s guess. But, it’s my thought that as our roads become congested, our air becomes increasingly polluted and fuel prices soar, it may just be time for us to return to the energy-efficient and noise-free 1817 invention - with pedal power, of course.

Ron Swilling

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