July 3, 2014

Why Bicycles Are As American As Apple Pie

Looking way back, the invention of the bicycle had a melting pot of influences: German Karl von Drais came up with the draisine or hobby horse, which was a quintessential push bike; Frenchman Pierre Lallement gave us the velocipede with its iron wheels and front-wheel drive; Scot John Boyd Dunlop contributed the pneumatic tire, and various Brits including John Starley evolved ‘safety’ bikes close to what we see today.


But it was an American, Colonel Albert Pope, who turned out to be the mega-marketer of the bicycle. Pope founded Pope Manufacturing Company in Boston in 1877 and worked tirelessly to promote the bicycle market.


Pope was aggressive – first he bought out all the patents for different bicycle frame designs so that he cornered the market, receiving royalties from other American manufacturers. In 1887 he started producing bikes under the Columbia brand name, and they were considered some of the best you could buy.

Col. Pope posterPope was an enthusiastic booster of all things bike. In the mid-1890’s, at the height of the first bike boom, Columbia was manufacturing 250,000 bikes per year. He pushed endlessly for better roads for bicyclists.

Eventually Pope got into manufacturing autos, though it is said he thought at first that people wouldn’t want to “sit on an explosion,” i.e. the internal combustion engine.

Pope’s empire collapsed in 1913; he had died four years earlier, and by then the auto was eclipsing the bicycle. But for Pope, who was an avid rider, the bicycle was an American dream machine, and he firmly believed that there should be “wheels for all.”

(p.s. Apple pie may seem American, but looking back the French, British, Dutch, and Swedes made early contributions to what the US today regards an American icon, eaten with ice cream.)