Simple sustainable technologies focused on humans

Case study: Bicycles (development, the high point and additions)

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The process which gradually turns humane technologies to inhumane ones is the process of adding more and more features, and in general adding more and more technologies to a given process which can often be carried out just as efficiently without them. Marketing and advertising industries do a good job of convincing people that they need those technologies and feature, often up to the point when the mere act of not using them would make you look insane in the eyes of some people.

According to the people who want to sell you stuff, progress never stops: every day their products are better than the day before (and so you need the new version.) This might be true, but only for the development stage of a given technology - the period where that starts with its emergence and continues until it (the technology) reaches its high point i.e. the point when it becomes as good as they can be. Any “improvements” done after that high point are often unnecessary or harmful, and so the next period consists mostly of additions of new features to the design.


For bikes, this first stage, the stage of development began in the 1860s where all kinds of wacky bicycle designs were made, the most famous of which is the high-wheeler design, the so called “penny farthing” - a design which features one big front wheel to which the pedals are directly attached, and a smaller rear one for balance. Examining the bikes that are produced at that era is a good way to see how a technology is developing - designers are experimenting with different materials and with rearranging the main components of the product, trying to find the design that works best and is as simple as possible.

The high point

It is not possible to pinpoint just who designed the modern diamond-frame bicycle (originally called the “safety bike”, to highlight the fact that it was safer than the penny farthing which was its most popular predecessor) - like most good humane technologies, it is a combination of a several different good ideas, often developed by different people, that work extremely well together (as opposed to inhumane technologies, that in most cases are a combination of mediocre ideas that don’t work together very well) However, there are no disputes whatsoever as to what constitutes this design - it remains virtually unchanged from the 1880s to today.

It’s worth it to examine some bikes that are manufactured at that time and see how similar they are to today’s models, like the Van Cleve Bicycle manufactured in 1897 (by non other than the Wright brothers).

But what’s even more impressive, at least for me, is to look at production bicycles that came some time later, like the 1911 La Francaise diamant (ridden by the winner of the first Tour de France) - this bike is not merely similar to the bike I own when it comes to design. It is (with a few exceptions) the same i.e. I can swap my bike for this one with no problem.

At the heart of the modern bicycle is the so-called diamond frame that is patented in 1899 by an African-American inventor called Isaac R Johnson. It is composed of two connected triangles, forming a four-angle shape that holds the four indispensable elements of the bicycle:

  1. The bottom-left angle holds the rear wheel of the bicycle.
  2. The bottom right angle holds the pedals which are connected to the rear wheel by a chain.
  3. The top-left angle is a home to the bicycle seat.
  4. Finally the top-right angle holds the steering of the bicycle and the front wheel.

The design doesn’t seem more complex and doesn’t use more materials than the penny farthing, but is, at the same time, much stronger than the penny farthing due to the triangle-shaped tubing.

Like the penny farthing (and unlike some other designs), it use direct steering i.e. the steering wheel is connected directly to the front wheel which is much better than indirect one.

And unlike the penny farthing, it doesn’t use direct pedaling that is, the pedals are connected to the wheel via a chain. It is interesting to note that the chain is the only complication of this design when you compare the design to the penny farthing. But it’s worth it, because the chain plays not one, but two important roles:

  1. It allows for putting the rider in a much more comfortable, and aerodynamic position
  2. The wheels don’t have to be super huge in order for bigger speed to be reached, making the design smaller and safer.

And this, in brief, is the high-point of the bicycle.

Post development

In the next (more than) 100 years, bikes became very popular and many new features were added to the original design - suspension (front and rear) gears (internal and external), engines (electric and internal combustion), brakes (v-brakes, discs (mechanical and hydraulic)) and all kinds of other stuff. Anticipating what some people would say, I I am not arguing that these things are useless, bad or unneeded * - each of them has its benefits for certain types of use-cases. However, a design that is closer to the original one has one feature that they all lack - *the feature of having no useless features.

For example, (to use the McLuhan’s metaphor about technologies being extensions of our bodies) it would be cool if we, humans, had the ability to fly, breath underwater, see in the dark etc. however, unlike other animals, we never evolved to have such abilities, we even had some of them and we evolved out of them and that’s simply because they are of no advantage to us. The trait that we have are precisely those that we need to survive. And furthermore they define who we are as a species. And for this reason we have to think really long before we (by using a given technology) add some new ability to this list.

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