Bicycle Puzzler

Sep 23, 2000

RAY: I received a short letter the other day. May 11, 1998, actually.

TOM: You're right up to date on reading, huh? That's good.

RAY: It was from Carrie Brown, who is the curator of the exhibition "Pedal Power" at the American Precision Museum in Windsor, Vermont.

Carrie writes, "In the 1800s, the high-wheeled bicycle was called the 'Ordinary.' It was almost exclusively a toy for wealthy young men.

"It was expensive. It cost a half a year's wages, and it was dangerous, the most common accident being the header, when the rider would fly over the handlebars. The Ordinary was difficult to mount, with its tall front wheel, and difficult to ride. But, it had certain advantages.

In an attempt to make cycling more universally accessible, bicycle engineers and manufacturers eventually developed what was called the Safety bicycle, which had two wheels of the same size, and chain drive and gearing -- not unlike bikes that we have today.

For various reasons, however, the Safety bike did not catch on immediately. It was considered ugly, inelegant, inefficient, and uncomfortable.

Then, in 1889, a veterinary surgeon in Belfast, Ireland patented an accessory that revolutionized the bicycle, and, from that point on, Safeties began winning races, and the Ordinary quickly fell out of fashion.

What was the name of this veterinary surgeon, or, what did he patent?

Here's a hint: if I gave you his name you'd know the answer.

TOM: So the thing must have his name in it. And it's not the bicycle seat.

RAY: No, but that would have been good.

TOM: That would have been important.

RAY: If someone had figured out the seat, no. The reason I couldn't give you his name is that his name is John Boyd Dunlop. And Dunlop invited the pneumatic tire.

TOM: Oh.

RAY: And in doing so, made the Safety bike the bike of choice, because now it was no longer uncomfortable. See, the big wheel of the Ordinary smoothed out the ride over those cobblestone streets and rutted back roads.

TOM: Of course, but if you put smaller tires, smaller wheels on the bike --

RAY: That weren't pneumatic. Bum-bum-bum-bum-bum!

TOM: Oh, man!

RAY: And all the people who rode those had their teeth knocked out so they all talked like Barry Hays. Oh! So, anyway, who's our winner, man?

TOM: Our winner this week is John Robertson from Chillicothee, Ohio.

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