By 1899, only a few score automobiles had been built, horses and carriages were expensive to maintain in crowded cities, and urban public transportation was, with few exceptions, slow and frequently inadequate. The bicycle met the need for inexpensive individual transportationmuch as the automobile has in recent timesfor going to and from business, for business deliveries, for recreational riding, and for sport.
What seems to us a simple device of modest and limited performance was, in the relatively unmechanized 1890s, a swift vehicle and a fine machine. A nationwide bicycle club, the League of American Wheelmen, was formed on 30 May, 1880 at Newport, Rhode Island. Membership reached 150,000 in 1900.
Directly and indirectly, the bicycle had a decided influence on the introduction of the automobile. In addition to introducing thousands of persons to individual and independent mechanical transportation, the bicycle proved the value of many materials and parts that were subsequently taken over by the automobile designers. Ball bearings found one of their earliest uses in the bicycles of 1880 or earlier. The differential unit was employed in tricycles, and various forms of free-wheeling and gear-shifting devices were in use. Steel tubing, developed largely for cycle frame construction, was adopted by some earlie automobile builders. Pneumatic tires, previously mentioned, and wire wheels were also in use on bicycles prior to the introduction of the gasoline automobile in America.
Many pioneer automobile builders were at first bicycle manufacturers. Among these were Charles E. Duryea, Alexander Winton, and Colonel Albert A. Pope. Furthermore, Wilbur and Orville Wright were bicycle manufacturers in Dayton, Ohio, before they turned their attention to the aeronautical field, and Glenn H. Curtiss, another aviation pioneer, started out as a bicycle manufacturer.
Between 1900 and 1905 the number of bicycle manufacturers in the United States shrank from 312 to 101. Interest in the automobile was only partly responsible for this. Additional factors were a switch to other forms of recreation, and the fact that a considerable number of electric railways took over the sidepaths originally constructed for bicycle use. Thereafter, for over half a century, the bicycle was used largely by children.
Recent cycle development has not involved significant changes in construction, but rather a refinement of earlier features. During the late 1960s there began a reawakening of adult interest in cycling as a non-polluting, non-congesting means of transportation and recreation. In 1970, nearly 5 million bicycles were manufactured in the United States, and an estimated 75 million riders shared 50 million bicycles, making cycling the nation's leading outdoor recreation.