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The Mechanical Horse

The Mechanical Horse
How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life

In this lively cultural history, the journalist Margaret Guroff reveals how the bicycle has transformed American society, from making us mobile to empowering people in all avenues of life

"Fascinating . . . Guroff does an admirable job reminding us of the bicycle’s lasting influence . . . [Her] book provides a colorful and helpful map of where we’ve been, and where we all might go from here.”
—The Wall Street Journal

Series: Discovering America Series, Mark Crispin Miller, series editor

April 2016
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295 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 | 10 b&w photos, 5 b&w illus. |

With cities across the country adding miles of bike lanes and building bike-share stations, bicycling is enjoying a new surge of popularity in America. It seems that every generation or two, Americans rediscover the freedom of movement, convenience, and relative affordability of the bicycle. The earliest two-wheeler, the draisine, arrived in Philadelphia in 1819 and astonished onlookers with the possibility of propelling themselves “like lightning.” Two centuries later, the bicycle is still the fastest way to cover ground on gridlocked city streets.

Filled with lively stories, The Mechanical Horse reveals how the bicycle transformed American life. As bicycling caught on in the nineteenth century, many of the country’s rough, rutted roads were paved for the first time, laying a foundation for the interstate highway system. Cyclists were among the first to see the possibilities of self-directed, long-distance travel, and some of them (including a fellow named Henry Ford) went on to develop the automobile. Women shed their cumbersome Victorian dresses—as well as their restricted gender roles—so they could ride. And doctors recognized that aerobic exercise actually benefits the body, which helped to modernize medicine. Margaret Guroff demonstrates that the bicycle’s story is really the story of a more mobile America—one in which physical mobility has opened wider horizons of thought and new opportunities for people in all avenues of life.

  • Introduction
  • Chapter One. The Birth of the Bike
  • Chapter Two. The Need for Speed
  • Chapter Three. The Wheel, the Woman, and the Human Body
  • Chapter Four. Paving the Way for Cars
  • Chapter Five. From Producers to Consumers
  • Chapter Six. The Infinite Highway of the Air
  • Chapter Seven. The Cycles of War
  • Chapter Eight. The King of the Neighborhood
  • Chapter Nine. The Great American Bicycle Boom
  • Chapter Ten. Bike Messengers, Tourists, and Mountain Bikers
  • Chapter Eleven. Are We There Yet?
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Margaret Guroff

Washington, DC

Guroff is a magazine editor. She is also the editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick, an online annotation of Herman Melville’s classic novel. She teaches writing at the Johns Hopkins University.




The Porsche is mad. I am biking down Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown on my way to work, slipping past stopped cars at every light. Lane splitting like this is legal in DC, but the guy in the pewter-gray sports car apparently doesn’t know that. When his light turns green, he honks as he speeds past me to the next red, where he angles his car to the right to block my path. Naturally, and legally, I pass him on the left.

Next light, same deal. And when I pass him the second time, his window is down.

“You’re driving like a maniac,” he yells at me. Me, a scrawnyish, bespectacled lady averaging ten miles an hour. I’m the maniac?

I’d like to stop and argue, but that would cause a jam, so I just mutter, “You are,” and slide by.

That was the last time I saw that particular road-rager—bikes are faster than cars at rush hour, as I hope he glumly realized— but I encounter his ilk often enough. Driving an automobile in heavy traffic can be infuriating, and even though the main thing that slows cars down is all the other cars, a few drivers fixate on cyclists as the problem. Roads are for cars, these drivers think (and sometimes holler): the bike is like a pesky little brother who needs to stay on the sidewalk and out of the way.

There are a couple of problems with that perception. For one thing, cyclists are not allowed on many downtown sidewalks. For another, bikes were on the roads first. Though 125 years of technological progress have obscured this fact, it is actually the car that is the baby brother. Not only did bikes precede cars, but it was bikers who successfully agitated to pave the country’s dirt roads, at a time when cars were only dreamt of. And during that nineteenth-century “good roads” movement, bike makers pioneered mass-production techniques that later made the US auto industry possible.

When you look into the bicycle’s history, you begin to see its impact all over American culture. It changed women’s clothing, helping do away with the restrictive corsets to which they had long been sentenced. It changed people’s attitudes toward health and fitness, demonstrating that a little sweat wouldn’t kill you . . . and might actually save your life. In fact, much of what looks like America to us—our consumer culture, our air travel, our mobility, both physical and social—was strongly influenced by the bike. The idea of a middle-class woman like me traveling alone, in a garment that barely covered her knees, was unthinkable until the bicycle. So, too, was the idea of that cushy Porsche.

Would there be motor vehicles and liberated women if not for the bike? In some way or other, sure, probably. But much of American history cannot be told as it happened without the bicycle leading the way.

Whenever I encounter an aggressive driver who thinks bikes are a nuisance on the road, I fantasize about us pulling over together so that I can drop some knowledge on them—not just about rights-of-way and the value of deep, cleansing breaths, but also about the historical respect due the bicycle, even if not to any particular cyclist. Alas, when these conflicts arise, the driver and I are usually both in a rush, and one of us always gets away.

So I am telling you.


“A bright, enthusiastic cultural history. ”

“[A] dazzling cultural history of the bicycle . . . Guroff peppers these historical accounts with lively quotes from primary documents and her own sharp, modern insight. As she makes plain, it’s not just cyclists who have bicycles to thank for the way they get around—it’s everybody. And that makes The Mechanical Horse worth a read for the most avowed drivers, too.”

“Fascinating . . . Guroff does an admirable job reminding us of the bicycle’s lasting influence . . . [Her] book provides a colorful and helpful map of where we’ve been, and where we all might go from here.”
The Wall Street Journal

“A narrative rich in history and based on formidable research . . . But what comes through most strongly in this nicely written, fast-paced narrative is Guroff’s love for her subject. If you adore your bike, you’re curious about where it came from, and you’d like to read about how it’s changed the world, then buy this book. It’s that simple.”
Washington Independent Review of Books

“Guroff has penned a fascinating account of how such a seemingly simple invention could have such a global impact.”
Baltimore Magazine

“Guroff defty tells how cycling grew, literally, from the iron drasine and wooden-wheeled velocipedes in the early 19th century to giant-front-wheel penny farthings.”
The Examiner

“Guroff is a confident social historian who allows her eye for the colorful detail to lead the way while never neglecting to think through the chain of incidents and inventions that paved the road from the early 19th-century draisine, two wheels and a seat but not much else, to the battery-assisted fat-wheeled wonders of today. . . . Good stories abound in Guroff's account.”
The Weekly Standard

“Who knew that besides representing a marvel of mechanical efficiency, the bicycle also has a fascinating social history? It turns out that its story is a very readable tale of social change in America.”
Minnesota Star Tribune

“Margaret Guroff’s survey of the role the bicycle has played in America’s social and cultural development covers a lot of ground at a necessarily rapid cadence. We learn that America’s relationship with the bicycle is an on-off romance based partly on fashion and partly on utility… Today, while cycling enjoys rising popularity in prosperous urban area, overall ridership has decreased especially among children. Guroff speculates that computers, smartphones and heightened protectiveness may mean the bicycle is no longer a suburban kid’s birthright. Let’s hope not.”
Times Literary Supplement

“Guroff looks at bicycling from its early days to the present, offering fascinating insights that connect the earlier years with the present.”
AETHLON: The Journal of Sport Literature

The Mechanical Horse is first-rate popular history that ought to interest professional historians of business, capitalism, and technology.”
Business History Review

“An exceptional example of an empathetic historical imagination, and fantastically good at making history accessible to all.”
Great Plains Quarterly

“A provocative, in-depth analysis of the two-wheeler’s shifting influence on American society. Highly recommended.”
David Herlihy, author of Bicycle: The History

“Margaret Guroff has broken new ground with this masterful account of the bicycle revolution set in the broad context of American social and cultural history. The Mechanical Horse is that rarest of books, a work of solid scholarship and deep analysis so readable that you can’t put it down.”
Tom Crouch, author of The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright


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