October 25, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

The story of how the pneumatic tyre emerged on bikes illustrates how humans can shape technologies in whatever ways meet their needs...


In this issue of Spandex Wizards, I’ll be exploring the birth of the bicycle’s pneumatic tyre. I’m a keen cyclist, and so I find the evolution of the technologies that went into the bicycle’s formative years interesting. But the story of the air tyre’s introduction is important for another reason. The design processes for the bike – which versions failed, which succeeded, and why – are a lens through which we can see how people shape technology. The different needs of different groups of people lead to different types of bikes.

This sentiment, that a technology develops and fits into society in accordance with the needs of people, might seem obvious. But it’s easily forgotten in modern, technocentric society. You can see it in the worldviews of people who love technology, and those who vilify it. From claims that we owe our connected society to communications technologies, to cries that television and computer games have caused our children to become reclusive, obese, asocial blobs. It’s easy to ascribe the root causes of these phenomena to technology, and so I’d like to use the example of the birth of the bike tyre as an example to reaffirm my earlier, seemingly obvious, sentiment: that the birth and evolution of a technology is shaped by how we need to, and want to, use it.

The tale of the bike tyre is a great insight into how competitive cyclists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries shaped the adoption of the pneumatic tyre into bicycle design. Before this time, bikes didn’t have air tyres. These were initially designed for low-wheeled bike designs, which were primarily used for commuting, as a method to reduce vibration. The air tyre didn’t go down well with commuters or bike engineers: the commuters saw the air tires as ugly and ungainly; the engineers viewed the air tires as unnecessary, as there were already a variety of suspension-related solutions to address vibration problems. Vibration wasn’t as much of a problem for competitive cyclists, who used high-wheeled bicycles and didn’t suffer from vibration problems on the race circuit, and so the racers also didn’t see the need for air tyres.

This all changed when the first competitive cyclist equipped his bike with air tyres. Met, at first, with laughter and scorn, the naysayers were quickly silenced when the air tyre-shod racing bike immediately outpaced the opposition. Soon, cycling clubs were giving handicaps to the old-style high-wheeler cyclists who hadn’t adopted air-tyres, in order to preserve a sense of competition. Soon enough, however, all racing cyclists had adopted the tyre for their bikes. This new association that the air tyre had with speed, pace, and victory, quickly led to its acceptance among commuters as well – soon, the new tyre was everywhere.

The air tyre was initially an ignored technology, with no-one wanting to use it, or even seeing any benefit in it. This changed as cycle racers saw that their need for speed could actually make use of this technology. The resuscitation, and subsequent proliferation and evolution, of the tyre, is owed to racing cyclists.

So, the air tyre is an example of how society shoehorns technologies into the role it desires for them. I think this is particularly relevant in a time where the media seem to lay a lot of blame for society’s ills at the hands of technology. Take the inevitable shaming of violence in video games that follows shooting tragedies. This type of reaction seems all too common to me, and, of course, I can understand why. Video games are an extraordinarily widespread technology, and I’m sure the level of violence that people can act out in games is shocking to a lot of people. I won’t deny that. But the example of the tyre suggests a different perspective: violence appears in video games because violence is what people want in them, just as the air tyres appeared on bikes because that is what made cyclists go faster.

This seems a much more logical framing to me, and I hope it would seem obvious when phrased that way. I don’t think I’m covering much new ground here. But, what I hope I’ve done by describing the genesis of the air tyre is to exemplify and highlight how these relationships are formed, in an attempt to provide useful evidence for the next time this debate is rekindled. So, next time the press argue that iPads cause childhood obesity – or whatever other controversy is stirred up – we will know why the birth of the bike tyre proves them wrong.

IMAGE: tmurphy0828, flickr.