31 March 2015

Bicycles And The Eiffel Tower

On this date in 1889, the Eiffel Tower opened to the public.

Probably no other manmade structure in the world has served as a backdrop for as many bicycles and cyclists as that most iconic of buildings.  Made to serve as the entrance of that year's Exposition, it was, ironically, slated to be torn down once the fair ended.  And many criticis couldn't wait:  They complained that it interrupted the Paris skyline.

Bicycle with Basket of Flowers and Eiffel Tower, Paris (L)

There are a number of reasons why la Tour and two wheels are so linked in people's imaginations.  One, of course, is that cycling, almost from its very beginnings, has been a seemingly inextricable part of French culture.  Another is that the tower is so associated with romance, like people and couples wending and sashaying along rues diffuse eclaires, in the City of Light and in les pays.

Also, it's difficult to separate the history of bicycles themselves from that of the Eiffel Tower.  When its construction began in 1887, the "safety bicycle", with a chain-driven rear wheel and a front of equal size or smaller, had been on the market a couple of years.  With it, ridership grew by leaps and bounds--and, for the first time, significant numbers of women were riding--because, as its name indicates, it was safer to ride than the high-wheelers that had mainly been toys for strong young men.  And, in 1888, while the la Tour was going up, John Boyd Dunlop introduced his pneumatic tire, which would further improve the rideabilty of bicycles.

Now, I am neither an engineer nor a scientist, so take what I'm about to say for what it's worth.  I think that another parallel between the development of two-wheelers and the tower is that both taught subsequent inventors and researchers much about the possibilities of metal construction.  Contrary to what most people believe (as I did, until I learned otherwise!), the Eiffel Tower and most bicycles of the time were not made of steel.  Although steel had been around for milennia, methods for making it in large quantities had only recently been developed.  Thus, it was expensive and nobody really knew how to use it in construction.

Thus, the Tower and bikes were made of iron--wrought in the case of the former and cast for bikes.  Monsieur Eiffel's team figured out that the structure they conceived would be best built by placing them at angles to each other.  Around the same time, bicycle frames were evolving into something like the shapes so familiar to us today, as different bike-builders experimented with different placements of, and ways of joining, frame members.

As heavy as wrought iron is, it's still much lighter than stone, the most popular material for large structures at that time, and for centuries before.  And the cast iron used for bicycles (which were sometimes made by blacksmiths) was sturdier than the wood that had been used to make bikes.  While iron bikes were heavier, they paved the road (so to speak) for steel bikes, which could be made much lighter because the fact that the material is stronger means that less of it can be used to achieve the necessary strength.

Of course, the work of Eiffel's team made the creation of other large metal structures, just as the new safety bicycle opened up other possiblities in bicycle (as well as other vehicular) design and construction.  That meant that, while the Eiffel Tower was the world's tallest manmade structure on the day it opened, it would hold that distinction for 41 years, until the Chrysler Building was completed in 1930.  Likewise, the construction methods developed for iron bikes, along with pneumatic tires, made it possible to develop, not only better bicycles, but also automobiles and aircraft.

So, if you find yourself thinking about the Eiffel Towers and bicycles together, just remember that they are linked, not only in romantic images, but also in history and technology.

Knowing that, it seems fitting that the Bikeffel Tower was built in Breckenridge, Colorado from recycled bike parts:

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