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Would an ancient civilization be able to build a bicycle if they thought it up somehow? It doesn't have to be a modern bike with handbrakes and multiple gears and shock absorbers. It could be one gear and just pedal backwards to brake.

As a concrete example, could the Ancient Romans have done this? Pretty sure they had gears but not sure about the chain sprocket. EDIT: apparently a chain is not strictly necessary since you could just attach pedals directly to one of the wheels.

There is also a question of exactly what metal or alloy to use so that the frame is strong enough. Could wood also work?

What would it take for ancient peoples to conceive of the idea? They had the wheel and gear, but where would the idea of "pedal power" come from?

It's a shame it wasn't invented sooner. All those Roman roads were already built.

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  • $\begingroup$ Some interesting answers, but I suspect none of them could cope with the Roman roads, which presumably were not asphalted and not particularly smooth. "How could an ancient civilization build a decent road" would be a different question. In fact the roads were so bad, even just a couple of hundred years ago, that in the UK goods were transported by horse-drawn barge through a network of hand-dug canals. That way a horse could easily pull 50 tons, rather than struggling with 1 ton on the roads. en.wikipedia.org/?title=Narrowboat $\endgroup$ – Level River St Jun 21 '15 at 9:00
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    $\begingroup$ @steveverrill Quality of roads is irrelevant to the utility of canals: a horse pulling 20-25t on a canal (I think that's a more realistic amount than your claim of 50t) is a big win over a horse pulling 1t on a well-maintained modern road. Also, you're massively underestimating Roman roads: they built over 50,000 miles of high-quality cambered, stone-paved roads. That's longer than the US Interstate highway system. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jun 21 '15 at 11:27
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    $\begingroup$ It's possible to build bikes out of bamboo, though that probably requires much more advanced glues than were available in ancient times and you'd need to be somewhere where bamboo was available (duh). $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jun 21 '15 at 11:31
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Absolutely.

Wheels - I envisage two wooden wheels, padded by cork if you like (plentiful), which might be more comfortable than wood-padded by metal (also possible), but the cork will wear.

Chain - Perhaps rope instead of the chain. Or a chain, why not?

Body - This can be wood or metal, very easily.

Seats - There were chairs and cushions long before this, so have fun with it.

Gears - You have already covered this.

Others - for my enjoyment, please add a basket or storage of some sort. Hey, I live in Portland!

In fact, it could look very similar to this much more modern dandy-horse.

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    $\begingroup$ Nice, so a chain sprocket isn't even necessary. You could just put pedals on one of those wheels. But just as important as how to build it, is how to conceive of it? A better question might be why did bikes take so long to invent? It could have really changed civilization much, much earlier. Like I said before, they already had those roads all over Roman Empire. $\endgroup$ – DrZ214 Jun 20 '15 at 23:35
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    $\begingroup$ @DrZ214 well, your question has changed pretty significantly - maybe it should be a follow-up question ("what would get them to conceive of it..."). As for the change in civilization, I think their use of horses for transportation of people, goods, and in military was more significant. It would sure be more fun, though. Nice question. $\endgroup$ – Mikey Jun 21 '15 at 0:14
  • $\begingroup$ @DrZ214 if you do, please link it hereé $\endgroup$ – o0'. Jun 21 '15 at 19:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Mikey I think I like leather padding on the wheels instead of cork. It's more durable. $\endgroup$ – Martin_xs6 Jun 22 '15 at 21:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Martin_xs6 yeah +1 for the inclusion of leather; less maintenance than cork, even if it's not as soft. It can also be used for other things later. $\endgroup$ – Mikey Jul 24 '15 at 7:44
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Romans could have built a bicycle. Maybe somebody even did, but nobody wanted it. The Romans would have been unable to build pneumatic tires or ball bearings. Also they lacked the technology for building large stamped metal parts. And mass production in general. (Some things they did got close.) So the bike would have been heavy, uncomfortable, slow, and expensive.

Given that rich Romans had access to horses and slaves to carry or pull them, it really would have made no sense to use a bicycle even if they got one. And before industrialization cheap transport for urban masses did not really make sense. People worked at or near their homes and shopped mostly within short range.

So the real limiting factor is having some need for them. And then having technology good enough to fill that need. Not the basic invention and building of a bicycle.

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Although the earliest description of a bicycle like device is allegedly from Leonardo da Vinci in the late 1400's, the first bicycle like devices were popularised in the early 1800's after the "year without summer" killed a significant number of horses. (Don't forget that 1815 also marked the end of the Napoleonic wars and the end of the War of 1812, so horses were already in short supply).

This suggests that the key to developing mechanical transport would be a combination of factors, including the actual availability of roads, a population which was familiar with tools and some mechanical devices and a lack of animal or muscle powered transport due to some external factor like a massive volcanic eruption creating global cooling and massive crop failures.

Even then, people would also have had to have an actual need to get around. Most people never left their village or town unless they were either living by the coast or a navigable river, or had wanderlust or joined/were impressed by the local army. Most of the stuff you needed for day to day living was a short walk away.

An ancient army like the Roman Legions would have a much better chance of developing a bicycle like device under these circumstances, since they were well stocked with engineers and technical staffs, had access to roads and a need to get around quickly. Romans could and did make lots of mechanical devices, including things we would recognize as clockwork, war engines driven by tension or torsion to fling arrows and catapult stones and portable boats and bridges. By the first century AD simple heat engines were built as toys or automatic door openers at temples, so all that is really needed is a Hero of Alexandria to put his mind to transportation and it is conceivable that a device like the Draisine might have been invented. Couriers lacking horses would have been an obvious first use for these Draisines, and the practice would have spread from there (literally, as people would watch amazed as a courier sped past them at running speed without obviously expending running amounts of energy).

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  • $\begingroup$ Makes me think of curriers using roller skates or skate boards... $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 23 '15 at 6:59
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I think they can build something like this Ancient bycicle

at least with wheels like this enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ That would be a gigantic weight of wheel to get moving with the pedals. Seems very unlikely to work. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jun 21 '15 at 11:28
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Romans' could make a bicycle. But looking at the evolution of bicycles, first prototypes were harder to use. They were dangerous and required a lot of energy to ride ( more than current bicycles).

And I don't think bearings existed during Roman empire. Which would drastically increase the resistance of the wheels.

So I don't think that it's not that Roman's couldn't make bicycles, just that they were not practical during the period.(Like some designs' of Leonardo da vinci's)

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    $\begingroup$ In a show about realizing Leonardo's designs, the builders concluded that they needed bearings. “you're in luck — Leonardo invented ball bearings!” and they showed llustrations of a cup containing balls and the end of a shaft. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 31 '17 at 21:56
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VelocipedeYes! The wooden Velocipede with an iron foot crank on the front wheel would have been easy. No need for ball bearings though archaeological evidence hints they had that too. All it would have taken was will. The average Roman light carriage (cisium) traveled about 6 miles per hour according to Cicero which was considered fast. A bicycle has to go that fast just to stay stable. Steady speeds up to 15-25 miles per hour are easy for a conditioned man. Roads could have been made more comfortable by a covering of concrete (opus caementicium)which was available. Roman generals would have loved them not for battle but to move troops fast without exhausting them. The race to get a faster, more comfortable ride would have driven technology right up to the automobile and airplane which both sprang from the bicycle industry.

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    $\begingroup$ So you're saying this would have led to the Ancient Romans inventing cars and planes? That seems like quite the stretch. $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy May 31 '17 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding Daniel! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Sec SE - clear Monica's name May 31 '17 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ It's not really a stretch. I'm not saying it would happen overnight. But the technologies inherent in the primitive velocipede could have started a drive for better performance. When we see the number of inventions that were either made or were refined by the bicycle industry. They already had a steam turbine. A clever Alexandrian might have been inspired to combine the two ideas... $\endgroup$ – Daniel Palacios May 31 '17 at 21:15
  • $\begingroup$ I don’t think «Steady speeds up to 15-25 miles per hour are easy for a conditioned man» is accurate. That’s not easy even on a modern geared bike. This will be limited to the cadence of the single gear — he won't sustain more than 70 RPM; with a 30-inch wheel that comes to 6 or 7 miles per hour. 25 mph would require peddaling at close 20 300 rpm which is not possible. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 31 '17 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ It does not require 6mph for a bike to be stable. Just barely creeping along (hoping for the light to change before I run out of room!) Is enough. In fact, on some frames (but but others) with modern pedal placement, with one pedal low and the brakes engaged, it's plainly trivial to stay balanced while standing on the pedal, unmoving. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 31 '17 at 21:53
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Wheels and carriages already existed. Albeit most Romans had these things available to them, a slave owner thought that driving a carriage with a horse around is tedious, and wouldn't it be good if he could send his slaves around on something smaller? So he drew up the idea of the bicycle and went to the city manager for funding, only to get laughed out of city hall, because "running around on two wheels will never catch on."

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