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I'm curious whether the bicycle (or at least a rudimentary form of it) could be invented with pre-industrial technology, ie a society that has not undergone even the early stages of the industrial revolution.

Could said bikes be built differently, to travel on rougher terrain and unpaved roads?

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  • $\begingroup$ I feel that the key obstacle is not possibility but cost-efficiency - with pre-industrial technology, such a carefully crafted machine is not only worse than a horse (as bicycles, especially rudimentary forms of them, arguably are) but also more expensive to build or maintain than a horse; and only with industrial approaches the bicycle could become affordable compared to a horse. $\endgroup$
    – Peteris
    Apr 22 at 18:57

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Technically, yes, it is possible to have a rudimentary form of bicycle, just look at the dandy horse or draisine:

enter image description here

Nothing here is much different than a chariot or a wheelbarrow, there is no rubber anywhere and requires just some wood and metal working skills. Practically it could have happened already at the times of the fertile crescent.

What you need to make it happen is the "right" incentive:

Drais was inspired, at least in part, by the need to develop a form of transit that did not rely on the horse. After the eruption of Mount Tambora and the Year Without a Summer (1816), which followed close on the devastation of the Napoleonic Wars, widespread crop failures and food shortages resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of horses, which either starved to death or were killed to provide meat and hides. "In wartime," he wrote, "when horses and their fodder often become scarce, a small fleet of such wagons at each corps could be important, especially for dispatches over short distances and for carrying the wounded.”

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting machine, but I wouldn't call it a bicycle, even a rudimentary one, without pedals. How good would pre-industrial craftsmen be at producing a chain- or belt-driven pedal drive? $\endgroup$ Apr 22 at 0:42
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    $\begingroup$ @MasonWheeler Push bikes, including designs like this, are pretty much universally recognized as bicycles both by cyclists and by engineers who work on bicycles, they still give an efficiency improvement over simply walking (because you only have to push occasionally unless you’re moving uphill). And, on top of that, the sample given here is generally considered by most historians to be the first well attested step in the development of the modern bicycle. $\endgroup$ Apr 22 at 3:50
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Absolutely yes to first, likely no to the second.

All the technological know-how about making a primitive bicycle out of wood, leather belts and metal pins existed already by the time Babylonians used their chariots for war. By the time Roman Republic was in full swing, there was no reason why bikes could not be commonplace, except:

There is no plausible way, or even a good reason to have bike-ready roads in pre-modern times.

The vast majority of roads, even by the time actual bicycle existed, were not fit for a bike. Most were dirt/gravel roads in which a bicycle would sink, or cobblestone roads which would shake the bike and the rider to pieces.

Roads could not be made any better before advanced drainage technologies were invented. A perfectly flat and continuous road would become a stream, or a water dam after a rainfall, and roads HAD TO have either soft, spongy nature or wide and deep breaks between cobblestones to ameliorate water. It also made them especially nasty to ride on.

The one solution to this problem is to give your bikes big, fat tires with a bold tread, like modern mountain bikes. But for that you need rubber.

You can get rubber from either the gum tree, or from rubber dandelion (also known as russian dandelion or steppe dandelion). Either option though introduces a material that would be far more revolutionary than bikes.

If you have rubber, or sufficiently rubber-like material to replace it, you can use it so all kinds of wheels, vessels, ships, boats, medical devices, clothing, insulation, etc etc, until your world is vastly different from pre-modern baseline.

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  • $\begingroup$ Modern road construction was pushed ahead first by the popularity of bicycles and the demand for smoother roads. Later, cars would continue the push for better roads. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Apr 22 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ You are correct that ancient roads weren't good enough, but they could have made them good enough if there were sufficient reason. Roman highways already had fairly sophisticated drainage systems $\endgroup$ Apr 22 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ The Romans definitely knew how to keep roads safe from water damage. We can't be completely sure how smooth their roads were back in the day. I daresay the better ones were pretty smooth as that's also a big advantage for horse carriages. They certainly had the ability to make concrete surfaces that would have been suitable for bicycles even without pneumatic tyres. And dry, well-maintained dirt roads would have worked too; the reason we know dirt roads as so bumpy is that any indentation quickly gets deeper with wetness and fast-moving wheels going through them - not an issue back then. $\endgroup$ Apr 22 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ ...but yeah, a bike with solid tyres could never be comfortable, so would have only be used out of necessity. But when speed was needed horses would win, when load capacity was needed carriages would win, and when money was scarce feet would win, so it's indeed dubious what niche a bicycle could have filled. $\endgroup$ Apr 22 at 22:06
  • $\begingroup$ @leftaroundabout as far as I remember, Romans specifically complained about their roads, especially city roads, being bumpy to ride on. If you look at the preserved Roman roads from places like Pompei, they have big enough gaps between cobblestones to fit your hand in. This was a feature not a bug, it improved drainage, at the cost of discomfort to carts. Hence why Romans used litters so often. Roman roads COULD be made bike-friendly at great difficulty and expense, but not all of them, and only for specific reasons, like maybe special bike lanes for Imperial couriers. $\endgroup$ Apr 24 at 6:58
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If you have access to iron but no rubber, Bicycle is still possible but without pneumatic tyres it'll be a pain in the ass.

A much simpler mode of transport you can get but is not a bicycle is Chukudu, a wooden kick scooter. While not exactly a bicycle these can go anywhere bicycles are supposed to except uphill.

Chukudu YouTube video

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