Category Archives: bicycles

152: David Hounshell’s American System

In From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932, David Hounshell takes a materialist, history of technology approach to the history of American industrialization.  Tracing American manufacturing from federal armories to civilian gunmakers, clockmakers, bicycle manufacturers and automakers, Hounshell examines the complex and often non-linear process by which American manufacturing moved from standardized, interchangeable parts to the Fordist system of mass production.  By focusing on technological development instead of social change, he overturns several long-held interpretations of this history, including processes of technological change, the economic forces driving mass production, and the definition of mass production itself.

Americans were using relatively interchangeable parts to manufacture standardized goods like window frames, guns, clocks, locks, and furniture in the early 19th century, but true interchangeability, where parts could be subbed out for another part with no reworking, was first achieved in federal armories, who had far more money to play with than did their civilian counterparts.  This “armory practice”diffused to other companies when mechanics left the armories to work at Singer Sewing Machines, McCormick Reaper Works, or Pope bicycles, but armory practice didn’t readily translate, partly because company owners and skilled craftsmen resisted (especially at Singer) and partly because true interchangeability, which at that point involved jigs, gauges, and fixtures as well as special purpose machine tools, could be pricey.  However, all three companies lurched toward armory practice in an effort to meet rising demand by reducing rework/ assembly time.  In the late 19th century, Ford began combining armory practice, the bicycle industry’s pressed steel, inflexible, single-purpose machinery, and moving assembly lines into a new mass production system, but even he proceeded by fits and starts, so that the apex of mass production was only realized in the River Rouge plant – and then at a time when mass production was no longer the best business model.

Throughout, Hounshell details the genealogical process by which individual people diffused armory practices through American metalworking industries, and he traces this history not through the feats of heroic inventors and designers but through the mistakes and experiments of ordinary people.  He shows empirically that demand drove production in the 19th century, not the other way around, though demand was at least partly driven by advertising and marketing.  He also discusses regional variation in production techniques, as when New England bike manufacturers prefer welding/ forging, while Midwestern manufacturers prefer stamping, and shows how techniques in one industry filter into another, so that Ford’s location in the Midwest, for instance, influenced his choice to use metal stamping rather than welding.  And finally, Hounshell uses a history of technology approach – focusing on technology and asking how – rather than a social history approach – looking at social formations and asking why – which allows him to penetrate American manufacturing in detail without worrying about causality until he has the material evidence in hand.

While Hounshell’s account would have benefited from further discussion of labor, this book is otherwise an incredibly thorough and wonderfully materialist history of American manufacturing.

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139: Wiebe Bijker’s Bicycles, Bakelites and Bulbs

In Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change, Wiebe Bijker uses cases studies on the development of the bicycle, Bakelite, and GE’s fluorescent lamp to show that technologies have politics, but like society, they are socially constructed; “artifacts are not only shaped by the power strategies of social groups but also form the micropolitics of power, constituting power strategies and solidifying power relations.”  Power relationships materialize in technologies, and the technologies themselves become embedded in politics, so exploring the social construction of particular technologies reveals the politics of technology and the relationship between technology and power.

Each of Bijker’s three case studies reveals a piece of his theory of sociotechnical change:

With the bicycle, Bijker shows how technological change is actually a social process, so the context of the invention and the meanings applied by social groups had more of an impact on the bicycle’s design than did its intrinsic technological specifications.  Relevant social groups assigned meanings that favored some designs over others, and the bicycle’s interpretive flexibility meant that particular designs “worked” while others didn’t largely because they had been accepted by relevant social groups.  Once a particular design (the Safety bicycle) was accepted by a majority of people, bicycle design had achieved closure, and both design and meaning became stabilized.

With Bakelite, Bijker shows how even technologies that seem to come from “unique individual ingenuity and creativity” are actually linked to larger sociocultural processes.  Bakelite developed out of a particular “technological frame,” a configuration of knowledge, goals, values, and artifacts that is structured by social, economic, scientific, and technological conditions, all of which went into the invention itself.  In order to understand the politics of a technology and the structure of creativity, we need to take a contextualist approach and embed the inventor in his social context.

Bijker uses the development of the GE fluorescent lamp to discuss power for constructivists.  Power is an explanandum that has two aspects: a semiotic aspect that focuses on fixing an artifact’s meanings in a particular way, and a micropolitical aspect that focuses on the interactions among relevant social groups in a technological frame.  Explaining or revealing power structures helps explain the political order of a particular combination of technology and society, so that the technological artifact is like a material incarnation of a particular power configuration.

Bijker then uses the concepts from these case studies to argue for a liberatory technopolitics.  Instead of a divide between society and technology, he posits a single sociotechnical ensemble, a bundle of machines, artifacts, and social formations where the technical is always socially constructed and the social is always technically constructed.  While he has no answer for how an understanding of sociotechnical politics can lead to a more democratic culture, he hopes that revealing the structures of power can help humans locate sites of agency.

on sex, love, and bicycles!

Back in high school, when we were busy making fun of our English teacher’s strange fascination with sexuality in Death in Venice, I was pretty sure that that particular brand of repression would never be me.  And for the haze of bicycles, booze, boys, retail, and the occasional feminist tract that was my twenties, it definitely wasn’t.  But fast forward about ten years and swing on down to Austin (recently rated the horniest city in the US) and, with my partying years (mostly) behind me, here I am just another overworked, undersexed, highly caffeinated grad student who spends a disproportionate amount of time reading, writing, and thinking about representations of sex and sexuality.  And bicycles.  Did I mention the bicycles?
Austin is a great bike city.  Just in the three years I’ve lived here, we’ve added hundreds of miles of bike lanes, paved miles of new paths, and added on-street bike parking all over the city.  It’s gorgeous and sunny for the vast majority of the year.  We have a long history of bike-friendliness, too: the oldest bike lanes in the city date back to the 1970s, our first Critical Mass rides were in 1994, just a couple of years after the movement started in San Francisco, and the Yellow Bike Project has been going strong since 1997.  We have Lance.  We have social rides, bike polo, bike artists, and nearly fifty bike shops. 
And, most importantly, we have a shit ton of cyclists. 
In the early mornings, swarms of spandex-clad riders pedal through the streets, angry bee sounds marking their trim, fit passage to the country roads to the south.  A few hours later, UT’s five thousand bike commuters compete with rush hour traffic on their way to class and work.  By mid-afternoon, the guy with the hot gear ratio (seriously, it must be 53-13!) is holding court at the coffeeshop where he works and where I sit grading papers or reading.  And on hot summer nights, hundreds of pedicabbers troll the streets for fares, sweat pouring down their chests, their massive thighs straining against the fabri-
Oh.  Right.  Sorry.  It’s just that, well… bicycles.  The grad student in me might be overworked and undersexed, but god damn if the cyclist in me isn’t psyched every single day to be living in a city with such a thriving bike culture and so many bicycling bodies.  
Is there anything hotter than the bicycling body? 
I can’t imagine being attracted to someone who doesn’t ride at least as much as I do.  This is partly because after so many years of being car-free, I don’t like riding in cars, I don’t like having to wait at the top of every hill for some dude who purportedly “likes bikes,” and I especially don’t like having to defend my choice to ride three miles rather than stuff my pride into a hermetically-sealed, gas-guzzling steel bubble every time we go somewhere.  But the deeper reason I love being with other bike riders is that with fellow cyclists, I don’t get the uncomfortable asymmetry of a man who doesn’t ride complimenting me on my body which “must be because you bike.”  Fuck you, dude.  Did you notice that I said the bicycling body, not the bicyclist’s body, or were you too busy staring at my ass?  I know bicycling means different things to different people, but to me it means a process, a way of living in the world, and an appreciation for – and dedication to – the incredible power, adaptability, and self-sufficiency of the human body, regardless of gender.  And even though there are more of us than there were when I started riding, my inner idealist likes to think that fellow cyclists, especially us old-school folks, still understand that being a bike in a car’s world is more than a little like being a woman in a man’s world.
The thighs aren’t half bad, either.

marilyn monroe as lillian russell

From a thread on The Chainlink: A Chicago Bicycling Online Community begun by David Travis, Richard Avedon’s lovely image of Marilyn Monroe posing as Lillian Russell on a bicycle.

Labor and food historian Harvey Levenstein writes in Revolution at the Table that “Stage star Lillian Russell, ‘airy, fairy, Lillian, the American beauty’ – after whom America’s favorite rose was named – whose hourglass (while corsetted) figure with its ample hips and very full bosom was the late nineteenth-century ideal, weighed about two hundred pounds.” Even better, “her enormous appetite was almost as legendary as her beauty.” (13)  She apparently also created spectacles of the two-wheeled variety.  Monroe, Some Like it Hot notwithstanding, apparently never topped 140.  She produced spectacles no less beautiful, but of a smaller, more tragic sort.

We learn to ride a bicycle without a manual of physics; formal knowledge of the balance of forces may even be a handicap.

Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977, p 200.

There are illegibilities of the layered depths in a single place, of ruses in action and of historical accidents.  The writing of these evocations is sketched out, ironically and fleetingly, in graffiti, as if the bicycle painted on a wall, the insignia of a common transit, detached itself and made itself available for indeterminate tours.

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, p 200

5 takes on women and bicycles

Back in 2004, inspired by my friend Emily Wismer, I traded my car for a bicycle, and eight years, six cities, and thousands of miles later, I think it’s safe to say that I think riding a bike is pretty sweet.  I’m rarely stuck in a traffic jam, I get front-row parking pretty much wherever I go, and hey, I get me some exercise and a little daily sunshine, too, especially here in Austin.  In these enlightened times, it’s generally pretty awesome to be a lady cyclist, too, especially with more and more shops hiring female mechanics (thank you, Ozone and The Peddler!), more companies making women-specific gear, and folks like Mia Birk, Georgena Terry, and Shelley Jackson leading the charge in making cycling more accessible to everyone, including women.

But gender and bicycles can easily become complicated, too, and not just in a turn-of-the-century dress reform kind of way.  Back in the 1980s and 90s, technophiles like Donna Haraway argued that technology was going to be the great equalizer, as though somehow the right combination of wheels and gears and metal tubing could erase centuries of gender inequality.  As far as bikes go, that hasn’t happened – not yet, anyway.  But, with more and more lady cyclists moving into what has so far been a male-dominated technological domain, the bicycle is beginning to raise some questions about gender, female sexuality, and what it means to be a lady on two wheels.  Below, five very interesting answers to these questions.

1. Elly Blue, Taking the Lane

Elly Blue is a bike activist in Portland who writes about – and advocates for – the need for more bike-friendly (and less misogynistic) cities.  Her zine, Taking the Lane, draws clear parallels between being a cyclist in a car’s world and being a woman in a man’s world.  In its very first issue, Taking the Lane ranges from road rage and grassroots organizing to fat bias and the condescension women often have to endure from male bike shop employees.  Blue argues that women cyclists as both women and cyclists are doubly discriminated against, and that only by working together can we end both gender and transportation inequality.   I find her writing style intense and thought-provoking and her militancy refreshing – especially since so many of her examples hit very close to home.

2. Peter Zheutlin’s Around the World on Two Wheels and Gillian Klempner Willman’s The New Woman: Annie Londonderry

Gillian Willman’s film builds on Peter Zheutlin’s long-awaited Around the World on Two Wheels, which tells the story of Annie Londonderry, the first woman to bike around the world.  Back at the turn of the last century, Annie Londonderry (who was actually Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a 23-year old Jewish mother of 3 from Boston), rode a Columbia bicycle around the world in 15 months – and made $5000 in the process. The whole thing was a publicity stunt, but Willman and Zheutlin both focus less on that than on the impact Londonderry’s journey had on women’s rights.  She left her home, husband, and kids.  She wore pants.  She sold pictures of herself.  She rented space on her body and her bike to advertisers.  She rode a bicycle, and she worked it. Capitalism, feminism, and bicycles all in one place.  The horror!  

3. Rebecca “Lambchop” Reilly


Portable Portrait: REBECCA REILLY (1995) from Rachel Strickland on Vimeo.

Rebecca Reilly is the stuff of legend.  Not only was she a female courier in the 1990s when there were barely any female couriers to speak of, a badass fixed-gear rider by many (many) accounts, and a woman who insisted she only wanted to be treated the same as a man; she also spent eight years traveling around the United States, working as a courier in Chicago, Houston, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, DC, Boston, and New York, and collecting hundreds of oral histories from the couriers she met along the way.  In 2000, she compiled many of these stories into Nerves of Steel, an incredible 300-page rollercoaster ride through the US bike messenger scene in the 90s.  The above video is from Rachel Strickland’s Portable Effects project; I could talk for hours about the relationship between bicycles and femininity in it.  (I’ve written a little more extensively about Reilly here.)

4.  The Dropout‘s Bike Taxi Babes calendar

Back in January 2010, I managed to sneak into a photo shoot for The Dropout‘s first bike pin-up spread, and being a good (if idealistic) feminist, I spent the rest of that semester trying to fit that night – and the photographs that eventually made it into the magazine – into some semblance of third-wave feminism.  It was Elly, actually, who pointed out that not every pin-up has to be feminist, and bikes don’t automatically lead to feminist liberation.  (Thanks, Elly.)  With that in mind, I’m fascinated by The Dropout‘s latest project, the Bike Taxi Babes.  As far as I know, the ladies pictured are all pedicabbers, and the calendar has more of the flavor of burlesque than pornography; The Dropout is a pedicab-community organ, and the project is a resolutely for-profit venture.  I can’t even begin to talk about how this complicates what it means to be a female cyclist.

5.  Rick Darge’s Bike ❤


bike ♥ from Rick Darge on Vimeo.

Rick Darge is a cinematographer who has worked with, oh, I don’t know, LCD Soundsystem, Fritos, and Dell, and his video is pretty incredible in its ability to tell a story and capture complex emotions without the main character uttering a single word.  The Robert Johnston is a nice touch, too.  But while I love this video for its composition, the one thing that truly stands out to me is how adolescently girly it is: how young and innocent Dee looks, how much the camera loves her sweet eyes and hair, how her delicate lace and lingerie contrast with her black socks and Vans.  Her love for her bicycle, like Dee herself, is stuck somewhere between childhood innocence and full-grown lady.  So what, does she have to cast off all two-wheeled childish things to become a woman?  I guess it is a bit tricky to ride a bike in heels…

… or is it?