Bikes - A Technological Revolution

One of the SpokeSafe team has been diligently ploughing their way through the fairly dense Capital in the Twenty-First Century, written by Thomas Piketty and published in 2013. Although largely focussed on the relationship between income and wealth inequality, and indeed originally published in French (not said team members strong point so the English translation is much appreciated), we were delighted to hear about a bike related reference that we found intriguing. So much so that we thought we would share it with you.

So here goes.

According to Piketty, in order to analyse the increases in standards of living since the Industrial Revolution it is necessary to look at income levels in todays currency relative to price levels for key goods and services over various periods. In other words, how much of something can we buy for £1 today relative to other periods. For some items, like a kilogram of potatoes, this is a relatively simple exercise. But for other goods, particularly manufactured goods, this is quite complex because of “radically new goods and improvements in performance.”

One example of this that probably springs to mind immediately is the advancement of computers and mobile phones. According to Piketty, here we have witnessed a tenfold increase in purchasing power in a very short period of time as prices have halved and performance has increased by a factor of five.

To us that made complete sense - despite their addictive nature and propensity for misuse, they are nonetheless quite astonishing feats of engineering.

What we were slightly more surprised to learn was that the development of the bicycle followed a very similar arc. In France in the 1880’s the cheapest version of a bike would set the average worker back about six months of wages. And by cheap were talking a bike which “had wheels covered with just a strip of solid rubber and only one brake that pressed directly against the front rim.”

Technological progress however drove this cost down to one months salary by 1910, and by 1960 you could cop a quality bike (one with a “detachable wheel, two brakes, chain and mud guards, saddle bags, lights and reflector”) for less than a weeks average wage.

When its all said and done, and ignoring the vast improvement in quality, the purchasing power of a bike rose by a factor of 40 between 1890 and 1970!

So there you have it. Bicycles, better bang for your buck than a mobile phone and at a fraction of the price.