We know for sure that bicycles weren’t invented in India. Then how did they come to India? What impact did bicycles have on the lives of average Indians? These are the questions we are going to answer in the following: The most verifiable version of the bicycle was first invented by a German Baron, Karl Von Drais in 1817. Post this; it almost took 70 years for the bicycle to reach India. The concept was introduced to us by the British, who wished to exploit the Indian market, which they had colonized. Going back to Karl Von, and what he built – He called his bicycle, the “Running Machine,” and “Hobby Horse.” Don’t get misled by the name. The Running Machine was in effect quiet a primitive version of the modern bicycle. It was the first vehicle with two wheels made of wood and a steering handlebar, which looked much like a modern handlebar.
Like several other machines that Karl Drais had invented in his time, the Hobby Horse was not born out of sheer curiosity, but he actually built it to solve one of the direst problems then. In the early 1810s, a bad harvest had resulted into mass starvation and subsequent slaughtering of thousands of horses. Because horses were an important mode of transportation, people needed an alternate to the horseback, which lead to the invention of the bicycle. Over the next 60 years, the bicycle had been upgraded several times. In 1884, Thomas Stevens, began with his world trip on what was called the Penny—Farthing. A penny farthing was a typical early bicycle with a large front wheel and a much smaller rare wheel.
By this time around, the Britishers had already colonized India, and explored its potential as a market for the goods they made. The bicycle had also undergone a big change. They had now transformed the Farthing into a “safety bicycle.” They were safer than the high wheelers, and size of both wheels was more or less the same.
A decade later, bicycles arrived in India in large numbers. In 1890’s British manufacturers such as BSA, Rudge and Raleigh had started exporting bicycles to India. According to a book authored by David Arnold and Erich DeWald (Cycles of Empowerment? The Bicycle and Everyday Technology in Colonial India and Vietnam), around 35,000 bicycles were imported by India in 1910. By 1940, the import amount had increased to 70,000 bicycles and in 1950s, they recorded an import of 2, 00,000 bicycles. In late 1800s, bicycles were only found in hill stations, where they were used by Europeans and Parsis. However, the two-wheeler soon found its way into most Indian cities.
By this time India as a society was changing under the influence of several European inventions. Smaller objects had already become useful for completing everyday tasks, or for completing them more efficiently. Not only was railways churning lives around, smaller technologies like bicycles, sewing machines, and typewriters were also changing the way we worked and conducted our everyday lives. At the end of the century, bicycle became an integral part of the Indian middle class. Not only did the bicycle made people more self-reliant, they lend people a healthier image, one that uplifted their social status as well. Within a short time, cycling clubs came up. The first one came up in Calcutta. We’re talking about the 1890s, and during this clubs were there for both Indians as well as Europeans. The Europeans always had an eye for exploring, and influenced Indians with new ideas. By 1910s, bicycle races and touring had also become popular. Many young middle class students from Calcutta took to the bicycle and started touring the countryside. Paris were particularly interested in the art of cycling. In the 1920s, three young Parsis from the Bombay Wrestling Club cycled around the world in an epic four year journey. So far bicycles had only had only been the thing for Indian males. Some even saw the bicycle as a tool to invigorate masculinity. Especially, Bengali men, who were often stereotyped as being more “effeminate,” started using cycling as a means to promote self image of being independent and more virile. In the Parsi community also, the older men started promoting bicycling because of their concern for reproductive problems in males. For women, the bicycle also served a serious purpose. For the first time, they could explore freedom by becoming more mobile, even if it was within a limited region. Not only this, schoolgirls and female college students gained access to educational opportunities, especially in the cities. But, in the villages, cycling was initially restricted to the male populace alone. Men deliberately controlled bicycling to retain a woman’s physical and social mobility.
An Old BSA ad, from the book, Cycles of Empowerment? The Bicycle and Everyday Technology in Colonial India and Vietnam by David Arnold and Erich DeWald