100 year-old State of the Art & Industry: Bianchi Model 1912:

Byron recently posted an aged picture of two men with bicycles strapped to their back. I recognized the photo from somewhere as being WWI Italian soldiers, and in my net search to verify I came across the webpage of The BSA & Military Bicycle Museum. One hundred years ago, shortly before Serbian nationalists assassinated Franz Ferdinand, this Bianchi Model 1912 was ordered by the Italian military to equip their Bersaglieri, or light infantry units with an emphasis on high mobility. At the time, Bianchi made 45,000 bicycles, 1,500 motorcycles, and 1,000 cars yearly. This Model 1912 was a fairly ambitious design, incorporating front and rear suspension on a folding frame. After WWI, Italia expanded the number of bicycle troops as part of tactical commitment to mobile warfare (as opposed to the stalemate of WWI trench warfare), though those divisions converted to motorization before WWII.

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BSA Bicycles were a well-known, quality brand in the United Kingdom from the beginning of the bicycle until the company sold bicycle assets to Raleigh TI in the mid-1950s. The company came about from the consolidation of several munitions factories in Birmingham that came together to meet a critical British shortage during the Crimean War, eventually selling rifles to a handful of countries. In 1880 with military arms sales flagging, the Birmingham Small Arms Company diversified into bicycles since the industrial processes of guns and bicycles apparently had a lot in common. BSA’s bicycles introduced many innovations that paved the way for cycling’s popularity, while simultaneously serving as a critical supplier of military arms during the two world wars. Besides guns & cannons, bullets & bombs, bikes & bike parts, BSA seemingly had a role in every British machine that moved in the first half of the 20th century, including Daimler (autos, engines), Triumph (motorcycles), and de Havilland (aircraft).

BSA’s story bears similarity to that of Spanish cycle manufacturer Orbea, which also had a start in small arms in 1840 before building bicycles. Orbea’s transition to bicycles had more to do with Fascist dictator Franco’s policy of dismantling regional autonomy and arms production; the Basque company was prohibited from manufacturing weapons during the 1930s.

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It is often said that bicycles today are soul-less products for mass consumption, but perhaps we are deluding ourselves if we romanticize the history of the bicycle. If we can only approve of a bicycle if is handcrafted in some one-man shop, then we should admit that we want luxury artisanal goods. Bicycles are as much an industrial product as automobiles, aircraft, sewing machines, and machine guns.



2 Comments

Those were all built by hand too ... in the Industrial Age.

Byron is alluding to his post that compared the hand assembly of electronics in Asia to bicycle production, and how the adjective “handbuilt” that is often conferred to premium bicycles implicitly condescends that mass-produced bicycles of today are produced solely by automated processes. 

In fact, all bicycles require some degree of handwork; they are not squirted out of some wondrous bicycle extruder. However, it is not uncommon in the construction of large numbers of steel bicycles to use processes like hearth brazing, in which a number of frames or components are loaded into a fixture to be simultaneously brazed. So of course, mass production does incorporate methods that reduce the need for labour; that is the essence of mass-production.

To be precise, what I am talking about is not the semantics of individual joining operations, but rather the perception that mass-produced bikes somehow detract from the spirit of cycling.  This may sound odd coming from someone who actually works in a business centered on tailor-made frames, but cycling did not become a part of the daily lives of billions of people because a few artisans who decided to build frames after they discovered that they had room in their garage for a lathe and some welding tanks.

The bicycle is a product of the Industrial Age, even more it was a product that drove the world towards industrialization.  Bicycle production laid the foundations for the automobile and aviation industries, led to pneumatic tires, annular bearings, etc.

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