Monday, July 3, 2017

History Lesson: Bicycles (and their patents)

Ever since the evolution of human bipedalism, Homo sapiens have had a need for speed.  While animals were used as a placeholder for this desire for centuries, the resources required to maintain an animal were generally seen as a shortcoming and the need for speed was not satisfied.  An early solution included penny farthings.  Those brave enough could climb atop the bike and ride at speeds generally faster than the average human before inevitably crashing.  The public generally disliked this feature of the farthing and it was not well adopted.  Then came the Rover safety bicycle (1885), which provided a lower riding height and was the first bicycle to most closely resemble bikes on the road today due to its chain.  It was widely accepted and from there the bicycle revolution began.

The bike maintained its popularity until mass production techniques and increased wages allowed the masses to buy cars, which occurred around the late 1950s to early 1960s.  Suddenly, bicycles became a poor man’s vehicle.  Governments began designing motorways with only the automobile in mind, thinking bicycles were now obsolete.  However, the shortsighted-ness of this planning was illuminated during the fuel crisis of 1973 where a bicycle renaissance occurred.  Unlike internally combusting vehicles, a rider powered the bicycle with no intervening devices, making it especially climate friendly with the added benefit of zero lead emissions.  For many cyclists, bicycles began to represent freedom.  Bicycles became cool again.
Bicycles today remain an incredibly versatile invention.  With the need for speed being perpetually unfulfilled, improvements to bicycles continue.  Lighter and stronger materials, adjustable ride heights, improved braking systems, and electronic and/or fluidly actuated gear shifting mechanisms are all steps taken to increase a cyclist’s ability to displace power onto the road.
While many cycling purists believe the simplicity of the bicycle to be its greatest element, many bicycle manufacturers receive inspiration from their combustion-engine counterparts.  For example, automatic transmission technology from automobiles has influenced bicycle gear shifting technology as demonstrated by U.S. Patent No. 5,059,158, which is directed to automatic gear shifting mechanisms based on a selected cadence. To accommodate portions of the market intimidated by complete self-propulsion, bicycles are being fitted with batteries and other electric assistance technologies. The electronic gadgetry does not end there; other technologies being pursued by various manufacturers, as evidenced by patent filings, include bicycle coaching systems (U.S. 2009/0270689) and communication between a bicycle and a vehicle to predict a collision based on trajectories of the bicycle and vehicle (U.S. 2016/0086489).
It appears gears are shifting to the computerization of bicycles, much to the chagrin of hardcore cyclists.  Some areas to explore may include predictive bicycle technologies (for example, monitoring a cyclist’s surroundings and applying brakes, steering assistance, and the like) and internet of things (IoT) bicycle technology including communication between cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians (for example, relaying road conditions including traffic, potholes, weather, glass, and the like based on user inputs and computer inputs).  Additionally, improvements to bicycle safety and theft prevention are ubiquitously appreciated by the biking community.  Resources spent in innovation and patent protection in any of these areas may be money well spent.  However, any time and money spent on a timeless invention such as the bicycle is well spent, so leave the car in the garage, save some gas, and go out for a ride in the countryside where your next epiphany awaits you.
Arsalan Zolfaghari is a guest contributor on Outdoors IP. He works as a technical specialist for McCoy Russell LLP. 


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