“What did they have in the 19th century? They had horses, they had carriages and they had their own feet,” said Margaret Schelsinger, curator of the exhibit, as groups of school children dashed from a velocipede to a high wheel at a preview earlier this week.
She said that bicycles revolutionized the way the mail was delivered and people got to work, but the it went through some bizarre permutations before arriving at what we now recognize.
“The idea of this exhibit is to highlight this very personal machine,” Schelsinger said. “I don’t want to show people something they see all the time.”
The museum has pulled nine early prototype bikes from its collection and amassed a sampling of specialized contemporary bikes for the exhibit.
The exhibit starts with an 1818 walking machine, a forerunner to the bicycle that has no seat or pedals, but does have the iconic dual wheels.
“You didn’t straddle it,” Schelsinger said. “It’s almost like a scooter — almost like a push pedal.”
Many of the historic bicycles have not been on display at the museum in over two decades, Schelsinger said.
The exhibit walks visitors through the transition from bicycles being the sport of gentlemen at the velodrome racing velocipedes with their iconic giant wheel and tiny wheel arrangement to wooden bikes that opened the machine to the masses.
In the 1880s, a bicycle cost the equivalent of an average worker’s yearly salary, Schelsinger said. By the beginning of the 20th Century, a wood-frame bike cost about a month’s wages, she said.
At the end of the exhibit, Schelsinger has the newest in affordable bikes, a cardboard bike by Israeli engineer Izhar Gafni that costs about $30.
The exhibit on 200 years of bicycle innovations is included with general admission.