Editor’s Note: Richard W. Bulliet is professor of history emeritus at Columbia University and author of “The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions” (Columbia University Press, January 2016). The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Hoverboards, which have become a craze, are illegal in the United Kingdom and banned in New York
Richard Bulliet: Bans or no bans, it's hard to keep a new wheel idea down
Hoverboards – the two-wheeled self-balancing vehicles that are fast becoming a craze – are illegal in the United Kingdom and banned in New York City.
So that settles that. Or does it?
Over a century ago, Britain and various U.S. states passed “red flag” laws to stifle the automobile craze. Parliament stipulated in 1865 that when a self-propelled vehicle was in motion, a person had to precede it “on foot by not less than sixty yards, and shall carry a red flag constantly displayed, and shall warn the riders and drivers of horses of the approach of such locomotives.” Vehicle speed was limited to four miles an hour.
Thirty years later in Pennsylvania, a visionary governor had the sense to veto a unanimously passed law requiring drivers to stop their cars on encountering cattle or livestock, “immediately and as rapidly as possible … disassemble the automobile,” and “conceal the various components out of sight, behind nearby bushes” until the animals calmed down.
Lessons from hindsight? It’s hard to keep a new wheel idea down.
Electric gyroscopes, the core element of self-balancing vehicles, have been with us for a century. But applications to missile guidance during the Cold War made them smaller, more durable and faster. Dean Kamen, the inventor son of a Mad Magazine illustrator, adapted these advances to personal transport and patented the Segway in 2001.
Despite the hoopla that greeted its initial rollout, the Segway scooter did not overturn our notions of personal transport. But it did stimulate other inventors, particularly in East Asia, to think about self-stabilizing scooters that would be lighter, cheaper and jazzier than the heavy, stolid Segway.
Voilà! The 2015 craze for Chinese-made hoverboards.
Has there ever been anything like it? In fact, yes. The wheel itself was not a widespread and immediate success when it was invented in the fourth millennium BC. For most purposes, it was too heavy, too hard to steer and offered too little advantage over putting a load on the back of a donkey.
But once animals began to fade from the transport scene, vehicles that put the emphasis on human skill and muscle power excited waves of invention. In 1817, Baron Karl Christian Ludwig Drais von Sauerbronn invented a velocipede, or draisine, that looked like a bicycle without pedals. The rider straddled the frame and propelled it with his feet on the ground, coasting once he got up sufficient speed.
A Frenchman – historians disagree about which one – added the pedals in 1864, and the bicycle was born, an invention that would fascinate thousands of innovators, including Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers, over the next century and a half.
On the other side of the globe, three entrepreneurs in Japan invented the rickshaw in 1869.
This light, human-pulled passenger cart mounted on elliptical leaf springs swept like wildfire through the country and then had a similar impact on Shanghai, Singapore, Beijing and the major cities of India. Urban life was transformed in these places by the efficient and speedy (pullers usually ran) way of getting around.
Though the bicycle appealed to wealthy exercisers who lobbied local governments to install smoother paving and reserve certain paths for their use, the rickshaw was pulled by men who were largely migrants from the countryside or abroad. Rickshaw-pulling resembled early mill work in Europe. It offered an entry into urban life for people with few technical skills. As with factory work, rickshaw-pulling brought with it the exploitation of workers, labor organization and strikes.
The two inventions transformed their respective societies and evolved in unpredictable directions. When a New York City tourist on a Citibike passes another being pedaled around Central Park in a pedicab, we see but two of the long-term impacts of these inventions.
So far, the Segway has given rise to the hoverboard. But this is only the beginning of the story. Bans or no bans, it is hard to imagine where the hoverboard industry and its likely offshoots will be 10 years from now.
All that can safely be predicted on the basis of the long history of wheels in human society is that we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. There’s just no limit to human ingenuity.