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Gary Smith

Tesla May Be Driving Itself Out of the Running

The British bicycle bubble of the 1800s should signal caution for the EV maker’s stock as rival car companies catch up with technology.

Fueling bubbles.

Fueling bubbles.

Photographer: Andy Cross/Denver Post via Getty Images

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Early bicycles came in a variety of sizes, shapes and styles, and they had colorful nicknames. The “dandy horse” had no pedals and was propelled by the rider’s feet pushing the ground — essentially wheel-assisted walking. The “penny farthing” had pedals, but the rider sat above a huge front wheel that dwarfed the tiny back wheel — similar to the size difference between the British penny and farthing coins. “Boneshaker” bicycles had iron and wood wheels that were ill-suited for rough terrain. What they all had in common was that they were uncomfortable, unsafe and expensive.

In the late 1800s, a series of technological innovations led to “safety bicycles” that had two identical wheels, a chain drive, a diamond frame and inflatable tires. The British public embraced the safety, comfort and cost of these improved bicycles. Middle-class Brits who could not afford a horse or horse and carriage were now able to travel conveniently through cities and far into the countryside — even over bad roads. Bicycles were also environmentally friendly, offering an inexpensive solution to what became known as “the great horse manure crisis of 1894,” a reference to the fact that the horses transporting people and goods were overwhelming cities with foul-smelling, disease-spreading droppings.