Use, repair, copy, make: Tim Harford on bicycles and technological development in Japan

In a recent episode of 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy Tim Harford uses the bicycle to illustrate – among other things – how new technologies and industries grow out of old ones, and how technology and industries develop:

The first safety bicycle was made in 1885 at the Rover factory in Coventry, England. It’s no coincidence that Rover went on to become a major player in the car industry. The progression from making bikes to making cars was obvious.

The bicycle provided stepping stones for modernising Japanese industry too. The first step was the importing to Tokyo of Western bikes around 1890. Then, it became useful to establish bicycle repair shops. The next step was to begin making spares locally, not too much trouble for a skilled mechanic. Before long, all the ingredients existed to make the bicycles in Tokyo itself, in around 1900. By the outbreak of the second world war, Japan was making more than a million bikes a year, masterminded by a new class of businessmen.

Tim HarfordBicycle Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy

Rover wasn’t the only car company to start out making bicycles: Peugeot, Opel and Skoda – and a few more listed here.

Funnily enough, I can’t find any clear examples of bicycle companies making this leap in Japan. Soichiro  Honda’s dad was a blacksmith-turned-bicycle repair man, and early Honda made motors for bicycles, and Toyota and Suzuki started out in the textile industry.

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