The swift rise of sport between 1875 and 1900 paralleled the immense changes in American society. The Golden Age of Invention saw the appearance of the telephone, electric light, Linotype, Kodak camera, portable typewriter and the Zipper and, not entirely coincidentally, it also saw the first running of the Kentucky Derby, the introduction of lawn tennis from England, the first Harvard-Yale football game, the founding of baseball's National League, the start of Richard K. Fox's Police Gazette, the introduction of polo, the founding of the Appalachian Club in the East and the Sierra Club in the West, the first Westminster Kennel Club dog show, the first National Horse Show, the founding of the American Canoe Association and the National Archery Association, the reign of Heavyweight Boxing Champion John L. Sullivan (who with his size and swagger helped set the style for the American hero, sport or folk—Paul Bunyan, Dempsey, Ruth, Tarzan of the Apes, Hemingway), the start of the summer camp movement by Ernest B. Balch, the beginnings of the country club, the founding of the National Croquet Association, the first ski club, the first playground (a pile of sand in the yard of a Boston children's mission), the first national trapshooting tournament, the founding of the Audubon Society and the Amateur Athletic Union, Walter Camp's first All-America, the first gloved championship fight, the founding of the Boone and Crockett Club (by Theodore Roosevelt, who was elected its first president), the start of the sports page (by Hearst in his war of yellow journalism with Pulitzer), the founding of the United States Golf Association, the introduction of ice hockey from Canada, the first American automobile race (sponsored by Chicago's new Times-Herald, eager for circulation), the opening of Madison Square Garden, the start of the Frank Merriwell saga, the founding of the Western Conference (the Big Ten), the first automobile show and the start of Davis Cup play. Perhaps there is no better numerical index to the sweep of sport than the story of A. G. Spalding & Bros. Inc., which was begun in 1876 with a capitalization of $800. By the turn of the century Spalding's gross sales were $5 million annually. In 1892 Spalding officials laughed when a salesman named Julian Curtiss returned with $400 worth of golf equipment from England. But by 1900 golf had become a substantial part of Spalding's business, and the company brought Harry Vardon, the leading English pro, over for a tour to publicize the gutta-percha ball. (As befits such a tale, Curtiss later became chairman of the board.)
All in all, sport had gained sufficient place in society to begin feeding back ideas and techniques, however ephemeral. Leland Stanford bet a friend $25,000 that all a trotter's hoofs left the ground simultaneously during its gait, and he hired an eccentric photographer named Eadweard Muybridge to prove his point. Using a battery of 24 cameras, Muybridge not only proved Stanford correct but also laid the basis for motion-picture photography. Frederick W. Taylor, the father of scientific management in business, found in golf and tennis "the value of the minute analysis of motions, the importance of methodical selection and training, the worth of time study and of standards based on rigorously exact observation." (His only lament was that American and English workmen didn't display the same fervor in the factory as they did on the athletic field.) When Marconi sought money to perfect his wireless, James Gordon Bennett Jr. paid him $5,000 to get it ready to report the finish of the America's Cup race in 1899.
Nothing in sport made a more important contribution, social or technical, than the bicycle. The impact it had seems almost unbelievable. "It is safe to say," wrote an official of the census bureau in 1900, "that few articles ever used by man have created so great a revolution as the bicycle." Invented in primitive form in 1818 by Baron Freiherr von Drais, a Prussian forester, it attracted little attention in the U.S. until the exhibition of some improved French machines at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876. Then the craze took hold. In the late evenings Bennett Jr. wheeled around the block as his butler waited on the sidewalk, holding a bottle of brandy on a tray. A school with uniformed instructors taught Wall Street brokers how to pedal to band music, and Thomas Stevens of California rode a bicycle around the world. Although the Women's Rescue League warned that all lady cyclists would be invalids within a decade, Miss Frances Willard, the temperance leader, was so enthusiastic she penned A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle. A magazine of the day hailed the bicycle as "a step towards the emancipation of woman from her usually too inactive indoor life." (There was truth in this remark: interest in the bicycle cut the piano trade in half.) "A few years ago," a writer reported in Scribner's, "no woman would dare venture on the street with a skirt that stopped above her ankles, and leggings that obviously reached to her knees. [The bicycle] has given to all American womankind the liberty of dress for which reformers have been sighing for generations."
Physicians thought there was nothing quite like the bicycle for exercise. (A number of them, including Dr. Paul Dudley White, still feel the same way.) Speaking before the New York Academy of Medicine, Dr. Graeme Hammond, Professor of Diseases of the Mind and Nervous System at the New York Post-Graduate Medical School, found the wheel of inestimable advantage in maintaining health and retarding disease. (Curiously, the '80s and '90s are the only period in which critics were not bewailing the absence of physical fitness among Americans. The bicycle doubtless had much to do with this.)
The League of American Wheelmen, founded in 1880 by Louis Keller, publisher of the Social Register, and one million strong at its peak, began the campaign for good roads. By the end of the century half the states had passed legislation for improved highways.
To technology the bicycle gave the ball bearing, wire wheels, hub braking, the pneumatic tire (invented by Dr. John Dunlop, an Irish veterinarian, for his 10-year-old son) and the variable speed transmission (the basis of the automobile gearshift). The bicycle manufacturers, whose business reached $100 million annually in the '90s, underwrote significant research in metallurgy—the metallurgical laboratory of the Pope Manufacturing Company, which developed tubular nickel steel, was the first outside the steel industry—and the manufacturers' use of mass-production methods, special-purpose machinery and interchangeable parts was of the greatest importance.
The technical advances of the bicycle stimulated progress in other fields. Orville Wright was a bicycle racer and, with his brother Wilbur, kept a shop in Dayton. Their interest overflowed into gliding, then powered flight. "We had taken up aeronautics simply as a sport," they later recalled. "We reluctantly entered upon the scientific side of it. But we soon found the work so fascinating that we were drawn into it deeper and deeper."
The bicycle played a key part in the development of the automobile. Indeed, early cars were nothing more than covered bicycles with an engine. From the bicycle manufacturers came car after car: the Lozier, the Rambler, the Peerless, the Columbia and the Pierce-Arrow. They were the property of the sporting rich who formed auto clubs and talked of opening a chain of gas stations that would service only club members. As late as 1910 Americans regarded the car as a toy for the rich, "Nothing," said Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton, "has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the use of the automobile." He called the driver "a picture of the arrogance of wealth, with all its independence and carelessness." "Nobody," said Stuyvesant Fish, "ever dreamed that the automobiles would come into general use." One man did: Henry Ford.
Ever since Charles Duryea had used a gas engine, then a radical device, to win the Chicago Times-Herald race in 1895, Ford had been overwhelmed by the potential of the automobile. He had ideas, and he resolved to get backing for them by winning races—"advertising," he later wrote in My Life and Work, "of the only kind that people care to read." In 1901 Ford challenged and beat Alexander Winton, racing champion of the U.S. Still he was not satisfied. He now wanted to build the fastest car in the world. In 1903, with Tom Cooper, a former bicycling champion of the U.S., Ford built two racing cars, the "999" and the Arrow.
"If an automobile was going to be known for speed," Ford wrote, "then I was going to make an automobile that would be known wherever speed was known. These were. I put in four great big cylinders giving 80 H.P.—which up to that time had been unheard of. The roar of those cylinders alone was enough to half kill a man.... Cooper said he knew a man who lived on speed, that nothing could go too fast for him. He wired to Salt Lake City and on came a professional bicycle rider named Barney Oldfield. He had never driven a motor car, but he liked the idea of trying it. He said he would try anything once.