Carnegie Science Center's bike exhibit transports visitors through history

| Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 8:09 p.m.

No, Pee-wee Herman's famous, elaborate, red bike really isn't in the basement of the Alamo, but you knew that already if you've seen “Pee-wee's Big Adventure.”

Guess where it is now? The Carnegie Science Center, at the new exhibit “BIKES: Science on Two Wheels,” which will be at the North Side center through the end of the year. More than 60 bikes of many types — from the earliest in history, rare bikes, tricycles, scooters, modern bikes, a unicycle and even two Big Wheels from the '70s — fill the exhibit, a creation of the science center, Bicycle Heaven on the North Side, the Bicycle Museum of America in New Bremen, Ohio, and others.

Dennis Bateman, leader of the team that created the exhibit, says it fits in perfectly with the science center's mission of examining and celebrating everyday science around us.

“There's a tremendous amount of engineering and design on bicycles, and there's a lot of physics going on,” says Bateman, the center's director of exhibits and theaters. “Originally, (bikes) weren't a child's toy. They were transportation.”

The exhibit is whimsical and fun, he says.

“There's a lot of design, and there's a lot of nostalgia in it,” Bateman says. “It's not just science.”

When you first walk into the exhibit, you'll see early bikes from the Victorian era, including Penny Farthing bikes from the 1890s. These bikes contained one large wheel in front and one much smaller wheel in back, and riders had little to prevent them from falling off if they stopped suddenly. The bikes got their funny name from the British, because the bikes reminded people of the difference between large and small coins (pennies and farthings). Even earlier than these first pedal bikes came the velocipedes, which riders powered with their feet but without pedals.

Visitors will learn a lot about the history of bikes in the exhibit, which has a written display with tidbits, such as how bicycles influenced women's clothing in a more casual direction, and how cycling groups were the first to lobby for paved roads. One wall shows how bicycle seats and wheels evolved.

The exhibit includes a few interactive features that demonstrate how the physics of riding works. At “Newton's Laws of Cycling,” you can spin a bicycle wheel like a giant gyroscope and learn about angular momentum and torque. At the Centripetal Force Seat, you sit on a rotating stool, spin a hand-held bicycle tire, and see how the rotational forces move you as you turn the wheel from a vertical to a horizontal position.

The highlight of the bikes exhibit is likely to be the Pee-wee bike, a 1953 custom-built Schwinn DX, says Jessica Howison, museum coordinator for the Bicycle Museum of America. The Western Ohio museum has more than 1,200 bikes, of which the movie's bike — one of 10 used in the 1985 film — was one of the most “highly sought after,” she says.

“When people come in, if they know Pee-wee Herman, they ask to see that bike,” Howison says. “We already have some people who have been disappointed since the bike left, but we say, ‘You'll just have to go out to Pittsburgh and see it.' ”

Bikes have a nostalgic factor about them, which explains some of the appeal, she says.

“Bicycling ... hits all demographics,” Howison says. “Young and old, they all have a bicycle story, and they all relate to a bike (in the museum) and want to find something they had.

“We're very happy about the partnership with the Carnegie Science Center,” she says. “We're really looking forward to what they're going to do. ... It's such a neat thing to be a part of.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7824.

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Show commenting policy