Two wheels good: Why Britain has fallen in love with the bicycle

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When asked about the value of the push-bike, H G Wells said: "When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the human race."

When asked about the value of the push-bike, H G Wells said: "When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the human race."

Yesterday it emerged that Britons could not agree more with the author after the bicycle saw off competition from the computer, radio and the internal-combustion engine to be voted the most significant piece of technology of the past two centuries.

The 187-year-old, two-wheeled invention of a German aristocrat picked up 59 per cent of the 5,500 votes in an internet poll - seven times more than its nearest rivals, the transistor and the electromagnetic induction ring. The computer was next most popular choice (6 per cent), followed by the germ theory of infection and the radio (5 per cent), the internet (4 per cent), the internal combustion engine (3 per cent), and nuclear power and the communications satellite (1 per cent).

The vote, organised by BBC Radio 4's You and Yours programme to coincide with this year's Reith Lectures on technology, divided scientific opinion.

Professor Heinz Wolff, emeritus professor of bio-engineering atBrunel University, in west London, who was responsible for nominating the bicycle, defended his choice.

He said: "The provision of affordable personal transport which then became the motorbike, the motor car and the aeroplane ... changed humanity by allowing us to do something which was otherwise difficult or restricted to people who ... could afford a coach."

Historical opinion is divided on who takes the glory for inventing the push-bike.

Early claims of a wooden "dandy horse" built by a French count in 1790 have been discounted, leaving the honour to Baron Karl von Drais, a German landowner who built a wooden cycle to collect taxes from tenants in 1818.

But the choice of the bicycle ahead of such innovations as electricity, satellites and the discovery of germs has been met with disbelief by other scientists.

Lord Alec Broers, who delivered the Reith Lectures last month under the title "Triumph of Technology", expressed concern when a similar survey placed the bike ahead of DNA, the jet engine and vaccination in the pecking order of technical achievement.

The peer, who is president of the Royal Academy of Engineering and a former vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, said: "The means to control plagues, to travel in hours to parts of the world which once took months to reach, to be able to access billions of written words from one's desk - these are just a few of the technologies which we take for granted and which rest upon the accomplishments of generations of engineers and scientists.

"Compared with these, I am afraid I cannot view the bicycle as a significant contender. But the fact that so many of our compatriots thought that it was of such significance surely indicates a failure in communication and understanding."

The survey also named genetically modified foods as the innovation that people would most like to "disinvent", scoring 26 per cent of the vote.

The poll found that a vaccine for Aids topped listeners' wish-list for technology they would like to see (35 per cent). This was followed by interplanetary commuter transport and a time machine (both 15 per cent).

Another section asked which piece of technology would people bring to a desert island. The winner, with 50 per cent of the poll, was the internet.

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