Today’s hoverboard hysteria isn’t so different from the early panic around bicycles

Pessimists Archive
Published in
4 min readFeb 29, 2016


A bizarre two-wheeled vehicle is sweeping the world. It’s being met with ridicule, fear and legislative action. That pretty much sums up present-day reactions to the hoverboard:

It’s also how people felt when the bicycle became popular around 130 years ago:

New York Times, June 11, 1880

Like the hoverboard, the bicycle wasn’t based on new technology. (The modern bicycle evolved from the penny farthing; the hoverboard from the Segway.) But to many people the bicycle felt new. It was fast and maneuverable. And scary. Governments around the world saw it as a menace. So it goes with hoverboards. Brits banned bicycles from sidewalks using an 1835 law, and last year used the same legislation to crack down on hoverboards.

In 1881, bike lovers went to court to protest a ban on bicycles in New York’s Central Park. They lost, perhaps because witnesses called by park authorities were so certain about the two-wheeled terror:

New York Times, July 15th 1881

When a bicycle rider was involved in an accident, the bike often got the blame. In 1880, the New York Times ran the headline ‘A Victim of the Bicycle— even though a horse delivered the fatal blow to the young woman involved. Heart attack? Probably the bicycle’s fault:

New York Times, April 9th 1887

A few years later, the head of recruitment for the US Army in Chicago refused to accept some bike riders. Dr S.C. Stanton said those who rode fast—or “scorched”—were unfit to serve in the army because they suffered from “bicycle heart”.

Today we’re seeing similar articles about tragic but apparently freak accidents, like the Florida boy killed when his cousin fell from a hoverboard and accidentally discharged a weapon. Then there are the scare stories about non-existent waves of accidents. One US mom-focused site warned that eight hoverboard-related accidents had been reported over a three-month period — a tiny number in a country of 320 million people.

In the late 1800s there was even discussion about the effect of bikes on activities that seem to have nothing to do with transport…

New York Times, June, 7th 1896

…which is reminiscent of the media’s inability to resist scary stories about hoverboards, even when the device itself is almost irrelevant to what happened:

(For the record, hoverboards travel at a few miles per hour. They don’t make for good getaway vehicles.)

If there’s one concern about bicycles that resonates in a meaningful way, it’s that poorly made vehicles can be dangerous. As one writer warned in 1869:

The Velocipede, J. T. Goddard (1869)

The same goes for hoverboards. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission is investigating “dozens” of incidents in which hoverboards caught fire, possibly due to faulty electronics. The danger seems real, but it’s not fundamental to the technology. Better safety standards should solve the problem.

The fears about hoverboards are both real and imagined, just as the fears about bicycles were. The bicycle came almost out of nowhere. Because it was new, some dismissed it as a frivolous toy. Others saw it as a peril. There were legitimate concerns scattered amongst the hysteria, but most of it was noise.

Headline about loud bells on bikes, Boston Evening Transcript, Sept. 12, 1893