Life Is Like Riding a Bicycle. To Keep Your Balance You Must Keep Moving

Albert Einstein? Walter Isaacson? J. Benson Hamilton? Charles Haddon Spurgeon? Dorothy Tucker? William Whiting?

bicycle07Dear Quote Investigator: The famous physicist Albert Einstein reportedly used a wonderful simile that compared riding a bicycle with living successfully. Here are three versions:

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.

People are like bicycles. They can keep their balance only as long as they keep moving.

It is the same with people as it is with riding a bike. Only when moving can one comfortably maintain one’s balance.

Would you please explore this topic? Which version is the most accurate?

Quote Investigator: On February 5, 1930 Albert Einstein wrote a letter to his son Eduard that included a remark that has been translated in different ways. In 2007 Walter Isaacson published a biography titled “Einstein: His Life and Universe”; the notes section at the end of the book printed an excerpt from the original text of the letter in German together with a translation by the Information Officer of the Einstein Archives. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The exact quote is: “Beim Menschen ist es wie beim Velo. Nur wenn er faehrt, kann er bequem die Balance halten.” A more literal translation is: “It is the same with people as it is with riding a bike. Only when moving can one comfortably maintain one’s balance.” Courtesy of Barbara Wolff, Einstein archives, Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

Further below supplementary citations are presented for alternative versions of the saying ascribed to the acclaimed scientist.

Interestingly, the simile has a long history that reaches back into the 1800s in the English language. The early citations found by QI referred to the religious lives of individuals. Later citations referred to business and secular pursuits.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1882 a periodical about bicycles called “The Wheelman” published a story by Reverend J. Benson Hamilton, and the author attributed an instance of the simile to an unnamed “great preacher”: 2

“A great preacher,” said he, “says living a religious life is like riding the bicycle: you must go on or come down.”

The words of Hamilton made a strong impression on at least one person. In 1884 a didactic religious text titled “What & Why: Some Common Questions Answered” by Charles E. Pratt included a section called “Words of the Wise”. Pratt reprinted the text above, and he ascribed the words to Reverend J. Benson Hamilton. 3

In 1890 Reverend Theodore L. Cuyler presented the opening address at the Annual Meeting of the New York State Association of Young Men’s Christian Associations held in Binghamton, New York. During his speech he employed an instance of the simile: 4

Why, friends, Christianity is very much like riding the bicycle, you have got to keep your headway; the moment you stop, you drop. The whole highway of Christian life is strewn with dismounted wheelmen that have gone over into the ditch.

In 1902 a religious periodical called “The Railway Signal” published an essay by William Luff who ascribed the simile to a prominent Baptist preacher named Charles Haddon Spurgeon who had died a few years earlier in 1892: 5

Trust as a child trusts a parent’s hand when learning to ride a bicycle, and Father’s hand will hold you up. C. H. Spurgeon once said, “The Christian life is like riding a bicycle: you must go on, or you come off.”

In 1907 “The Life and Sayings of Sam P. Jones: A Minister of the Gospel” included the following remark about the popular pedal-powered conveyance: 6

Going to heaven is just like riding a bicycle. You have to keep-a-going to keep-a-going. You got to keep a-moving—you can’t stop

In 1908 the “Farm Journal” of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania printed an article of “Feminine Dairy Wisdom” from Dorothy Tucker which included the following: 7

Dairying is like riding a bicycle,—if you don’t keep moving you will fall off. A herd of dirty, emaciated cows is a plain advertisement of the owner’s lack of brains or his downright shiftlessness.

In 1921 a trade journal in the paper and corrugated fiberboard industry called “The Shears” printed an essay by William Whiting who applied the bicycle simile to secular life overall: 8

In case of doubt—Go on.
No matter what happens—Go on.
Life is like riding a bicycle: we can keep from falling if we keep moving.
Only a few trick-riders can stand still, and not tumble.

In 1922 a writer in the “Bulletin of Photography” applied the figurative language to business in general: 9

No man can stand still in business. He is going forward or, he is slipping back. A business is like a bicycle. It will fall if it stops. It must go on or it will tumble.

In February 1930 Albert Einstein wrote a letter to his son that employed the simile. The letter was discussed in the 1994 biography “The Private Lives of Albert Einstein” by Roger Highfield and Paul Carter. The authors presented a paraphrase but not a direct translation: 10

The best cure that Einstein could offer for melancholy was hard work. ‘How beneficial a job would be for you,’ he told Eduard. ‘Even a genius like Schopenhauer was crushed through unemployment.’ He told his son that life was like a bicycle, since a man could keep his balance only if he kept moving.

Walter Isaacson’s biography “Einstein: His Life and Universe” in 2007 included the following translation from German to English as noted previously in this article: 11

A more literal translation is: “It is the same with people as it is with riding a bike. Only when moving can one comfortably maintain one’s balance.”

Isaacson also presented a less precise translation of Einstein’s remark in the epigraph of his biography. This simplified version referred to “life” instead of “people”. The existence of both versions was somewhat confusing: 12

Life is like riding a bicycle.
To keep your balance you must keep moving.

In 2005 a biography of Einstein by Jürgen Neffe was published in Germany; the work was translated from German to English by Shelley Frisch and released in 2007 with the title “Einstein: A Biography”. A version of the remark by Einstein about people and bicycles was included: 13

In February 1933, the famous photograph of the laughing physicist rounding a curve on his bicycle was shot in California. Today it seems like a symbol of his situation at the time after the forced exodus from Germany. “People are like bicycles,” he wrote to his son Eduard in 1930. “They can keep their balance only as long as they keep moving.” 39

Footnote 39. Letter to Eduard Einstein, February 5, 1930; Einstein Archives 75-990.

In conclusion, Albert Einstein did use the bicycle simile in a letter he wrote in 1930. The original remark in German was presented near the beginning of this article. A translation by Barbara Wolff was also presented. The figurative language was also employed during the decades before the 1930s. The subjects used in the simile comparison varied.

Image Notes: Photo of bicycle in silhouette from Roverin at Pixabay. Photo of acrobatic bicycle jump from stefanalen at Pixabay. Images have been resized

(Great thanks to Tina Dickson whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to Nigel Rees who mentioned this quotation in the October 2012 issue of “The Quote Unquote Newsletter”.)

Notes:

  1. 2007, Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, Section: Notes, Epigraph: 1, Quote Page 565, Location 10155, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Kindle Edition)
  2. 1882 November, The Wheelman, Volume 1, Number 2, Our Minister Rides the Bicycle by J. Benson Hamilton, Start Page 98, Quote Page 101, Column 2, Published by The Wheelman Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1884, What & Why: Some Common Questions Answered by Charles E. Pratt, Section: Words of the Wise, Quote Page 68, Published by Press of Rockwell and Churchill, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1890 April, State Notes of the Young Men’s Christian Associations of New York, Volume II, Number 2, (Proceedings of the Twenty Fourth Annual Meeting of the New York State Association of Young Men’s Christian Associations, Held at Binghamton, New York, February 20-23, 1890), Minutes of the Proceedings, (Opening Address by Rev. Theo. L. Cuyler, D.D. of Brooklyn), Start Page 32, Quote Page 33, Published by the State Executive Committee of Young Men’s Christian Associations of New York State, New York City. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1902 May, The Railway Signal: Or, Lights Along the Line, (Official Organ of The Railway Mission), Volume 20, Number 5, On A Bicycle by William Luff, Start Page 85, Quote Page 85, Column 2, Published by The Railway Mission, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1907, The Life and Sayings of Sam P. Jones: A Minister of the Gospel by His Wife, Assisted by Rev. Walt Holcomb, (Second and Revised Edition), Quote Page 448, The Franklin-Turner Company, Atlanta, Georgia. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1908 May, Farm Journal, Volume 32, Number 5, Feminine Dairy Wisdom by Dorothy Tucker, Quote Page 203, Published by Wilmer Atkinson Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1921 October, The Shears, Volume 29, Number 347, The Business Outlook By William Whiting, Start Page 86, Quote Page 86, The Shears Publishing Company, Lafayette, Indiana. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1922 October 11, Bulletin of Photography, Volume 31, Number 792, Marking Time by C. H. Claudy, Start Page 452, Quote Page 452, Column 2, Published by Frank V. Chambers, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1994, The Private Lives of Albert Einstein, Roger Highfield and Paul Carter, Quote Page 234, St. Martin’s Press, New York, (Verified on paper)
  11. 2007, Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, Section: Notes, Epigraph: 1, Quote Page 565, Location 10155, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Kindle Edition)
  12. 2007, Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, (Caption beneath photo of Albert Einstein on a bicycle; epigraph before table of contents), Unnumbered Page, Location 13, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Kindle Edition)
  13. 2007 Einstein: A Biography by Jürgen Neffe, Translator: Shelley Frisch (Translated from German to English), (Copyright 2005, Translation Copyright 2007), Chapter 19: From Barbaria to Dollaria; Einstein’s America, Quote Page 369, Footnote 39: Quote Page 431, Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York. (Verified on paper)