The Bicycle Story
When Kirkpatrick MacMillan of Courthill, Scotland, built the world’s first mechanical bicycle in 1839, he had a practical objective in mind: to visit his sister in Glasgow, forty miles away. Ever since, the history of the bicycle has been tied mostly to Europe, where cycling enjoys a rich tradition. However, America took a strong interest in the fledgling two-wheeler from the beginning and made major contributions to its development. American industrial know-how proved instrumental in achieving the popular and versatile machines of today.
MacMillan’s treadle-driven machine never led to anything more than a few handmade imitations in Scotland. It was not until the mid-1860s that the first bicycles of a more practical design appeared, rattling along the boulevards of Paris.
These steel “pedal velocipedes,” manufactured by the carriage maker Pierre Michaux and his son Ernest, were a cross between the modern bicycle and the wooden hobbyhorse, an early pedalless two-wheeler that the rider straddled and propelled with a normal walking motion. The velocipede’s wheels were like those of carriages, with wooden spokes and rims held together by a band of steel. The front wheel, slightly larger than the rear, had pedals directly attached to the axle. The steering column was straight, while the main tube, holding the seat, was curved, resembling an animal’s spine. This costly sixty-pound, solidsteel contraption, which often featured such elegant amenities as ivory handgrips, quickly earned itself an appropriate nickname: the boneshaker.
Despite the uncomfortable ride it offered, the velocipede became a favorite with the well-to-do. Exhibitions and races were organized in the public parks of Paris as the new machine grew in popularity, and before long the novelty reached America. It was brought over from Paris in July 1865 by Pierre Lallement, another carriage maker. Lallement had also been an early bicycle builder, and some sources say it was he who first conceived of the velocipede; others say he took the idea from Michaux, for whom he may have worked at some point.
Whether or not he actually invented the bicycle, Lallement left Paris with a mission: to introduce it to America. Settling in Ansonia, Connecticut, he obtained the first American patent for a mechanical velocipede in the fall of 1866. The immediate reception of Lallement’s vehicle was not encouraging. Although his demonstrations amused students on the greens of Yale College in nearby New Haven, the aspiring entrepreneur failed to interest prospective manufacturers. Charles Pratt, an early bicycle proponent who knew Lallement, described the Frenchman’s problem: “Incapable in every way of promoting his invention, he returned to Paris no closer to fortune than when he had left.”
As it turned out, he had left too soon. The following year, 1869, as interest continued to grow in France and then Britain, the velocipede gained a foothold in America. It was introduced to many cities by circus acts, and enthusiasm was fueled by reports from France of the velocipede’s growing success there. Calvin Witty of Brooklyn, one of the first Americans to enter the trade, realized the potential importance of Lallement’s patent. He purchased the Frenchman’s rights, and began demanding a royalty of ten to twenty-seven dollars per bicycle.
Such hefty claims slowed the growth of the cycle business, but Americans nonetheless sought to perfect the clumsy boneshaker. The New York firm of Pickering & Davis offered the first significant improvement: using hollow tubes instead of solid steel in its product, the company advertised it as “simpler, more durable, lighter, stronger and cheaper than French patterns.” In contrast to other bicycles of the era, some of which had no brakes at all, the Pickering featured a “self-acting” brake. Pushing against the handlebars to compress the seat spring caused a brake shoe to engage against the rear wheel. Thus one literally drove, and stopped, by the seat of one’s pants. The popular Pickering was one of the first bicycles to be imported to England. Esteemed as the “American Bicycle,” it competed well against both French models and the first British offerings.
Another innovative New York firm, Hanlon Brothers, also offered a more practical and economical design. Among its novel features were a front fork (the arm that holds the front wheel) permitting easy lubrication of the axle and a pedal crank with a slot in the arm that allowed its length to be adjusted to suit the rider’s legs. An English critic, while disparaging the Hanlon’s lack of a brake, acknowledged that “its simplicity and strength deserve a favourable consideration.”
Americans were active in component design as well, as evidenced by a flood of bicycle-related patents between 1868 and 1870. One visionary even came up with the idea of surrounding a wheel’s iron casing with a band of rubber to cushion road shock. This innovation began to be adopted in the late 1860s.
A brief velocipede craze erupted at the same time, and clubs and riding schools formed across the country. Most riders preferred indoor halls, where they could rent the vehicles and receive instruction; riding on the bumpy roads of the day was far more intimidating. The velocipede was extremely difficult to control; it had to be walked up hills and carefully guided in descent. There ^ were, of course, no automobiles yet to compete for road space, but the horsemen of the day, who claimed that the noisy device disturbed their animals, were no more accommodating.
Nevertheless, the velocipede industry grew so fast that America appeared firmly positioned to assume the lead role after French manufacturers were diverted by the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. But then public interest evaporated, and the American industry collapsed’abruptly, bringing to an end the first era of bicycling in the United States.
Writing in 1891 Charles Pratt listed three reasons for the industry’s demise. First, Witty’s oppressive patent claims and a lack of general industry standards created wide variations in cost and quality. Second, —~ most machines were of poor overall quality; many had been produced hurriedly by carriage makers eager to exploit the craze. Third and most important, the velocipede was inherently flawed—”a rather dangerous and laborious toy, suitable for some sport in a hall, but impracticable as a road-machine.” Even the best-built examples were unsafe, uncomfortable, and inefficient. If the bicycle was going to survive, incremental improvements would not be enough. A radically new design was needed.
Nearly a decade passed before America resumed an active role in the bicycle world. The British, meanwhile, emerged as the bicycle’s sole developers. In 1870 James Starley, whom the British honor as the father of the cycle industry, introduced his Ariel bicycle. Like its predecessors, it featured direct frontwheel pedals. However, for greater efficiency Starley made the front wheel as large as it could be, limited only by the length of the rider’s legs. By thus increasing the wheel’s circumference, he increased the distance traveled with each turn of the pedals. A corresponding reduction in the size of the rear wheel, making it just big enough to maintain balance, resulted in the odd-looking profile sometimes referred to as the penny-farthing. The era of the boneshaker ended and that of the “high-wheeler” or “ordinary” began.
As English production techniques advanced, particularly in the manufacture of steel tubes, ball bearings, and solid-rubber tires, the 1 bicycle shed half its weight. A premier “wheel” could reach the previously unimaginable speed of twenty miles an hour.
Of course, the awkward and dangerous seating arrangement atop the steering wheel limited the machine’s market. Nevertheless, it gained a wide following among athletic British; sporting clubs were formed throughout the nation, and even the resistance of local authorities, who regarded the cyclists as terrors on wheels, could not stem the growing movement. By 1878 fifty thousand ordinaries were in use in Great Britain.
Despite all that, the American industry showed no desire to relive what was generally regarded as a bad experience. It took the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, when Britain proudly displayed its cycling wares, to rekindle American interest. A Baltimore firm was the first to reenter the market, acquiring the unsold bicycles from the exposition. But the man who truly revived American bicycling was Col. Albert A. Pope, a Civil War veteran from Boston.
In the spring of 1877 Pope traveled to England to observe firsthand the workings of the cycle trade there. Convinced that the sport must eventually achieve the same success in America, he opened a small import office in Boston. As another Boston firm followed suit, the first clubs of the revival were formed, and Boston emerged as America’s cycling hub.
No sooner had the bicycle regained a measure of success than the thorny patent issue arose again. Sensing an opportunity, a pair of astute businessmen acquired the Lallement patent, and once again manufacturers faced exorbitant demands as the new owners, in the words of Pratt (who was one of Pope’s lawyers), “pulled out their dusty parchments and promptly made their claims for royalties.”
An annoyed Pope managed to buy the Lallement patent, though the task proved exasperating, and he then proceeded to obtain a dozen other patents pertaining to components, giving himself a virtual monopoly. But Pope realized that bicycles would become popular only if they were cheap enough for large numbers of people to afford them, so he instituted a more moderate lump-sum fee for manufacturers.
Under Pope’s leadership cycling rapidly reestablished itself as an American sport. The Pope Manufacturing Company opened a riding school in Boston and offered free lessons to customers. It aggressively promoted cycling publications, events, and organizations such as the League of American Wheelmen, founded at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1880. At the same time the company lobbied against anti-cycling regulations that had been enacted during the boneshaker era. Pope himself paid the legal expenses of three cyclists who challenged the prohibition against bicycles in New York’s Central Park. He also became a leading figure in the campaign for better roads and gave money to MIT to subsidize the teaching of road construction.
Pope gradually steered his business away from importing English cycles and toward domestic manufacture. His first American bicycles, produced by the Weed Sewing Machine Company of Hartford, Connecticut, and distinguished by the trademark Columbia, date from 1878. Britain obviously enjoyed a head start in the cycling trade, but Pope had a significant advantage: British bicycles were subject to a 35 percent tariff.
Pope’s business grew to include a chain of factories in Hartford, where annual production reached five thousand units by 1884. Other firms soon joined a trade that offered, if not boom conditions, at least the prospect of steady growth. Cycling patents again proliferated in the United States as the industry aimed to narrow the technological gap. The second era of American cycling had begun.
Britain’s greatest advantage during the 1880s lay in its superior tubing technology. W. C. Stiff of Birmingham had perfected a method of weldless tube manufacture that permitted the brazing of light tubing to solid forging. By limiting the use of heavygauge metal to the stress points, a bicycle could be made considerably lighter without any loss of strength. Throughout the 1880s American manufacturers seeking to offer a high-class bicycle were compelled to obtain English tubes.
Even then, Americans were hard pressed to match the British in the delicate art of frame making. H. D. Corey, a writer for the Boston-based weekly The Bicycling World , lamented in 1884: “The machines in England are lighter than those made in this country. I think the greatest drawback experienced by American riders is the machines used by them. It is impossible for a man to race and make fast time on a thirty-pound machine, and compete successfully with his English cousin on a twenty-two pound racer.”
As good as the English were in making high-wheelers, they were also adept at offering alternatives. As the 1880s progressed, they offered a number of more practical bicycles known as geared ordinaries. These were still driven by pedals connected to the front wheel, but various gear arrangements allowed manufacturers to reduce the wheel to a safer and more convenient size without requiring the rider to pedal furiously.
A few of these “dwarfs” were imported to the United States, but American cyclists rejected the notion that geared ordinaries were significantly safer, or at least that the gain was worth the loss in efficiency. Aging riders and others concerned with safety were advised to buy tricycles instead. Both Pope and the Overman Wheel Company, then of Hartford, offered three-wheelers, and their popularity at times rivaled that of the highwheeler.
Thus the conventional highwheeler remained the mainstay of domestic bicycle production. But America did develop a few two-wheeled alternatives of its own, and the most successful and original of these was the American Star, patented by George W. Pressey, of Hammonton, New Jersey, in 1880. Specifically designed to reduce the all-too-common problem of headers—a forward tumble over the handlebars—the Star reversed the order of the wheels: its smaller front wheel was used for steering, while the rider sat over the big driving wheel in back. This arrangement provided more stability. It also demanded an alternative to the direct pedal, for rear-wheel pedals were not practicable without the rider’s legs reaching awkwardly behind him. The solution was a pair of independent treadles driving a ratchet mechanism.
The H. B. Smith Machine Company, of Smithville, New Jersey, began production of the Star in 1881. Smith, a large firm primarily devoted to woodworking machinery, could produce thousands of Stars a year. Yet it had to struggle to keep up with the demand as cyclists discovered the Star’s advantages. In addition to the stability, some racers preferred its levers over conventional pedals for faster starts.
The expected disadvantages, such as an awkward pedaling motion and a propensity to tip over when going uphill, proved nonexistent. The Bicycling World concluded in 1883: “The American Star bicycle of today… is so much improved and is becoming such a favorite among riders of the wheel that it cannot be denied a prominent place among the better class of machines.”
Its success even spilled over to England, where at least one major producer, Thomas Humber, gave serious consideration to obtaining manufacturing rights. But the Star had a flaw: Like other American bicycles of the time, it was too heavy. The first models were made of solid steel, and although a later hollow tube eventually became standard, the improvements came too late. If the Star had been manufactured to British standards from the start, it might well have supplanted the high-wheeler. Even today it is prized by collectors. More than any other machine it represents the innovative spirit Americans were bringing to the cycle trade.
By 1885 there were other signs that American persistence with the high-wheeler was returning dividends. That year Pope was the first to display an American-made bicycle at the prestigious Stanley Show in London, where the leading manufacturers presented their latest designs. By this time British makers were paying real attention to the emerging American market, often modifying their exports to suit discerning American cyclists. The Bicycling World proudly declared in a review of the events of 1885: “It was conclusively proven that bicycles of American manufacture are equal in every respect to those imported from England. Americans on American bicycles have shown, so far as records can show, that they and their machines are equally good to ride as imported ones.”
America seemed on the verge of claiming leadership of the cycling world, a destiny that looked all the more likely because the home market in Britain was approaching saturation. But like the Ariel fifteen years before, a radical design appeared just in time.
Defying the ominous signs, John Kemp Starley, nephew of the creator of the Ariel, formed the firm of Starley and Sutton with William Sutton in 1879. In 1884 this previously obscure maker unveiled the Rover, which featured a triangular frame and a rear wheel driven by a chain and sprocket.
This concept of the so-called safety bicycle was not new. A French frame builder of the boneshaker era, Eugène Meyer, reportedly made the first example in 1869 (it is now displayed in the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris). Another Englishman, H. J. Lawson, obtained a patent for a similar design in 1879. Like Meyer’s bicycle it resembled a modified boneshaker. And an English firm briefly offered an awkward-looking safety model the following year but withdrew it after disappointing sales. Starley’s rear-drive Rover thus was not revolutionary in concept, but it marked the first true industrial commitment to the chain bicycle. Its success, however, was not immediate.
The uncertain conditions afflicting the British cycling trade persisted through 1886. That summer three of America’s trade leaders—Albert Pope, A. H. Overman, and R. Philip Gormully —traveled to England for one of their periodic surveys of the business. Only Overman, who began producing America’s first chain-driven bicycle the following year, appreciated the imminent triumph of the safety. The others dismissed the Rover pattern as a desperate attempt to expand a limited market. Upon his return Pope spoke in glowing terms of the quality of American high-wheelers: “One thing I am satisfied of, and this is: we in this country have now nothing to learn from the Englishmen as to how to build a bicycle. I looked at nearly all the principal makes and I could not find a point that was in any way an improvement over our own.”
But sales of the maverick Rover, which was undergoing a rapid succession of frame modifications, suddenly accelerated beyond even Starley’s expectations. By 1886 it had a diamondprofile frame, and its design had evolved into the basic one still in use today. It was soon imported to the United States, setting off heated debate among cyclists on both sides of the Atlantic.
At the close of the 1887 season, The Bicycling World reported: “The English papers during the past few months have been filled with bitter discussion as to the relative merits of the ordinary and the rear-driving safety. It all started in a very gentle manner by a champion of the safety type assuring us that the ordinary was doomed, that it would soon be relegated to the place where all obsolete machines go, and that the machine of the future was the new safety.” The writer ventured his own opinion, which appears to reflect the general American perception: “The element of safety is rather distasteful to a good many riders that prefer to run some risk as it gives zest to the sport for them; to such the ordinary must ever be preferable.
“The ordinary has a future, and will never be an obsolete pattern, it has far too many splendid qualities for that. On the other hand, the rear-driving safety has come to stay, and while it is bound to run the old timer for honors on the road, it can never hope to crowd it entirely out.” Despite the hopes expressed for the “old timer,” however, the safety did indeed run the high-wheeler right off the road in short order. One by one, British and American manufacturers turned their attention to the safety bicycle.
Pope, for example, introduced the Veloce Columbia in 1888. It was a safety of the “cross-frame” variety, with numerous crisscrossing narrow-gauge tubes. This design competed briefly with the Rover’s diamond pattern before yielding to the latter’s superior strength. Gormully and Jeffery, a Chicago firm that was a major supplier to the Western market, responded with its popular Rambler line of safeties. In a very few years the high-wheeler became a memory. At the 1890 trade show in Philadelphia, the city that had first presented the high-wheeler to Americans, only five were displayed, all for decorative purposes.
The social impact of the safety bicycle would prove enormous. After a Scottish veterinarian in Belfast named John Boyd Dunlop introduced the pneumatic tire in 1888, the bicycle finally emerged as a truly practical road machine. The cycling population expanded greatly. Women, who had shunned the dangerous earlier models, embraced the safety bicycle, giving themselves unprecedented mobility. The drop-frame model, which had no horizontal tube between the legs, was the key advance here; it came on the market in America in 1888.
The economic consequences of the safety bicycle were equally great. Bicycle sales surged worldwide during a boom that lasted the remainder of the century. American sales leaped even more in 1895 after the advent of the acetylene lamp, which allowed cyclists to travel safely in twilight and after dark.
For several years during the trend-driven Gay Nineties, bicycling became a full-fledged craze, inspiring sheet music, board games, trade cards, and all the paraphernalia of a nineteenth-century fad. Three hundred firms produced more than a million bicycles a year by 1900, making the United States the world leader. The center of the American industry shifted from the Eastern seaboard to the emerging industrial heartland of the Midwest.
The Gendron Works of Toledo, Ohio, for example, the largest maker of children’s vehicles, set its seven hundred employees to work producing safeties. The Spalding Company of Chicago, the sporting-goods giant then specializing in baseball equipment, first formed a partnership with Overman and then launched its own production. Another firm from the Windy City would become a most familiar name to future generations; it was founded in 1895 by the German immigrant Ignatius Schwinn.
Clearly, once the safety bicycle had been invented, American manufacturers and consumers responded enthusiastically. But how did Americans contribute to the safety’s development and improvement? From a design standpoint, America was clearly caught off guard. The British not only pioneered the concept of the safety but also continued to enjoy an advantage in tube technology, and this edge proved even more glaring in the production of the more complicated safety. Furthermore, the revitalized British industry appears to have been more supportive of smaller firms, which could innovate more easily. The Royal Sunbeam Company of Wolverhampton, for example, relentlessly pursued improvements in quality. Its top-of-the-line model, which cost up to four times the norm, featured such advances as aluminum rims, hub gears, and a completely sealed chain guard with oil bath.
Undaunted by Britain’s lead, however, Americans offered their own refinements. The Overman Wheel Company, relocated to the mill town of Chicopee, Massachusetts, continued to lead the way. Overman’s Victor bicycles featured “cushion” tires, pressureless tubes that were lighter and more forgiving than solid rubber and less prone to punctures than the first pneumatics. To further soften the ride, Overman offered an elaborate spring for the front fork. This item soon became quite popular even in Britain. Other American innovations included the still-popular coaster brake, activated by pedaling backwards, and the one-piece crank. Wooden wheel rims, lighter and more flexible than steel, gained great popularity before aluminum finally prevailed.
While the Rover safety pattern took over American production, the industry simultaneously explored other designs. Direct-pedal mechanisms were not wholly abandoned. A company in Stamford, Connecticut, showed its disdain for the safety in 1889 by introducing the Eagle, a Star-pattern bicycle with pedals. The Star’s manufacturer, meanwhile, offered a safety that incorporated its original lever device. The low-slung recumbent bicycle, which today is the fastest human-powered vehicle, was patented and presented in America by 1900. The prize for unconventional designs, however, belongs to a Milwaukee firm that marketed bicycles made of bamboo.
But perhaps the single best example of American ingenuity during this period was the shaft bicycle. Its design, patented in 1885, used a beveled shaft instead of a chain to power the rear wheel. The great racer Marshall (“Major”) Taylor, America’s first nationally known black athlete, set a number of records astride it. Nearly all the major American producers offered chainless models during the 1890s, and their popularity spread to Britain and France. The major drawback, however, was price: they cost twice as much as a conventional bicycle. Furthermore, the advantage of the simplicity that came with removing the chain grew less important as gear cases improved.
American industry participated in developing the bicycle during the safety’s early days just as it had during the original boneshaker period, but despite the country’s powerful and diverse presence in the cycle trade, its overall contributions to the design of the modern bicycle proved modest compared with Britain’s. One might have expected more from a country that had given—and would continue to give—so many engineering advances to the world. David Wilson, the author of Bicycle Science , suggests that the poor quality of American roads before the turn of the century, and the great distances between towns, discouraged development.
Bicycles were responsible for improvements in both these areas, of course. The League of American Wheelmen had been an advocate for better roads since its founding, and bicycles made it possible for the first time during their brief heyday in the 1890s to travel beyond one’s tiny hometown without the expense and inconvenient schedules of the railroads. Still, progress in road building was slow and would pick up only when automobiles proliferated. American bicyclists all too often were hard-pressed to travel far on their new machines.
The American bicycle industry also appears to have had difficulty attracting and retaining top-level engineers. A 1905 census report suggests that before 1890 engineers did not regard bicycle mechanics as a worthy endeavor. Even when the bicycle did attract the likes of Henry Ford and the Wright brothers, they were quickly lost to the nascent automotive and aviation industries. Pope himself, the acclaimed father of the American cycle industry, increasingly focused his activities on the automobile, and he was the leading producer by the end of the century.
The trade suffered from internal turmoil as well. The Bicycling World offered the following account in 1886 of what it called the Pope-Overman War: “The litigation between two of our leading manufacturers, involving seventeen patents related to velocipedes, has at last been terminated by a settlement. Others were parties to some of the suits. It has been in progress, with the exception of a six months’ truce for nearly three years. It has cost each side, directly or indirectly, $10,000 a year; it has been a matter of annoyance and disturbance to many others in the trade, and even to many outside of the business. The settlement was brought about by the senior counsel for both sides, who summoned their respective clients together at Springfield and advised a surrender. It might be called the treaty of Springfield.”
Despite its shortcomings the American bicycle industry made one great contribution: the development of tools for affordable mass production. Even before the safety-bicycle boom of the 1890s, America was advancing in machinery. In 1886 Pope observed: “It has been and still is my belief that the time will come when American cycle manufacturers will be able to export to Europe and compete with the English makers, but I must admit that the time has not yet come. As yet, labor and material are cheaper with them though we have the advantage of using machinery more generally.” To achieve their prodigious output during the 1890s, American firms increasingly exploited this edge by developing improved lathes for wheels and frames as well as hydraulic pumps and other tools for mass production. Throughout the boom America was the leading exporter of machinery as well as bicycles.
Adolphe Clément, a French industrialist who set out to reestablish a national cycle industry in his country, toured American factories in 1895 to learn the most advanced production techniques. His catalogue of that year reports that he had “observed in action the marvelous American tools which enabled the U.S. to compete against the Old Continent with mechanical construction. In the center of this production, equally prodigious in power, perfection, and economy, he selected the most outstanding of these machines to enhance French production.”
Between the boneshaker era and the mid-1890s, the typical bicycle consistently sold for more than a hundred dollars, several months’ wages for most workers at the time. Its price was halved by the turn of the century. American industry liberated the bicycle from its status as a plaything for wealthy sportsmen and brought it within the means of a much broader population. America thus did more than simply nurse the infant bicycle; it made a marvelous machine accessible to the world.