How the Bicycle Took Wing
The first successful flying machine was bound to have a lot in common with the bicycle, and two cycle makers named Wright realized this.
On June 4, 1896, the editor of the Binghamton, New York, Republican offered what most of his readers must have regarded as a rather startling prediction. The airplane, he remarked, would likely be the work of bicycle makers. “The flying machine will not be the same shape, or at all in the style of the numerous kinds of cycles,” he admitted, “but the study to produce a light, swift machine is likely to lead to the evolution in which wings will play a conspicuous part.” The editor’s judgment was confirmed seven and a half years later. On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made four flights over an isolated stretch of dune a few miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Two bicycle makers had launched the air age. Was the editor’s suggestion of a connection between cycling and flying anything more than a lucky guess? If so, he deserves to be recognized as a past master of the fine art of technology assessment. As he had predicted, cycling experience and a command of bicycle technology did play a role in the formulation of a solution to the problems of flight.
When Wilbur and Orville Wright entered the cycle trade in 1892, American journalists were already touting the bicycle as a “boon to all mankind,” a “national necessity,” and a “force that has within it almost the power of social revolution.” The Smithsonian scientist W. J. McGee, assessing “Fifty Years of American Science” for the readers of The Atlantic Monthly in 1896, identified the bicycle as “one of the world’s great inventions.” A Detroit Tribune writer went a step further, predicting that history might prove “that the perfection of the bicycle was the greatest event of the nineteenth century.” Authorities of the United States Census Bureau added their own unbounded enthusiasm. “Few articles created by man,” they noted in the Census of 1900, “have created so great a revolution in social conditions.”
The industry that was to exercise such a profound influence on American society and technology was launched in 1878, when Col. Albert Pope began producing high-wheel “ordinaries” in the corner of a Hartford, Connecticut, sewing-machine factory. While sales were encouraging, the appeal of such cycles was limited to athletic and adventurous young men willing to risk life and limb in mad and wobbling flight through crowded city streets or down rutted country lanes.
The introduction of the safety bicycle to the American market, in 1887, marked the real beginning of the bicycle craze. The safety, with its two wheels of equal size, sturdy triangular frame, and chain-drive system, enabled an entire nation of men, women, and children to taste the freedom of wheels. Additional refinements such as adequate brakes and pneumatic rubber tires introduced prior to 1890 helped make the bicycle even more appealing.
The rapid expansion of the industry after 1890 was nothing short of spectacular. The number of manufacturers in the field grew from 27 to 312 in only seven years. Total production, estimated at 40,000 machines a year in 1890, reached a peak of 1.2 million units by 1895. As the historian David Hounshell has commented, these figures add “new meaning to the loose term mass production.”
For both industry and society the bicycle was a transitional technology, bridging the gap between the age of the horse and that of the automobile. The manufacture of bicycles marked the first point of convergence for a variety of technologies that would remain crucial to automobile production. These ranged from electrical welding and ball-bearing production to experience with chain and shaft transmission systems and metal-stamping technology.
The millions of bicycles that poured out of American factories during the decade of the 189Os set an entire nation on wheels. City dwellers and country ,folk alike relished freedom from the tyranny and expense of horse-drawn vehicles and the limitations of emerging mass-transit systems. Having acquired a taste for affordable personal transportation, cyclists banded together to launch a powerful Good Roads Movement that literally paved the way for the automobile.
The social and industrial links binding the bicycle to the automobile are many and apparent. The connections between cycling and flight are much more subtle. The possibility that such connections might exist was first suggested by the widespread use of aeronautical metaphors to describe the sense of freedom, escape, control, and speed experienced in cycling.
The bicycle was, as a Brooklyn minister informed his congregation, a “scientific angel, which seems to bear you away on its unwearied pinions.” Another pastor called the attention of his flock to the cyclist, who, “harmonious with nature and art,” sped along the highways “like a bird on the wings of the wind.” Still a third clergyman sang the praises of a machine that “enables us to fly in this life before we get the traditional angelic wings.”
Budding poets filled the columns of newspapers with similar praise couched in aeronautical terms.
James Howard Means, a retired Boston shoe manufacturer turned aeronautical promoter, took note of this tendency to equate cycling with flying in an article in the 1896 number of his influential journal, The Aeronautical Annual: “It is not uncommon for the cyclist, in the first flash of enthusiasm which quickly follows the unpleasantness of taming the steel steed, to remark, ‘Wheeling is just like flying!’ ”
The cycle bridged the gap between horse and auto. Its link with flight was subtler.
“This is true,” Means continued, “in more ways than one.” He urged those who sought to fly to pay serious attention to the lessons of the bicycle. He compared the experimental hang gliders then being flown by the German engineer Otto Lilienthal to the primitive bicycles of the early nineteenth century. “The Lilienthal machine is to flying,” he wrote, “what the wheel of 1816 was to pneumatic wheeling.” He added that the “Lilienthal machine seems likely to lead to important things, yet there are men who say of the inventor: ‘He cannot fly up, he can only fly down … he has not solved the great problem.’ True, he has not solved it, but he has given a partial solution which will place his name on the roll of the immortals.”
Means argued that Lilienthal’s “partial solution,” and the most important link between cycling and flying, lay in the area of balance, equilibrium, and control: “It [the bicycle] was a balancing wheel, and the great art of balancing began with it. To learn to wheel, one must learn to balance; to learn to fly, one must learn to balance.”
Lilienthal himself complimented Means on his insight: “I think that your consideration of the development between the flying machine and the bicycle and the analogy between their development is excellent. I am sure the flying apparatus will have a similar development. The development of bicycles ought to have taught the world, however, to aid the flying apparatus much more than it does, so that it will not lose again a hundred years, before we actually fly.”
Five months later, on August 10, 1896, Otto Lilienthal died after a glider crash. It was a report of that accident that first drew the attention of Wilbur and Orville Wright to the problems of flight.
The Wright brothers seemed typical of the thousands of mechanically inclined Americans who were drawn into the bicycle business during the 1890s. Wilbur, born on a farm near Millville, Indiana, in 1867, and Orville, born four years later in Dayton, Ohio, had been named for clergymen whom their father, a bishop in the United Brethren Church, admired. Educated in local schools in Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio, they were the only two of five surviving Wright children who did not attend college. Orville Wright would one day remark, “We were lucky enough to grow up in a home environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests, to investigate whatever aroused curiosity. In a different kind of environment our curiosity might have been nipped long before it could have borne fruit.”
The brothers’ first joint business venture, a small printshop founded in 1889 in Dayton, proved neither lucrative nor challenging. The bicycle, however, was quite another matter. Their involvement in cycling began in the spring of 1892, when Orville purchased a brand new Columbia safety for $ 160. A few months later Wilbur picked up a used Eagle for $80.
The brothers enrolled in the Dayton YMCA Wheelmen’s Club and quickly emerged as leaders of the local cycling movement. Three surviving club race medals attest to Orville’s prowess as a “scorcher.” Letters to their sister Katharine, a student at Oberlin College, were filled with descriptions of long bicycle rides over the rough roads of the Miami valley.
The Wrights, with well-established reputations as mechanics, soon found themselves beset by friends requesting bicycle repairs. In December 1892 they opened their first bike shop, at 1005 West Third Street in Dayton. Printing now became a sideline. The Wright Cycle Company was a going concern.
In addition to their repair business, the brothers stocked a line of parts and acquired the local distributorship for eight lines of new bicycles. Competition was stiff, however. There were fourteen bicycle shops in Dayton by 1894-95, four of them within two blocks of the new Wright shop. Moreover, the business was seasonal, peaking in April and falling dangerously low in October and November.
Occasionally profits fell below even the minimum requirements for two young men who continued to share the family home with their father and sister. In September 1894 Wilbur reported to his father that the bicycle business was only “fair.” “Selling new wheels,” he said, “is about done for this year but the repairing business is good and we are getting about $20 a month from the rent of three wheels [bicycles]…. We have done so well renting them that we have held on to them instead of disposing of them at once, although we really need the money invested in them.” These comments were followed by a request for a $150 loan.
Two weeks later the brothers decided to give up the separate bicycle showroom and transfer their repair operation to an upstairs room for the winter. “There is hardly enough business to justify our keeping so expensive a room any longer,” Wilbur remarked.
One must learn to fly, the Wrights knew, the way one learned to ride a bicycle.
In an effort to expand beyond the limits of the neighborhood trade and to put the slack winter months to good use, the Wrights began handcrafting their own line of bicycles in the fall of 1895. They completed the first samples that winter and opened their order books on April 24, 1896. The Wrights named their original line of cycles the Van Cleve, in honor of their ancestor and local Dayton pioneer heroine Catherine Van Cleve. Always the top of the Wright line, the Van Cleve originally sold for $65.00. By 1900, with sales down and enthusiasm for cycling on the wane, the price fell to $50.00.
They also unveiled a second, lowerpriced line, the St. Clair, in 1896. Named in honor of Arthur St. Clair, first governor of the Northwest Territory, these machines sold for $42.50 during the peak years, 1896 and 1897. The price had fallen to $30.00 when production of the line ceased in 1899. There is some evidence that the Wrights built and sold at least one sample for a third line of machines, called the Wright Special and priced at $27.50 in 1897.
While the major bicycle manufacturers of the era were mass-producing-machines using techniques that helped to set the stage for the assembly line, the Wright bicycles remained handcrafted originals. Some of the 1896 St. Clair frames may have been purchased complete from the Pope Manufacturing Company, but most Wright cycle frames were built up from raw tubing, brazed with a machine the Wrights had developed themselves. Each frame was brush-painted with five coats of either black or carmine enamel.
Wright cycles were not entirely hand-built though. Some stock components were used from the beginning. Customers could choose to have their machines furnished with brand-name seats, tires, and handlebar styles. The Wrights also offered their customers a choice of men’s or ladies’ models.
The Wrights built their own wheels with either wooden or metal rims, according to individual customer orders. They were particularly proud of their specially designed Van Cleve hubs, which, they announced, “have been a chief feature in making the Van Cleve reputation.” Furthermore, they said, “We are certain that no hubs have been used in bicycles so satisfactory in all respects… . They are absolutely dust proof, and oil retaining to a degree that one oiling in two years is all they require.”
Production of their own line of machines marked a turning point in the Wright financial fortunes. By the spring of 1898 Orville could report with some pride that they were “getting in better shape” and keeping “very busy.” “The wheels,” he continued, “are selling very well.”
The brothers were scarcely growing rich in the bicycle business, but by 1897-98 they were earning perhaps two or three thousand dollars a year. This enabled them to live comfortably and to spend, between 1899 and 1903, a thousand dollars on the construction of one kite, three gliders, one powered airplane (the world’s first), and the expenses entailed during four extended vacation trips to conduct flying experiments on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
But the bicycle had given Wilbur and Orville Wright more than just the wherewithal to build and test their experimental flying machines. Their experience in bicycle building had provided them with the wood- and metalworking tools and skills that would be required in the construction of an airplane. A few elements of cycle technology, notably the chain-drive transmission system, were even transferred directly to the aeronautical situation.
These were, however, matters of relatively minor importance. Had the invention of the airplane required nothing more than mechanical dexterity and a familiarity with tools, training in any of the wood- or metalworking trades would have been far more useful than experience in cycle manufacture. What, then, were the unique contributions of the bicycle to the Wright’s aircraft design program?
The Wright brothers were the first to make practical use of James Means’s suggested link between the stability and control of bicycles and airplanes. They recognized that a pilot, like a cyclist, would have to make a constant series of conscious or subconscious control movements in order to maintain balance.
Unlike a wagon or a ship at sea, turning a bicycle or an airplane required a means of coordinating control in two axes of motion. Without the automatic stability in the roll axis provided by four wheels set firmly on the ground, or the relative stability of a ship held up by the water in which it floats, the cyclist had to bank, or lean, while angling his handlebars for a turn. So it would be with an airplane. Of course the airplane pilot, like a unicycle rider, would face the additional complication of controlling the machine in the pitch (nose up/nose down) axis.
Time and again the Wrights returned to the study of Lilienthal’s crash and the reasons for it. Lilienthal, after all, had also been concerned with the balance and control of his flying machines. The German pioneer had constructed wings that could carry him aloft, but his primitive weight-shifting technique had been inadequate to provide sufficient control over his machine, a situation that had ultimately led to his death. If the Wrights were to avoid a similar fate, they would have to devise a mechanical control system that would enable the pilot to exercise constant and precise control. When completed and tested on the 1902 Wright glider, this system consisted of a forward elevator for pitch control, a wingwarping mechanism that provided a helical twist across the entire wing in either direction for roll control, and a rudder (originally linked to the wingwarping system) for control in the yaw (nose right/nose left) axis.
Obviously the pilot would have to be provided with more than a set of handlebars to control his machine. He would lie prone on the lower wing, literally surrounded by the control system, which enabled him to balance and direct the motion of the craft. His hips rested in a narrow cradle, which was shifted from side to side to raise or lower either wing tip. His right hand gripped an upright lever that controlled the forward elevator. The control responses would be as simple and natural as those required to ride a bicycle.
The need for absolute control of an aircraft in all three axes of motion was by no means apparent to every flyingmachine experimenter. Most would-be aviators had, in fact, moved in the opposite direction, toward the design of a machine that would be inherently stable, requiring the intervention of the pilot only when a change in direction or altitude was required. The insistence of the Wright brothers that the pilot must be an integral part of the mechanical system, exercising complete and constant control over the balance and direction of the machine, was their first major step toward success. The pilot of any plane today plays a similar role, although the controls have largely been automated. A plane’s various movements still must be constantly coordinated.
Bicycle manufacturing had been the ideal preparation for engineering a plane.
The Wrights’ experience as cyclists was crucial in other ways as well. One must learn to fly, they knew, as one learned to ride a bicycle—through constant practice. Only in this way could a pilot become accustomed to a machine and reach the point where proper control responses became automatic.
Cycle manufacturing had also been the ideal preparation for engineering the structure of an aircraft. Weight control is a primary concern of both bicycle and aircraft designers, though for very different reasons. The bicycle is a machine propelled by human muscle power. The airplane must lift not only its own weight into the air but that of a crew and payload as well. (But in both cases, the goal of the designer is to pro- vide adequate strength at minimum weight, and in both cases wind resistance is a constant impediment.) The utility of any addition to the basic structure must always be measured against weight and drag penalties.
In all these key areas—balance and control, the emphasis on the operator as an integral part of the total system, and the recognition of the need for weight control—the bicycle had helped to shape the Wright brothers’ approach to aircraft design. The editor of the Binghamton Republican had been correct. “The study to produce a light, swift machine” had led to an “evolution” in which wings had played a “conspicuous part.”
Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that there were thousands of cycle makers active in the United States during the 1890s, and only two of them invented the airplane. Nothing could be more misleading than to regard the Wright brothers simply as very talented (and lucky) bicycle mechanics. They were engineers of genius who happened to be bicycle makers. Their experience in that trade may well have predisposed them to useful solutions in the field of aircraft design. Yet the ability to identify and apply the lessons of cycling required a conceptual grasp and vision far beyond the capacity of the average cycle mechanic.
Moreover, the recognition of these conceptual links was only the beginning. A myriad of problems in aircraft structure, aerodynamics, and propulsion—problems that had baffled some of the world’s best engineering minds—still had to be solved.
The Wright brothers cut straight to the heart of matters that their predecessors had either skirted or attacked from a totally incorrect point of view. They undertook crucial quantitative analyses in areas where other experimenters had assumed the accuracy of available data. They demonstrated the insight, perseverance, skill, and courage required to move from a basic conception to the development of a practical, working airplane. Together, these qualities constituted the genius of Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Tom D. Crouch is curator of mechanical engineering and manufacturing at the National Museum of American History.