Bicycles in America

“Life is like riding a bicycle.
To keep your balance
you must keep moving.”
Albert Einstein

 

WK Clarkson

W. K. Clarkson, Jr.

 

Almost simultaneously across the Atlantic in the United States, while the Baron built his cherry tree wood and softwood Draisine, W. K. Clarkson, Jr. of New York, was granted a patent for a velocipede on June 26, 1819. Unfortunately, the records for the patent were destroyed in a fire at the Patent Office in 1836 and we no longer know what this patent covered.

There is no evidence that bicycling gained much popularity in the U.S. at the time. However, around 1863 in Paris, Pierre Michaux played an important part in velocipede development when in his workshop Pierre added pedals to the front axle. To this day it’s not certain whether he or his employee Pierre Lallement is entitled to the credit.

Lallement moved to New Haven Connecticut, and in 1866 he was granted a patent for improvements in velocipedes. Then in 1868, the Hanlon brothers of New York, improved Lallement’s vehicle.

Americans began to show an immense enthusiasm for the velocipede in 1868. By early 1869, a number of carriage builders were making cycles. Numerous riding schools were established in many eastern cities, and the sport of riding became suddenly popular, especially among the students of Harvard and Yale Universities. The craze ended as suddenly as it began. By the end of May in 1869 bicycling was a dying sport.

The reasons for the decline was because the cycles were heavy and cumbersome. There was no cushioning and the rider had to steer and pedal the same front wheel. Riding a velocipede took a great deal of strength and coordination. Cities also began to pass ordinances against riding on pedestrian sidewalks. Further use and development in the United States remained nearly at a standstill during the 1870s.

By the late 1870s, bicycles and tricycles using wire-spoked wheels were commonly seen, notably in England. James Starley of Coventry introduced the Ariel in 1871, a high-wheeled bicycle with wire spokes that was copied for two decades. This type of cycle, with modifications, gained popularity and later became known as an “Ordinary”.

columbia-bicycleAmericans again became interested in bicycles, and began importing machines from England. Albert A. Pope became the first American bicycle manufacturer. In 1878 he began manufacturing bicycles under the trade name “Columbia” in Connecticut.

Twenty years after the success of the Columbia, the American Bicycle Company was founded by Albert Augustus Pope. Shortly after, Pope incorporated the American Bicycle Company on May 12, 1899.

In 1898, the U.S. bicycle industry was caught in a downward spiral of market saturation, over-supply and intense price competition. In an attempt to control supply and limit competition, 42 manufacturers (later over 75 companies) formed the American Bicycle Company and soon afterwards announced plans to open a branch plant in Canada called the National Cycle Company.

American Bicycle later bought the Gormully & Jeffery Manufacturing Company which made Rambler brand bicycles. Rambler bicycle was obtained in 1900 after Thomas B. Jeffery sold it to focus on the Rambler automobile.

Bicycles began to evolve more and more. The Ordinary, or high-wheel bicycle as it is currently called, was light weight and fast. But it was also hazardous, since the rider’s center of gravity was only slightly behind the large front wheel and the rider was in danger of taking what came to be called a “header”—flying over the handlebars.

Ordinary BikesBecause of the Ordinary’s inherent danger, efforts were made to design a safer bicycle. Some people tried to modify the Ordinary to make it safer, others put their efforts into redesigning the bicycle. The latter path won out as “Safety” bicycles became more popular. These cycles had two small wheels of equal size, a chain driver, and gears. Soon after the advent of the Safety bicycle, John Boyd Dunlop patented a pneumatic tire (in both England and the United States). Brakes were also improved in the 1890s.

The number of bicycles in use boomed as production rose from an estimated 200,000 bicycles in 1889 to 1,000,000 in 1899 as popularity skyrocketed for bicycles in America.

Shine On

read about, Bicycling’s Golden Age