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

The Baron Drais

“A wheeled vehicle without a horse
is a thing so preposterous to the eyes of
aldermen that it must be forbidden altogether.”
The New York Herald Article
circa 1800

first-bike 1800s

The Baron’s Laufmaschine displayed at the Kurpfälzisches Museum
in Heidelberg, Germany

Early in 1817 the Baron built out of cherry tree wood and softwood a “running machine”, which he called a Draisine or a Laufmaschine. The machine was more pony-sized than horse-sized so that the riders feet reached the ground for propulsion.

This early bicycle consisted of a saddle seat, handlebars and a steerable front wheel. Testing and improving it throughout the next few years, the Baron finished his invention and patented the running machine in January of 1818.

Almost overnight the Baron’s Laufmaschine became a sensation. News of the running machine spread westward across Europe. Enthusiasm grew among a small circle of young aristocratic men known as “dandies”. Demonstrating one’s manly abilities was key for “dandies”, and the Laufmaschine was a novelty too challenging and exciting for any dandy to pass up.

Draisine bike 1817The Laufmaschine name was a bit foreign to British, so they renamed it the “dandy horse”. Before long, every young gentleman who aspired to the dandy ideal owned a dandy horse. A basic dandy horse in 1818 cost the equivalent of about $900 in today’s money, which made it a rather expensive plaything. The best of these were constructed by carriage builders; the more crude ones were cobbled together by blacksmiths.

As quickly as it appeared, the dandy horse disappeared. By 1820, the price of oats was back down to pre-1815 levels, and horses were readily available to those who could afford them. It wouldn’t be until the mid-1860s that someone had the idea to put pedals on the front wheel of a dandy horse, giving it an improved means of locomotion, as well as a scrub brake for the rear wheel; an improvement for stopping one from crashing it into a hedge.

So, what happened to the Baron Drais?  He went on to also invent the earliest typewriter with a keyboard (1821). He later developed an early stenograph machine which used 16 characters (1827), a device to record piano music on paper (1812), the first meat grinder, and a wood-saving cooker including the earliest hay chest.

The Baron had the misfortune to belong to the losing political party when the Prussians took over Baden, and had his title and property stripped. At age 66, on December 10, 1851, he died penniless and forgotten. 

Without the Baron’s aristocratic plaything he invented, the history of the bicycle might have been very different, and certainly less colorful without the creative endeavors of the Baron Drais.

Shine On

read about, Bicycles in America

Ancestor of all Bicycles

“Truly, the bicycle is the
most influential piece of
product design ever.”
Hugh Pearman

 

mount-tambora-indonesia

1815 Eruption of Mount Tambora, Indonesia

It was the early-18th century in Western Europe when man first began experimenting with human-powered vehicles. In the beginning, these vehicles consisted of four or more wheels and could accommodate up to seven passengers. Much different than carts or carriages, they had handles or ropes for men on foot to push or pull. They were attempts at replacing horses with humans.

Even back in the 1800s, the purchase of a horse was expensive for the working man. No fit and wealthy gentleman would be without a horse for pleasure riding. They usually had horses for drawing carriages, but most affluent European men owned horses for leisure riding.

That all changed in 1815 when the world was thrown into turmoil. A turmoil not from a war or an economic crisis, but because of a small island over six thousand miles from Europe in the South Pacific.

On April 10, 1815, halfway between Asia and Australia, Mount Tambora erupted in Indonesia. It was to become the largest volcanic explosion in recorded history as well as claiming the most fatalities. Mount Tambora’s eruption killed well over 71,000 of its people. This once silent volcano erupted with the power equivalent to 1,000 atomic explosions, blasting about 38 cubic miles of ash, pumice and other matter into the atmosphere.

Ashes reflected the sun’s light and cooled the earth’s surface. Temperatures dropped below freezing in July from Mexico to Vienna. Unexpected snowstorms and rainstorms brought travel to a stop. Farms and grain stores were washed away. Crops failed. Livestock died by the tens of thousands. The world was gripped by the worst famine in a century, and infectious diseases such as typhus was rampant. The year 1816 would become known as “the year without a summer.”

karl-wilhelm-friedrich-christian-ludwig-drais

Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Christian Ludwig Drais

With all the soot and ash engulfing Europe, there was one ray of hope to this gloomy disaster. He was a 31-year-old aristocrat, an expert in forestry, an enthusiastic and passionate horseman as well as an avid inventor from Baden, Germany. His name was Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Christian Ludwig Drais, otherwise known as Baron Drais von Sauerbronn. Baron Drais’ beloved horses died from environmental causes from the volcano eruption, and set the Baron on a journey to invent the bicycle.

It’s not known for sure what the impetus was for the Baron to think about the problems confronting the horses, and how those factors affected gentlemen who rode for pleasure. But somehow, his grief from losing his horses, led him to thinking about the basic form of the horse and its accommodations for a rider. He began with experimenting with a wooden and wrought iron frame and a pair of carriage wheels in tandem. The result would be recognized by anyone today as, the ancestor of all bicycles.

Shine On

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