The bicycle builders who changed history


On December 17th, 1903, at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, Orville Wright completed the world’s first successful powered, heavier-than-air flight. The 12-second 120-foot journey was an history changing event, blazing a trail for military aircraft, commercial airliners and space travel. How was it funded? By a bicycle business.

On May 30th 1899, Wilbur Wright wrote to the Smithsonian Institution, asking for papers on man’s attempt to fly. He paid for the papers from his and his brother’s bicycle business. The accounts for the Wright Cycle Co. includes an 1899 entry of $5.50 “for books on flying.”

“I am an enthusiast but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine,” he wrote to the Smithsonian, revealing he was “about to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work to which I expect to devote what time I can spare from my regular business.”


He and his brother would take turns to man their bicycle store as they tested first a kite prototype and then larger scale gliders in 1900, 1901 and 1902. Their first powered aeroplane in 1903 used bicycle chains and sprockets to link the propellors. Their aeroplane frames were made up of bicycle-type double-triangles. Wilbur’s visionary ‘wing warping’ technique of controlling an aircraft’s pitch, roll and yaw was developed in 1899 after twisting an empty bicycle tube box with the ends removed. Wing warping is still used today, albeit with ailerons.

The Wright Brothers had used one of their bicycles to work out their ideal wing shape. The brothers took turns pedalling their converted machine in Dayton. A handlebar-mounted wheel (see inset pic above) was fitted with two metal plates, one flat, one curved, ninety degrees apart. Orville and Wilbur used the device to measure air resistance.

“The results obtained with the rough apparatus…gave evidence of such possibility of exactness,” wrote Wilbur.

By riding along and generating some wind flow, the brothers were able to disprove earlier theories on lift.

The brothers later invented the wind tunnel to fine tune their early experiments in aerodynamics. This was a box six feet long and sixteen inches square on the inside. They mounted a fan attached to a sheet metal hood to one side and replaced a panel on the top of the box with a pane of glass so they could see inside. The fan moved the air through the tunnel at 27 miles per hour and the brothers tested hundreds of small sections of wings and wing shapes. High-tech wind tunnels would, of course, be later used to fine-tune the best aerodynamic shapes for bicycles…

By 1903, the brothers had achieved their goal of constructing a practical flying machine capable of remaining in the air for extended periods of time and operating under the full control of the pilot.

The earlier, smaller machines had been built and tested in the Wright’s bicycle store, in full view of customers.

In a later patent infringement case, the Wright brothers had to recall these early experiements to prove their patents.

Orville remembered spending long hours at the bicycle shop, waiting on customers, performing repairs, and constructing his kite.

“I was not able to be present when the structure was flown as a kite, but I operated the machine in our store before it was taken out to be flown,” Orville told the court.

Bike buff boffins
The brothers were cycling enthusiasts. In 1892, Orville bought a new Columbia safety bicycle for $160. In the same year, Wilbur purchased a used Eagle safety bicycle for $80. Orville entered bicycle races put on by the YMCA Wheelmen. Wilbur liked to ride more slowly, taking in the passing scenery and, importantly, watching birds fly.

It’s therefore entirely possible that powered flight was conceived from the saddle.

The Wrights designed and built their Van Cleve and St. Clair custom bikes, starting in 1896. Their top-end bikes were priced around $100, which would be worth $2150 today, although they also had $30 models.

Originally small-town publishers and jobbing printers, the Wrights were inspired by their new found passion for bicycles to open a bicycle sales and repair shop called the Wright Cycle Exchange at 1005 West Third Street in Dayton, Ohio in 1892.

As their business grew, the Wright brothers moved their bicycle shop six times and changed the name to the Wright Cycle Co. in 1894.

In April 1896, the Wrights introduced their first in-house bike, the Van Cleve. Catharine Benham Van Cleve Thompson, the Wright brother’s great, great grandmother, had been among Dayton’s first settlers. Later in the year, the Wrights introduced a second, less expensive model called the St. Clair. Again, the name was drawn from local history; Arthur St. Clair had been the first president of the Northwest Territory, which later became Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

The St. Clair was built up from parts that were available from sources such as the Davis Sewing Machine Company of Dayton, Ohio, which later became the Huffy Corporation.


Cycle innovators
The Wright brothers introduced two innovations on their bicycles. The Van Cleve came with a special “self-oiling hub” and, in 1900, the Wright’s announced a “bicycle pedal that can’t come unscrewed.”

Wilbur and Orville used right-hand threads on one pedal and left-hand threads on the other so the pedalling action tended to tighten both pedals.

Up until then most pedals had right-hand threads, leading to pedal drop-offs.

Their bicycle business was profitable for many years. In 1897, their best year, they made $3000 between them at a time when the average American worker was doing well to make $500 per year. The profits funded their aviation experiments.

By the turn of the century, however, the US market was flooded with $10 mass-produced bicycles and the manufacturing side to Wright Cycle Co. became less and less profitable.

The Wright’s stopped producing own-label bikes in 1904. The bike store continued to sell branded bikes and P&A but was converted to a machine shop in 1909 when the Wright Company, an aircraft manufacturing business, started producing bicycle-inspired parts for aeroplane engines.

Bells are not necessary…
The Van Cleve was first advertised in Snap Shots, a weekly Dayton newspaper printed and published by the industrious Wright brothers. The last ever edition of the publication carried this self-promotion:

“For a number of months Wright Cycle Co. have been making preparations to manufacture bicycles. After more delay than we expected, we are at last ready to announce that we will have several samples out in a week or ten days and will be ready to fill orders before the middle of next month. The WRIGHT SPECIAL will contain nothing but high grade material throughout, although we shall put it on the market at the exceedingly low price of $60…and we will guarantee it in the most unqualified manner.”

And in an earlier editorial in Snap Shots, one of the Wright brothers showed his contempt for an issue that will tickle British bike shop owners because of the Department for Transport regulation that all bicycles now have to come fitted with bells:

“The Board of City Affairs will find that it is monkeying with a buzz saw, if it does not look out. The bicycle riders of this city are too numerous to be tramped on with impunity. Bells and lanterns are the biggest frauds ever invented


Launch of the Brompton, 1987: ‘a sad sign of the times’


In 1895, Albert Einstein’s teacher said to his father: “It doesn’t matter what he does, he will never amount to anything.”

In 1911, Marshal Ferdinand Foch said: “Airplanes are interesting toys, but they have no military value.”

In 1949, Popular Mechanics magazine said: “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”

And in 1987, Peter Lumley, editor of a British bicycle trade magazine, said the newly-introduced Brompton shouldn’t win a ‘best of show’ prize because – a ‘sad sign of the times’ – it was just a bike “you fold up and chuck in a car boot.”

As it happens, the Brompton did win the ‘best of show’ prize and went on to become the iconic legend we all know today.

David Henshaw, author of a forthcoming book on the Brompton, asked me to scan in the Brompton pages from my copy of the April 1987 Cycle Trader magazine. He told me: “I don’t think many people there that day would have guessed that 20 years later Brompton would be the only mass-produced bicycle to be made in the UK.”


Peter Lumley long ago recanted his dismissal of the Brompton. And those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones: also in 1987 I was asked by an industry magnate whether a standalone mountain bike magazine could work, I said no, and MBUK was launched soon thereafter. Shows you how much I know.

Are you an “everlasting scorcher with sunken cheeks”? So, how are your bowels?

I’m a sucker for old books on cycling. And the faded tome above is a real corker. It’s an American book on ‘how to bicycle’ from 1892, by L. F. Korns.

Almost the whole book is quotable but here are just a few choice extracts:

“A ride at moonlight is a nerve tonic that beats all the phosphorous compounds that Esculapius ever dreamed of.”

“As a means of locotmotion, it is the fastest of road steeds, is always ready for use, and never consumes grain.”

“To the business man who is shut up in an office or store most of the day, it is a God-send. It gives him the exercise he so much needs and which he would not get in any other way.”

“As a means of pleasure, cycling stands in the foremost rank, but in common with all the great pleasures, it may easily stand in the foremost in abuse. The desire to ride at an unreasonably high speed may become morbid…The ever lasting scorcher, bent like a hoop, and with sunken cheeks, ought to be quite sufficient warning against this abuse.”

“Cycling fills the remotest cells of the lungs with outdoor air. The pores are opened and the dead secretions are thrown off. It aids the peristaltic movement of the bowels…”

Here, the esteemed author, provides are some medical opinions:

Dr. K. K. Doty of New York said:

“Cyclers see considerable more of this beautiful world than any other class of citizens. A good bicycle, well applied, will cure most ills this flesh is heir to.”

J. A. Chase, a doctor from Pawtucket, surmised that bicycling would lead to fewer patients:

“I fear that the universal adoption of cycling would be bad for the doctors.”

Men of the cloth were bicycle advocates, too, reports Mr Korns. The Reverend W.J Petrie of Chicago said:

“I expect to see the day when not to ride a wheel will be a mark of a defective education, and people will say to such a person, ‘Why, where have you been brought up?'”

Rev. Maltie of Baltimore loved the airy freedom of cycling:

“If I were not a man, I would like to be a bird. As I am a man, I do the next best thing, and ride a bicycle.”

Clearly, I’m going to have to update my ‘Quote:Unquote’ article on cycling. This book, and 59 other flickable publications, such as the ‘Bike the Strike’ Bike to Work Book, can be found on’s Bicycling Group.

The Lugano Charter to be revisited?

The New York Times is reporting that the UCI could be about to stage one of its irregular stabbing attacks against the sport it claims to represent. The Lugano Charter – a charter for stifling innovation – might be about to be upgraded.

It’s worth reading this charter. It’s the philosophic basis behind the organisation’s much more difficult to digest technical regulations.

The Lugano charter

Tuesday 8th October 1996

Being aware of the potential dangers and problems posed by a loss of control over the technical aspects of cycling, the UCI Management Committee has today, Tuesday 8th October, taken a number of measures here in Lugano.

In doing so, the UCI wishes to recall that the real meaning of cycle sport is to bring riders together to compete on an equal footing and thereby decide which of them is physically the best.

The features which have contributed to the world-wide development and spread of the bicycle are its extraordinary simplicity, cost-effectiveness and ease of use. From a sociological point of view, as a utilitarian and recreational means of transport, the bicycle has given its users a sense of freedom and helped create a movement which has led to the considerable renown and popular success which cycle sport enjoys. The bicycle serves to express the effort of the cyclist, but there is more to it than that. The bicycle is also a historical phenomenon, and it is this history which underpins the whole culture behind the technical object.

If we forget that the technology used is subordinate to the project itself, and not the reverse, we cross the line beyond which technology takes hold of the system and seeks to impose its own logic. That is the situation facing us today. New prototypes can be developed because they do not have to take into account constraints such as safety, a comfortable riding position, accessibility of the controls, manoeuvrability of the machine, etc. The bicycle is losing its “user-friendliness” and distancing itself from a reality which can be grasped and understood. Priority is increasingly given to form. The performance achieved depends more on the form of the man-machine ensemble than the physical qualities of the rider, and this goes against the very meaning of cycle sport.

The many effects of this rush to extremes risk damaging the sport of cycling. These include spiralling costs, unequal access to technology, radical innovations prepared in secret, a fait accompli policy, damage to the image of cycle sport and the credibility of performances and the advent of a technocratic form of cycling where power is concentrated in the hands of a few powerful players, to the detriment of the universality of the sport on which its future and continued development depend.

Sounds reasonable, but had this charter been around in the early days of cycling we’d have had no derailleur gears and no quick release wheels. Taken to its logical conclusion we should have no MTB suspension forks; no power meters; no composite frames. Just a steel diamond frame and a single gear.

In fact, the UCI could be seen to be at the very nadir of cycling cool: give the wonks their way and we’d all be riding around on fixies.

I’d like you to be my guest

Pickwick Club - Mr Grundy

I’m a member of The Pickwick Club, the world’s oldest extant bicycle club, founded in 1870. It’s also the world’s oldest extant Dickensian association. As a member, I can invite guests to the club’s functions. There are two main ones each year: posh and ribald ‘luncheons’ in the 200-year old New Connaught Rooms, near Covent Garden. The great and good of the bicycle world go to these functions, from industry bigwigs to pro riders (I sat next to David Millar at a previous function). And I’d like to invite you to be my guest at the 2009 President’s Luncheon, taking place on Thursday, May 7th.

I have a number of guests already booked in – including some famous names – but I’ve reserved another space for you. That is if you’re a man. Sorry, but this Pickwick Club is male-only, unlike this Pickwick Club which allows members to, ahem, hang free. And you have to tell me why you’d like to be my guest. Be witty, be smart, get into the flavour of the event by drinking a glass or three of red wine before you pen your prose.

Your Pickwickian request needs to be short; must be an @ reply to me – @carltonreid; and must include the hashtag #BeMyGuest. This will then appear on this search page for all to see. This isn’t a competition, there’s no ‘prize’, I want to invite somebody who’s never had a chance to go to one of these wonderful functions.

So, what should you expect to see at the Pickwick Club? Hundreds of men in club ties and straw boaters, the uniform of the club since 1870, the year Charles Dickens died. His first novel was The Pickwick Papers. Club members are given sobriquets, all taken from characters in this book. I’m Mr. Grundy. There are only a finite number of characters in the book so to become a member you go on what is now a ten-year waiting list and, when an unfortunate member shuffles off this mortal coil, in you jump.

The Pickwick Papers, serialised in 20 monthly instalments in 1836 and 1837, follows the adventures of Samuel Pickwick Esq., his sidekick Sam Weller, and their fellow members of the eponymous, all-male club. It’s a very funny, laddish sort of a book, full of vim and vigour.

And intoxicating liqueur.

The modern-day luncheon starts at midday and finishes about three-ish: but members have been known to arrive home in the wee hours of the morning. As my guest you’ll sit with me and my other Pickwickian guests. You’ll also rub shoulders with lots of big-names from the world of cycling and be entertained by an after-dinner speaker.

You’ll need to make your own way to London, and must have the ability to get on a tube train (or collapse into a taxi) after an afternoon, and very possibly early evening, of wine, no-women and song.

Gary Fisher Q&A

Gary Fisher: @lancearmstrong u need Action Wipes

The other weekend Gary Fisher was in London buying yet more snazzy duds but he also appeared at a screening of Klunkerz, the mountain bike history documentary. The next day I interviewed him for his views on transport bikes – audio and story here – but at the screening I recorded his answers from a detailed and entertaining Q&A session.

Click on the image of Gary on his Superfly 29er for the sound or subscribe to the Quickrelease podcast in iTunes.

This is the original trailer for the Klunkerz move:

And this is the brand new trailer:

Here are some keyword highlights from the audio above:

George Lucas. Grateful Dead. BMX cruiser class. 29er bikes. Panasonic 32lb bikes. Gearboxes. Girls looking good on bikes. Copenhagen Cycle Chic. Steel v alumunim v carbon. New tech: 10 years of failures. Dashing Tweeds. Living in the same shack as W.C. Fields. Carved tokers. Avenue of the Giants trail, California.

Gary Fisher: “I could have been a frame builder, I know how to braze but I didn’t want to get into metal therapy, I wanted to build a company that covered the earth with bikes.”

Plain MP3.

Go bag a Bickerton

Check this 1983 TV advert for Bickerton folding bikes. Brompton wasn’t the only British folding bike maker of the time.

The advert was put together for Bickerton Rowlinson Ltd by Sharps advertising, who subsequently became Dorland (part of Saatchi and Saatchi). I don’t think the scriptwriter won any awards for this ad, but you got to love the idea of putting a nun on a bike.

The ad aired on national telly. It went out on the young Channel 4. Bickerton scored a great deal because there was an actor’s union strike at the time and few ads were able to beat the Equity blockade.

Mark Bickerton, son of the bike’s inventor, said:

“The name Bickerton is still synonymous with folding bikes, and it is amazing how many people still remember this advert 24 years on.”

“For years, I have been searching for a copy of this advert and the other day someone e-mailed me with a digital copy. It’s a little bit of history.”

Mark Bickerton has been the UK agent/importer of Dahon folding bikes since the mid-1980s.

Should cycling be promoted as slow or swift?

T’other week I gave a talk to a bunch of bike-centric town planners, academics and others who could afford the steep conference fee. I used pix from London, Amsterdam and Copenhagen to show how cycling is portrayed in those cities.

In London, cycling is often portrayed by media such as the BBC as a battle between emission-emitting cars and smogmask-wearing cyclists. Stock images of cyclists tend to be of the scary variety: hi-ves vests, helmets, full-on protective gear. Cycling is rarely portrayed as sedate or normal.

Naturally, stock images of cycling are very different in the Netherlands and Denmark.

For my PowerPoint presentation I flicked between these different portrayals of cycling, singling out an image of a smog-mask cyclist in London as not something that does cycling any favours. However, I said I liked the motion blur in the shot and then went on to show other examples of motion blur cycling photography.

In the Q&A after the presentation I was taken to task for using speed to sell cycling. Cycling is slow, I was told, that’s the message that newbies want to hear.

In the Bike to Work Book I want to portray cycling as a fast way of getting through town, but also, when needs be, a slow, civilised, non-sweaty way of getting around. I’ll be using both static and motion blur photography, as you can see on the cover below.

But here’s a wonderful example of how cycling speedily used to be promoted:

Raleigh bicycle poster 1932

I love the way the smiling woman is dressed to the nines for a normal day at work – or going to the pictures or the tea shop – but is clearly belting along at a fair old lick.


Do you think motion blur photographs portray cycling as fast, sweaty, elitist? Or swift but achievable by anybody?

Pashley chaps ride L’Eroica on Gov’nor’s

L’Eroica, the 205km ride in the Tuscan countryside, celebrates the cycling of yesteryear. Read about David and Bryce’s ride here.

A film tribute to the father of mountain biking

Film-maker Billy Savage – creator of Klunkerz, the film history of mountain biking – has emailed some news regarding a tribute to J.F. Scott, the cycle-mad professor who made a ‘Woodsie’ bike in 1953, long before the mountain bikes of Marin County in the late 1970s.

Savage writes:

“I made a little tribute film for U.C. Davis Professor J.F. Scott’s induction into the MTB Hall of Fame. He was in KLUNKERZ and was murdered by a crazed madman shortly after I interviewed him. He was the inspiration for most of the guys recognized as the pioneers of the sport like Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze, Tom Ritchey, Mike Sinyard, etc.

“Finley, as he was known to his friends, made the first cool multi-gear off-road bike (The Woodsie Bike) in 1953. He also designed a lightweight ‘Fibre-glass’ cross country bike in that same year. He was also the investor in a little company, cleverly named MountainBikes, run by a kid by the name of Gary Fisher. While working as a Professor at U.C. Davis, he was the Chairman of the Davis Double Century race. He owned one of the coolest bike shops in the S.F. Bay Area: The Cupertino Bike Shop. In the 1970s he even co-drafted legislation in California for bicycles to be recognized as vehicles on public roads (vehicular cycling). This legislation helped set the standard for bicycles as vehicles across the US. We all really owe Professor Scott some thanks for all those bike lanes across America.

“I was very fortunate to have interviewed him for my film, KLUNKERZ.

“I never imagined I’d be using out takes of the footage for a tribute film for a homicide victim. But then again, I never thought I’d be writing a judge letters of ‘sentence recommendation’ in a murder trial, either. I guess we never know where the trail really leads until we get there. Professor Scott’s death had a profound effect on a great many people, including most of the pioneers of our sport, and even people who barely knew him, like myself. I’m very pleased he was inducted into the Hall of Fame this year. It’s been a long time coming.”

Here are two clips from the tribute: