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


With cycling mainstreaming, bad press will get worse

Bloody cyclists. Don't pay road tax blah de blah

Famously, Oscar Wilde once said: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

For many years, cyclists in the UK and the US have not been talked about. We’ve been an invisble minority. Ignorable. The foregone conclusion was that once the last die-hard cyclists shuffled off this mortal coil, there would be no replacements, and cycling would go the way of the horse and cart, a footnote in transport history.

Driving everywhere has long been normal in the UK; cycling on city streets has been deviant since the 1960s, and, from the 1970s onwards, so contrarian as to be confrontational.

Cyclists were an out-group, of little consequence. But that was then. There’s more of us now; we’re a lot harder to ignore. And attacks on cycling from the mainstream media are on the increase.

Shock-jocks, tabloid journalists, letters to the editor writers and Jeremy Clarkson might all froth at the mouth when talking about cyclists, but complaints against ‘Lycra Louts’ don’t figure at all in the Government’s list of anti-social behaviour worries, as provided by members of the public.

In fact, as can be seen from the graph below, it’s pavement-parked cars and speeding traffic that most people hate, something mainstream journalists rarely discuss.


Such topics are certainly off-limits at the Daily Mail. Going by the regularity of the articles taking potshots at cycling, the writers on the Daily Mail seem to feel threatened by the rise and rise of cycling. Space that was once reserved for hating on immigrants or berating single mothers is now increasingly being given over to ‘bikes are batty’ articles.

Here’s just one recent example: on 11th December, the Daily Mail carried a long, pictorial article on the amount of paint wasted on a particular cycle path. A photographer blocking the way appeared to make a cyclist ride on the wrong side of the cycle path, leading the Daily Mail headline to decry the spatial awareness of the diverted cyclist.

Tellingly, the article ended with a fear statistic:

“Recent Department of Transport figures reveal that 820 cyclists lost their lives or were seriously injured in the three months to June – an increase of 19 per cent on the same time span last year.”

Why end on such a statistic? It’s to instill fear in would-be cyclists, an attempt to turn back the tide, reduce the desire for cycling. Deep down, could the use of scare tactics by the Daily Mail be because it itself is scared? Scared of a future that might just involve more cyclists? How things have changed.

HGV and woman cyclist

Who could have imagined 20 years ago that, one day, the Prime Minister would be an urban bike commuter? If David Cameron’s Tories win the General Election, that’s what we’ll have. OK, he may ditch the bike for a ministerial car but at least he would know what it’s like to be an urban cyclist, and that’s a huge leap forward.

But not every prominent politician plumps for a ministerial car over a bike. Take the UK’s current transport secretary Lord Adonis. He rides to work.

He said recently: “Nothing we are doing is more important than promoting cycling at the local level.”

The US equivalent to Lord Adonis is Ray LaHood. In a blog posting on December 9th, he attacked a Senator who said spending stimulus cash on bike infrastructre was a “waste.”

LaHood wrote: “some [stimulus] projects include bike paths, a key ingredient in our livability initiative to allow people to live, work, and get around without a car. We don’t call that waste; we call it progress.”

Note, this isn’t a pedalling politician talking, a Kerry or a Blumenauer, it’s the US Secretary of Transport.

LaHood also leaps to the defence of cycling on his Twitter account and, in March, admitted on the official blog of the US Secretary of Transportation that he’s been a “supporter of bicycling for many years.”

His piece was headlined ‘Cyclists are important users of transportation systems’ and LaHood wrote:

“I am committed to investing in programs that encourage bikes to coexist with other modes and to safely share our roads and bridges…Bicycles are a critical part of a cleaner, greener future in American transportation.”

Talk like this is becoming less rare. This must put the heebie-jeebies up petrolheads.

A few years back, Daily Mirror columnist Tony Parsons wrote:

“Bicycles are for children…[they are] like masturbation – something you should grow out of. There is something seriously sick and stunted about grown men who want to ride a bike.”


This disparaging is a sure sign that cycling is growing. Lots of perfectly sane and sensible adults are now riding around the cities of the UK and the US. In normal clothes. Cycling becoming ‘normal’ is something critics can’t stand. They kick out at cyclists who refuse to wear helmets, hate on cyclists who jump red lights, ride on pavements, and simply detest that cyclists don’t pay ‘road tax’ but, take heart, much of this anti-bike bleating is a reaction against the increasing visibility of cycling.

Sociologist Dave Horton believes such critics now view cycling as a threat to the infernal combustion engine:

For the last third of the twentieth century, the cyclist was relegated in favour of the motorist. But the cyclist is coming back. And…it is experienced by many people as as a threat…The push to bring cycling in from the margins suggests that car-centred lives will not continue forever. Forcing an encounter with the idea of oneself as a cyclist, it provokes fear of cycling…[and] fear of the cyclist is related to people’s anxieties that they, too, might end up taking to cycling, and becoming a ‘cyclist’.

As people feel increasing pressure to get on bikes themselves, and thus really start to engage with the realities of currently dominant cycling conditions, we may also hear more cries that cycling is too dangerous. People’s fears of cycling will become more real and powerful as the prospects of their cycling grow greater. And people will feel and fear the loss of a way of life as it has come to be lived, as automobilised.

When these anxieties become intense, and the calls that cycling is too dangerous become really vociferous, we should, I think, take them as a sign that – as a culture – we are getting really serious about once more getting on our bikes.

Peter Lensink, Ned Railways

The Netherlands already has such a culture and while Dutch people may still laugh at our feeble attempts at replicating that culture, Dutch folks who live in the UK have noticed big changes in just a short period of time. Peter Lensink, a London-based executive of Ned Railways, the Dutch rail giant, said cycling in the capital is at a tipping point:

“There’s been a change in perception, not just people in Lycra. Biking is becoming part of mobility. I pedal on a Dutch roadster and cycle everywhere in my suit. There are now lots like me. Who would ever have imagined the junction between Tavistock Square and Tavistock Place would have cycle congestion in the mornings?”

A northern friend of mine was in London last week for one of his rare visits and told me he was surprised by the greatly increased number of cyclists he saw.

“At one traffic light there were five cyclists lined up behind each other. And this was at night, in the freezing cold. London is filling up with cyclists.”

The mass media diatribes against cycling won’t abate, they’ll get worse. Anti-cycling articles by car reviewing chefs and columnists who want us garroted, broadcast the fact that cycling is becoming way too normal for some people.

I started with a famous quote and I’ll end with another. In a speech from 1914, US trade unionist Nicholas Klein said:

“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”

We’re at the end of stage two. Get ready for the attacks: the media ones we can live with, it’s the motorised, road-rage ones we could do without.

Does this pic shout ‘cycling is joyous’?

Josh cycling as he smiles (or smiling as he cycles)

This is my boy, Josh. He loves bikes, which is a distinct advantage in the Reid household. The pic was taken on a family bike tour a couple of years ago. I’ve entered it into a US bike advocacy competition, run by the Alliance of Biking and Walking. If you like the pic, please consider voting for it.

There are plenty of other pix on the competition site, including another three of mine, one of which is here. To vote requires no site registration. Underneath the main pic here, locate the five gold stars. Click on them and you’ve voted.

The winning photographs will go into a photo library of bicycle – and walking – advocacy images.

The competition will be judged on the following criteria (I think I have the ‘smiling’ bit nailed):

1. Useful to biking and walking advocacy: Does the photo show positive images of biking and walking that connect with a general audience? Can this photo be used by biking and walking advocates to convey their message?

2. Shows the people and faces of biking and walking: We want photos with people in them. We’re looking for photos that show the smiling faces of biking and walking.

3. Represents the «everyday» cyclist or walker: (e.g. people walking to work, friends biking in the park, a family crossing the street). We are not very interested in photos showing bike racing and photos exclusively showing people biking in spandex.

4. Shows Diversity: We are looking for photos that show the diversity of people that bike and walk. We are looking for diversity of age and ethnicity. We also include pictures showing people with disabilities and geographic diversity (urban and rural settings).

5. Has aesthetic quality: Does the photo have a good composition? Are images in focus? Is the photo illustrative (i.e. does it tell a story)?

6. Are generic/universal images: Does the photo appear to be from Anytown? We are looking for photos that could be used by individuals and organizations throughout North America, that have no major distinguishing landmarks or individuals (eg. a photo of a family safely crossing the street via a crosswalk – the crosswalk could be from any town/city; a photo taken from the back of a crowd, where the individuals are anonymous).

7. Are creative! While we are looking for classic shots, close ups of faces, etc., we are also interested in unique and rare subject matters. Does the photo have a creative perspectives/angles (eg. photos taken from behind or from the side, as opposed to straight-on)? Is their blank space/room for text or ads, such as for a magazine cover or organization pamphlet?