Make sure to check out the full museum gallery with great shots of all the bikes in the museum.
Glenn Eames, our founder, recalls his earliest experiences of cycling: “I had many eureka moments when I began cycling in the early 1970’s. After buying a new Raleigh Super Course and revisiting old back roads where I had grown up, I discovered that the world looked quite different from the vantage point of a bicycle saddle. Whisking downhill or riding a tailwind, cycling offered the perfect speed. Day trips soon became weekend overnights, and my stripped down full-Campy race bike with sew-up tires morphed into a loaded touring bike."
Another eureka moment happened when I walked into the tiny bike shop in my home town and saw a 19th century ‘Penny Farthing’ or ‘High Wheeler’ for the first time, sitting on a dusty shelf, surrounded by sporting goods and modern bicycle accessories. What a cool bike! I was amazed by the sight of it, intrigued that anyone would build such a thing, let alone ride it. In that moment I didn’t realize that this bike and this question would inspire a lifelong passion.
I purchased a copy of Andrew Ritchie’s King of the Road, a pictorial history of cycling in the 19th century. In its pages I discovered that I had the same powerful motivation, to ride out and explore the world while improving health and spirit, that inspired others to create, refine and perfect one of the simplest and most efficient aids to human mobility ever conceived.
Our museum is a humble attempt at chronicling some of the mechanical innovations of cycling’s Golden Age, the years 1866 through 1905. Many evolutionary highlights are included. It is not, however, meant to give the entire story; it is but a glimpse. Included are a number of later vintage classics from the 1930's through the 1990's.
The earliest documented commercial cycling success was the ‘Hobby Horse’. Designed in 1817 as a means for Baron Karl Drais von Sauerbronn of Germany to survey his gardens and land holdings, the Hobby Horse or ‘Walking Machine’ was merely a beam set across two wheels, with a saddle for the rider. The rider’s feet touched the ground, but his weight was supported by the beam and wheels. He could run, walk along, or coast; propulsion and braking were determined ultimately by the traction of his feet on the ground. The Hobby Horse’s popularity was short-lived, but before dying out the fad spread from Germany to France, and from there to the United Kingdom and the United States.
It took another 40 years for the arrival of the Velocipede. The Velocipede improved dramatically upon the the abilities of the Hobby Horse by enabling the rider to power the machine directly, by placing his or her feet on pedals attached to crankarms on the axle of the front wheel; the driving motion of the machine was similar to a grinder. Onlookers would stare in disbelief at a velocipedeist's ability to maintain their balance while riding along. The Velocipede was the first machine that allowed a rider to travel greater distances, making touring possible.
In the late 1860‘s the Velocipede underwent many refinements, including increased front wheel diameter, metal wheels with adjustable spokes, and rubber tires. Larger front wheels effectively geared up the machine: the greater the diameter of the driving wheel, the further the bicycle travelled per revolution of the cranks. Metal suspension wheels weighed less than their wooden predecessors, were stronger, could be adjusted to remain round and true, and increased riding speed and comfort. You can see these advances of the 1870s and ‘80s in the two transitional Velocipedes pictured here.
Few machines have been so misunderstood as the high wheel bicycle, or ‘Ordinary’. To mount an Ordinary, the rider would place a foot on a step located over the small rear wheel, give a push, and vault into the saddle, high over the heads of pedestrians. The radius of the gigantic front wheel was limited only by the length of the rider’s leg: the larger the wheel diameter, the higher the speed, allowing the rider to cover greater distances. It was not uncommon for Ordinary riders to travel a hundred miles in a day’s ride, an impossible distance in a carriage or on horseback: the legendary riders of the Pony Express were able to ride seventy-five miles per day only by changing horses every ten miles, an option that was not available to private citizens for personal travel. The Ordinary was potentially a revolutionary breakthrough in personal mobility.
Unfortunately the Ordinary had a significant design flaw. The saddle was positioned above and forward of the center of gravity of the machine: if the front wheel struck a large stone or a pothole, the rider was pitched headlong into disaster. Several solutions to this problem emerged over time.
Two of the most successful approaches to the header problem were the Xtraordinary Challenge, built by the Singer Manufacturing Company of sewing-machine fame; and the Facile, by Beale and Straw. Both designs were significantly safer than the Ordinary.
The Xtra had a raked fork, similar to a chopper motorcycle, allowing the rider to be positioned well behind the center of gravity. The rider propelled the Xtra by means of adjustable-length levers connected to the cranks on the front wheel.
The Facile (the French word for “easy”) had a smaller front wheel than an Ordinary, geared up by adjustable levers. In 1884 Johnny Adams, a champion cyclist, rode a 40-inch Facile nine hundred miles, from Land’s End on the south coast of England to John O’Groats at the northernmost tip of Scotland, in just under seven days. Later that year Adams won a twenty-four-hour distance championship on a Facile, covering 266 miles in one day!
A uniquely American attempt at improving bicycle safety was the Star, which nearly eliminated the risk of the dreaded header by placing the smaller wheel in front. As a demonstration of the Star’s stability, the manufacturer arranged for a professional cyclist to ride a fifty-inch Star down the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Hillman Herbert and Cooper, a celebrated British engineering firm, introduced the Kangaroo in 1884. Their approach to the header problem was to gear up the front wheel with chains and chainwheels, rather than levers, so that the Kangaroo’s 38-inch drive wheel rotated at the same rate as a 54-inch driver.
Cycle historians refer to the Xtra, the Facile, the Star, the Kangaroo, and related designs as ‘High Wheel Safeties’.
The development of chain-drive technology and its application to adult tricycles and bicycles like the Kangaroo led manufacturers to reposition the chain and gearing to the rear wheel. Columbia, America’s first major bicycle manufacturer, began making high-wheel bicycles in 1877. In 1888 they introduced the Veloce, which featured a chain-driven rear wheel geared to 52 inches and an innovative cross-frame design, combining the speed of a 52-inch-diameter wheel with greatly improved safety. The new frame design was called, appropriately enough, the ‘Safety’.
By 1890 bicycles were safer, faster, and easier to ride. Pneumatic tires and wheels of equal diameter made it far easier to master the new Safeties than earlier models. Cycling was accessible to the timid, the aged, and, most notably, to women. A few audacious women of the late Victorian Era were willing to mount an Ordinary, but most respectfully declined out of modesty and the elaborate, awkward dress of the period. Riding became one of life’s pleasures.
“The Gay 90s” saw literally millions ‘take to the wheel’. Cities and most bigger towns boasted at least one cycling club; the membership rolls of the League of American Wheelmen (now the League of American Cyclists) swelled. By 1896 there were over 3000 bicycle manufacturers in the United States alone; by the turn of the twentieth century there were an astounding ten million bicycles for the sixteen million American households of the day!
America’s love affair with the bicycle was in full bloom.