Early Bicycles

Early Bicycles

Bicycle enthusiasts join the ranks of other collectors with their unending fascination for the minutiae of the evolution, design and history of their chosen passion. Today’s cool aerodynamic road bikes and sturdy mountain bikes with their lightweight space age tubular frames, spoke wheels, low friction ball bearings and pneumatic tires owe their development over the last 200 years, not to a single person, but to a legion of devoted tinkerers.

An educated German, Baron von Drais of Baden is credited with creating the first bicycle circa 1812 to 1816. With no pedals, springs or brakes it depended on the rider’s foot power for speed and braking. The technology improved with the French “boneshaker”, fitted with pedals, two large wheels and a hard to manage 100-pound iron frame. Going downhill, this heavyweight, with its ineffective hand brake, must have been a frightening threat to pedestrians Finally, about 1870, the Starley Family of Coventry, England, who originally manufactured sewing machines, produced the first commercially successful bicycle referred to as the “Ordinary” or “Pennyfarthing”. It was one of those high wheelers, often pictured in turn of the century prints, with a huge front wheel, some as tall as 58 inches, and a relatively tiny rear wheel. This model was introduced with great success to Americans at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The Starley Family also produced the first “modern” bicycle named the “Rover” in 1885. It featured a lightweight tubular frame, chain and sprocket drive and wire spokes. Innovations to the Starley design followed at lightening speed, including the pneumatic tire, the derailleur gear and folding bike. Jim Hurd, former curator of the Bicycle Museum of America in New Bremen, Ohio is quoted as saying that the ideas were so numerous that one entire building used by the U.S Patent office was required to hold only bicycle patent documents.

Albert Pope of Dayton, Ohio was the man credited with founding the company that built the first American production high wheel bicycle in the 1870s. But Arnold, Schwinn & Company, founded by Ignaz Schwinn, and the Davis Sewing Machine Company, which became Huffy Corporation, really tapped into the bicycle boom of the 1890s. These firms led the way in bicycle technology and design with others into the 20th century.

Every April the town of Copake, New York, in rural Columbia County (just west of the Massachusetts and Connecticut western borders), is transformed into the locus of the bicycle collecting world. The father and son auctioneer team of Mike and Seth Fallon are the impresarios of this two-wheel gala event centered around a Friday swap meet followed by the Saturday auction at their Copake Auction gallery. Collectors are interested in the most historically important, exotic or most deluxe models. Here is a sampling of the hot items at the April 2005 Copake bicycle auction: an 1886 American high wheel model by the L.D. Gaylor Co. of Stanford, Connecticut brought $11,760; a rare vintage 1937 model Evinrude “Streamflow” which found a buyer at $6,720; and a much later 1955 model Huffy “Radio” bike fetched $4,480. Even a 1971 model Schwinn Krate Stingray with a rare disc brake ballooned to $2,352. The prices include the auction buyer’s premium.

For more on antique and vintage bicycles visit the websites of The Bicycle Museum of America (www.bicyclemuseum.com) or the Metz Bicycle Museum (www.metzbicyclemuseum.com).

Historical note by p4A Contributing Editor Robert Goldberg.

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