An ordinary machine?

John Pinkerton's journey through the evolution of the bicycle reaches a peak, so to speak, with the era of the High Bicycle. He tells SIMON LEVERMORE about these magnificent machines and their ingenious inventors

Those of us interested in bicycle history abhor the term Penny Farthing,' says Pinkerton. 'It's a derogatory term. It was first recorded in Bicycle News, March 7, 1891.' 'Come off that penny-farthing!' cried a gamin [street urchin] to the rider of an obsolete Ordinary.

In their day, bicycles with a large front wheel and a small rear wheel were simply called bicycles. Later, when the safety bicycle was introduced, riders needed to differentiate between their new machine and the bicycle that was already in production. They began to call the new bicycles Safeties and those with the large front wheel Ordinaries, because that was the ordinary bicycle at the time.

'If you talk to someone today about an ordinary bicycle,' says Pinkerton, 'they'd probably think of a shopper bike. This is why the term High Bicycle has been used for some time to more accurately describe a bicycle with a very large front wheel.'

Those big wheels were a key component, and ripe for innovation. On the 11th August 1870, James Starley and William Hillman were granted a patent for improvements to velocipede wheels and driving gear, and the bicycle that resulted from this was called the Ariel. This was a key point in bicycle development, making possible the lightweight, robust wheels used by bicycles today.

'What the Ariel did was to turn the wheel inside out,' says Pinkerton. 'Instead of the wheels being in compression as on the wooden wheeled hobby-horse and Boneshaker, the wheels on the Ariel were in tension. These relied on each of the wire spokes pulling the rim towards the hub. It meant that you could build bigger and lighter wheels.'

The spokes were made in pairs, hooked through a loop stapled on the underside of the rim. The ends of the spokes were hooked into the hub flange. Two metal levers projected from the hub, and were attached to the rim using threaded spokes. When these spokes were tightened, the levers twisted the hub with respect to the rim, bringing the rest of the spokes into tension. Provided the spokes were all exactly the same length, the wheel would become tight, and stay round and true.

After this breakthrough, there were just a few more evolutionary changes to come. A wheel with radial spokes threaded into nipples loosely riveted into the rim was patented by William H J Grout, on the 1st December 1870. 'He'd invented the tension spoke, in the UK, as we it know today,' says Pinkerton.

Another system was invented by the Frenchman Eugene Meyer, and was reported as being used in a race in 1869. His design had spokes headed at the rim, with the tension adjustment being made at the hub flange using small nuts in radial slots. Meyer couldn't successfully patent his spoke system, as he had already sold a pair of his wheels before the patent application went through.

According to Pinkerton, Meyer was a true craftsman who produced some beautiful machines, but suffered from not being in the right place at the right time. His work is more appreciated today: one bike using his wheels has sold for nearly £30,000!

Then, in 1874, Starley came up with the final piece in the jigsaw. He devised a method of building wheels where the spokes left the hub flange at a tangent. Tangent spoking resulted in a stiffer and stronger wheel, better able to resist driving forces. The hub flange had large holes, in line with the axle, through which short bars were fitted. These were tapped at each end to accept spokes. The spokes went off at a tangent from the hub and almost at right angles to each other. It was much easier to replace a broken spoke than on a wheel where the spokes screwed directly into the hub flange. Eventually, tangent wheels with spoke nipples fitted at the rim became popular.

'There was a fad for using a lot of spokes,' Pinkerton comments. 'The Surrey Machinist Co. advertised wheels with up to 300 spokes in them. On a 54-inch wheel that would mean a spoke about every half an inch! You'd almost have more holes than rim.'

Solid rubber tyres were fitted to both wheels and, once it was realised that you didn't need a large back wheel to support the bicycle's backbone, it became fashionable to have very small back wheels. As the High Bicycle developed, tubular frame construction meant that they could be made much lighter. In the mid-1880s there were high bicycles that weighed about 211b. These were for track racing - road racing was illegal in the UK at the time. In 1889 Harry James offered a 121b high bicycle, a difficult weight to achieve today!

Tubular frames meant it was easier to make high bicycles. Even so, the price remained at a point where they were still only for the very rich and athletic young men. “There was a ladies' high bicycle manufactured,” says Pinkerton. “The poor soul had to sit side-saddle and ride with full length skirts. The back wheel was out of line with the front and both pedals were on one side of the front wheel. To date none of these machines have been found.”

Bicycle manufacture now became more of a business. Larger factories were built and high bicycles were exported all over the world. People began to ride longer distances. The End-to-End was done on a high bicycle in under six days, and in 1884, the Englishman Thomas Stevens, who had emigrated to America, decided to ride from the west coast to the east coast of the United States. When he got there, he just carried on going and cycled right round the world on his high bicycle.

The high bicycle era lasted until the end of 1880s. Although alternatives had begun to appear by the late 1870s, none of them really caught on until, in January 1885, the first Rover Safety bicycle was put on display with its chain-driven back wheel. A new cycling age was about to begin.