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Essential but easy to overlook, cyclists have always needed ways of sonorously alerting others to their presence. JIM McGURN looks at some of the thrills and spills encountered by those using their bells... and other, noisier devices!
In 1899 a Dutch cycle journalist described how his touring companion demonstrated the power of his new cycle horn. When almost level with a peasant woman he gave her such a blast that she leapt into the air knocking over her perambulator full of groceries, which spilled over the road. The cyclist collided with the debris and came to grief. Covered in sticky green soap and coffee beans, he was made to pay for all the damage on the spot.
This proved, according to the journalist, that horn-blowers are irresponsible slobs. And, he went on, 'the man with the deep-toned horn is the very worst. He is no more than a scorcher, and a terroriser of old ladies'. Bell-tinklers, he thought, are more sophisticated and considerate. The bell-horn debate is with us still.
Boneshaker riders of the 1860s sometimes attached dangling bells to their bodies or machines, as did their successors on the high-wheeled Ordinary bicycle. Clubmen on Ordinaries used military-style bugles to broadcast riding-commands and to give exuberant warnings of their approach. Badly blown bugles could easily attract derision.
There is always money to be made from bicycle accessories, and 19th century inventiveness nurtured a wide range of noise-making devices. Then it all settled down, and cyclists now seem to have little more than tinny horns and cheap bells to choose from. It's time we looked again at ways of making big noises. Freon horns are ecological disasters, bulb-horns don't seem to last, and few bells can reach the ears of those who themselves seal themselves off in motor vehicles. We need something to make a decent noise when the need is there!
A stop-bell of the late 1870s. There were various methods for stilling suspended bells when peace and quiet were required.
The tyre-driven bell became popular in the 1890s. It is thought that Elgar used one (and some believe that one of his Enigma Variations contains a tinkling bicycle bell). A bell based on the same principle is manufactured by Union in Germany, and may be available through British bike shops.
Other bells were driven by the revolving spokes. Such a bell was available for riders of High Bicycles: the famous Arab Alarum was activated at an average rate of 1,500 strokes a minute.
The pedal-bell from the United States. By kicking the small lever bottom right you brought the bell in contact with the tiny spokes of the small wheel situated between the pedal and the crank-end. It caused much amusement, in that few onlookers could ever guess where the noise was coming from.
'Mr. H. C. Lawlor of Ballymoney, in Ireland, has introduced a rather novel idea in the way of cycle alarms, his intention being to combine pleasure with necessity. It consists of the attachment of a number of tuned bells to the handle-bars, by which airs can be played at will by the rider. We give an illustration of his method of arranging the octave, four notes on each handle. At right angles to a small L-shaped rod are fastened the four bells, and in a position convenient to the rider's fingers are corresponding spring keys. By an ingenious contrivance the latter can be set to whatever distance from the hand the rider may wish, thus enabling him to rattle off with ease all the simple airs.' (CTC Gazette, 1892.)
Many bells of the 1890s were sold as luxury items, being finely engraved or having decorated enamel tops.
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