Take a brake

To stop is as important as to start - be it for the safety of the rider or the destination having been reached. JIM McGURN details some exotic braking systems that have since fallen by the wayside.

It doesn't seem an awfully long way, in conceptual terms, from the brakes used on velocipedes of the 1860s to the bicycle brakes of today. We pull brake levers; our forefathers rotated their handlebars. We use cable; they used cord. We brake mostly onto rims; they braked onto the tread surface. At the turn of the century, however, when the safety bicycle was bringing mobility to millions, cyclists were faced with a delightful array of braking systems. Technical ingenuity and innovation led to a great flowering of inventiveness, as idea after idea proclaimed itself the ultimate. Here we look at some of the methods of braking offered to the fin de siecle cyclist.

The Carloni Brake

Thumb pressure on a small capstan wheel operated this early cable brake by the Carloni Company of Milan. The cable was connected to a conventional plunger brake. Interestingly, the bicycle shown is also fitted with an internal front plunger brake, here causing some obvious design difficulties.

The Ground Brake

Betitled worthies who wrote books on cycling had the following tip for fellow pedallers: to dismount before descending a steep hill, and tie a bundle of branches to there rear of one's bike. This, it appears, would slow one down. The tip may well have inspired the German inventor, Martin Hack who manufactured the ground brake illustrated. Unfortunately the rider needed to dismount in order to lower the brake arm, the resistance of which was adjusted by means of the wing-nutted bolt at the point of pivot. Hack might have been embarrassed to discover that a superior ground brake, operated from the handlebar, had been available to Ordinary (pennyfarthing) riders twenty years earlier, though never widely used. The latter brakes were intended for emergency stops, as they dug into the road with quite some force and were recommended for use only on machines with strengthened backbones.

The Pneumatic Cycle Brake

Finger pressure on the rubber bag forced air down a rubber hose and inflated a brake pad fixed just clear of the tyre. Pressure was released by pushing down the air valve next to the handlebar clip. J. G. Kitchen patented this brake m 1893.

The Back-Pedal Band Brake

The band brake was usually fixed solidly to the side of the rear hub. An internal circular band was caused to press against a circular metal plate. The brake illustrated is the 'Desideratum', activated by a rod pushed by a backward movement of the cranks. The process would work even if the chain were to snap, a mishap greatly feared by early cyclists. Common nowadays, in Northern Continental Europe, are back-pedal brakes operated directly by means of the transmission chain.

The Front Wheel Foot-Brake

This brake clamped to the frame and operated onto the front tyre. Unfortunately, the rider was obliged to lift a foot off the pedal to operate it. This was a potentially dangerous move as the rider thereby lessened his or her ability to slow the fixed-wheel bicycle by means of back-pressure on the revolving cranks. Once feet were off, control over whirring pedals could only be regained at the expense of battered ankles. The brake illustrated was by the Swiss firm of Kuhrt and Schilling.

The Fail-Safe Brake

A Mr J. G. Eccles seems to have laboured long and hard on this particular brake. It has a specific purpose: to operate automatically if the chain snaps. The small roller(f) sits on top of the chain. Should the chain break, a spring would force this roller downwards. Rods d and d, would then pivot together in a clockwise direction, sending roller h upwards along the tyre. As the pivotal point (a) of the brake arms is eccentric to the wheel axle, roller h would simultaneously move inwards onto the tyre.

The Internal Plunger

The standard plunger brake, which operates onto the tread of the tyre, is still seen on some old German roadsters. The drawing, however, shows a design pursued by several German manufacturers in the 1890s: a plunger brake passing inside the headset. The purpose was to protect and brace the rods and, perhaps to improve the aesthetics of the machine. Some manufacturers even abolished the brake lever and required the rider to press down on a knob situated at the top of the headset. The brake illustrated was by the Pfalzische Sewing Machine Co. of Germany.

The illustrations are taken from Fahrradkultur 1, edited by Hans-Erhart Lessing, published by the Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 1982, being an edited reprint of Das Fahrrad und seine Hygiene by Dr med. Schiefferdecker, Berlin 1900.