I had an article published in the current (40th anniversary issue of ‘The Moultoneer’ magazine, which is the in-house journal of the Moulton Club for owners and fans of the bike (of which I’m both). I’ve been asked to submit some more articles to the magazine. This article’s based on one I wrote for Vulpine about the Wright Brothers and cycling. Rather than trying to decipher scans of the actual magazine page, here’s the text…
We ride bikes for lots of reasons, but hopefully some of the riding is just for the sheer joy of it. Whenever words are written about the actual sensation of cycling, the metaphor most frequently used is that of flying.
In 1892 the Reverend Malte wrote in his book ‘How to Bicycle’, “If I were not a man, I would like to be a bird. As I am a man, I do the next best thing and ride a bicycle”. And his near contemporary Karl Kron who took nearly a thousand pages to describe ‘Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle’, mused, “All creatures who have ever walked have wished they might fly. With high wheelers [penny farthings] a flesh and blood man can hitch wings to his feet”.
And bicycles played a role in flesh and blood man archiving the centuries old dream of flight. It’s fair to say Wilbur and Orville Wright, the mechanically minded brothers from Dayton Ohio in the USA, changed the world a century ago with an invention that revolutionised transport forever. We are of course, referring to the self-tightening bicycle pedal.
In 1900, they announced a “bicycle pedal that can’t come unscrewed”. Pedals are mounted to the crank by threaded posts. On early bicycles, both posts had standard right-hand threads. As the cyclist pedaled, the action tended to tighten the right pedal but loosen the left one, with the result that the left pedal kept falling off. Wilbur and Orville used right-hand threads on the right pedal and left-hand threads on the left, so the pedaling action tended to tighten both pedals and from then on pedals were marked with an ‘L’ or an ‘R’. The engineering behind the is principle is termed “precession”.
If stopping pedals from flying off wasn’t a big enough contribution to modern life, the Wrights then patented a self-oiling hub. Oh and on 17th December 1903, at Kill Devil Hill in North Carolina, the Wright Brothers also became the first people to fly a powered, controlled, heavier than air machine. They never did anything else to improve bicycles and gave up building their ‘Van Cleve’ brand bicycles the following year to concentrate on building aeroplanes. But the profits from the bikes subsidised their experiments with flying machines.
Of course people had flown before. Gliders had been carrying (and sometimes killing) people for fifty years, but history does not record which of these pioneering aeronauts was the first to think, “Wow! This feels just riding a bike”. For us cyclists, the Wright Brothers achievement of 1903 was completely overshadowed by the first Tour de France, which took place in the same year. However Kill Devil Hill is now a National Park with a museum, giant obelisk and statues to mark the spot where the two bicycle mechanics swapped their wheels for wings. There’s also a sign at the bottom of the hill saying “No Bicycling”.
People thought of the Wright’s dreams of flight as crazy (until they actually did it, then they just thought they were crazy for doing it). Descriptions of the earliest cyclists are just as doubting as to their sanity. For their part the Wrights didn’t initially think of the airplane in terms of mass transport, but more as fulfilling that age old dream of man to fly like a bird. Some probably thought they should have stuck to their bikes. Louis J. Helle Jr. wrote, “Bicycling is the nearest approximation I know to the flight of birds. The airplane simply carries a man on its back like an obedient Pegasus; it gives him no wings of his own”. It must be that same feeling of freedom (or maybe the feeling of wind in your hair, now lost to pilots in modern aircraft with enclosed cockpits and balding riders such as myself) that makes descriptions of flight and cycling sound so similar.
Today, flight is commonplace – it makes travel seem trivial. Rather than a delight it has become something to be endured before your holiday can begin. Jets shrunk the world, bicycles broadened horizons. A few years ago I visited the site of that first flight and on the way back to the UK gazed out of the airliner’s window at the clouds below and thanked Wilbur and Oliver for keeping the pedals on my bike and not in the air.