Wright Bicycles

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efore they built airplanes, the Wright brothers built bicycles. Like so many Americans in the early 1890s, they embraced the bicycle craze that swept the country in the wake of the invention of the "safety bicycle" – a bicycle with two equal-size wheels, front and back. This design was much easier to mount and ride than the "ordinary bicycle," which we now remember as the high-wheel bicycle.

First Bicycles

Wilbur Wright bought a used high wheel ordinary bicycle for just $3 while the Wright family lived in Richmond, IN between 1881 and 1884. In 1892, Orville bought a new Columbia safety bicycle for $160. In the same year, Wilbur purchased a used Eagle safety bicycle for $80. Both enjoyed cross-country cycling and Orville would occasionally enter races. He once won a rocking chair in a race at the Montgomery County Fair.

First Bicycle Shop

The Wrights opened a bicycle sales and repair shop called the Wright Cycle Exchange at 1005 West Third Street in Dayton, OH in 1892. They carried many brands of bicycles, including Fleetwing, Reading, Coventry Cross, Envoy, Smalley, Warwick, Duchess, and Halladay-Temple. Prices ranged from $40 to $100. The Wrights also rented bicycles and sold parts and accessories.

It's probably not an accident that the Wrights decided to open in 1892 or that they chose a location on West Third Street. The League of American Wheelmen held their twelfth annual meet in Dayton on July 4 and 5, 1892. It was a huge event with thousands of cyclists visiting the city to compete in thirteen different races for prizes worth up to $500. The visiting cyclists were also invited to tour the city and by far the most popular destination was the Central National Soldiers Home with its exquisitely landscaped grounds. The Soldiers Home was west of Dayton along Dayton-Eaton Pike, better known as West Third Street. The Wheelmen would have passed right by the Wright Cycle Exchange on their way to and from the Soldiers Home.

Bicycle Shop Locations and Names

As their business grew, the Wright brothers moved their bicycle shop six times and changed the name once.

  • 1892 – Wright Cycle Exchange at 1005 West Third Street, Dayton, OH.
  • 1893 – Wright Cycle Exchange at 1015 West Third Street, Dayton, OH.
  • 1893 to 1894 – Wright Cycle Exchange at 1034 West Third Street. The name was later changed to Wright Cycle Co.
  • 1895 to 1897 -- Wright Cycle Co. at two locations – the main store at 22 South Williams Street, Dayton, OH  and a branch in downtown Dayton at 20 West Second Street.  The branch store was closed in 1896.
  • 1897 to 1908 – The Wright Cycle Co. at 1127 West Third Street, Dayton, OH.

Manufacturing Bicycles

In late 1895, the Wrights began to make preparations to manufacture their own bicycles. They introduced the "Van Cleve" on April 24, 1896.  The Van Cleves, ancestors of the Wrights, had been among Dayton's first settlers, arriving in 1796. Dayton was about to celebrate its centennial in 1896 and historical awareness was high – it was a good choice for a brand name. Later in the year, the Wrights introduced a second, less expensive model called the "St. Clair." Again, the name was drawn from local history; Arthur St. Clair had been the first president of the Northwest Territory, which later became Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

The Van Cleve was mostly hand made with a choice of handlebars, metal or wood rims, and single tube or double-tube pneumatic tires. The St. Clair was largely built up from high-quality parts that were available through many sources such as the Davis Sewing Machine Company of Dayton, OH (which later became the Huffy Corporation) and Pope Manufacturing of Boston, MA.

There is some controversy over whether or not the Wrights manufactured a bicycle called the "Wright Special." The only reference the Wrights ever made to this bicycle was in an announcement that appeared April 17, 1896:  "For a number of months, the Wright Cycle Co. have been making plans to manufacture bicycles...we will have several samples out in a week or ten days, and will be ready to fill orders before the middle of next month. The WRIGHT SPECIAL will contain nothing but high grade material. " This can be taken two ways. Either the Wrights were getting ready to introduce a bicycle especially manufactured by them, or they were going to introduce a bicycle called the Wright Special. Since the bicycle the Wrights unveiled seven days later was the Van Cleve, and the Wright Special appears in none of their catalogs, most historians tend to believe that the announcement refers to "special" bicycle and not a brand name. The very few "specials" that appear in their business ledger were probably bicycles with features or parts the Wright did not ordinarily offer except on "special order."

Cycling Innovations

The Wright brothers introduced two inventions on their bicycles. The Van Cleve came with a special "self-oiling hub." Dayton only had 12 miles of paved streets in those days and the dust played havoc with bicycle bearings, causing them to wear quickly. The Wrights sealed the bearings with felt washers and created an oil reservoir inside the hub, cutting down on maintenance. This special hub also carried its own spare parts – two extra bearing races or "cones" in which the bearings rode. These were the most likely parts to go on early bicycles.

In 1900, the Wrights announced a "bicycle pedal that can't come unscrewed." Pedals were 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 one pedal and loosen the other, with the result that one pedal kept dropping off the bike. Wilbur and Orville used right-hand threads on one pedal post and left-hand threads on the other so the pedaling action tended to tighten both pedals.

Business Profits

The bicycle business was good to the Wright brothers, initially. In their best year (1897), they made $3000 or $1500 apiece in a time when the average American worker was doing well to make $500 per year. They also managed to save $5000, which went a long way in financing their aviation experiments. However, this market wasn't to last. Beginning in 1898,  there began a serious "shakeout" among small bicycle manufacturers as they either closed up or sold out to larger businesses. The world bicycle market had been saturated by thousands of small businesses that had sprung up to satisfy the initial rush to own a bicycle. Then huge manufacturing firms geared up to manufacture bicycles, selling them for as little as $10 apiece by the turn of the century. The Wrights were forced to lower their prices again and again to remain competitive. Ads and catalogues show that in just four years the Wrights halved the price of the Van Cleve and dropped their low-cost St. Clair brand.

It's interesting to note that in the very same year the Wright bicycle business began to decline (1898), Assistant Secretary to the Navy Theodore Roosevelt convinced the War Department to pay Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Samuel Langley $50,000 to develop his 1896 Aerodrome into a man-carrying flying machine. Although this was supposed to be a secret, the amount was the largest sum ever paid by the War Department to develop a weapon and the news soon leaked. Wilbur and Orville were already studying the "flight problem" and knew that all aircraft to date had inadequate controls. The Langley Aerodrome had none at all. A year later the brothers would begin research in earnest with the express goal of developing an aircraft control system. Although none of their biographies discuss the Wrights' financial motives, its not unreasonable to assume that the Wrights saw in this news a way to survive the coming shakeout. If Langley was successful, the War Department would need a control system to make their flying machine practical.

They came close to abandoning this plan, however. In mid-1902, after testing two unsuccessful gliders in 1900 and 1901, Wilbur confided to his friend Octave Chanute that the bicycle business was declining and he was looking for another manufacturing line. Chanute suggested small heaters for carriages or electric refrigerators. Fortunately, just a few months later the Wrights flew their 1902 glider and made the aeronautical breakthrough that kept them focused on airplanes.

Selling the Business

The Wright manufactured very few bicycles after 1902 and  none after 1904 -- they were much too busy developing their airplanes and trying to find a market for them. When they finally began to sell aircraft in 1909, the bicycle shop at 1127 West Third Street was converted to a machine shop where employees of the Wright Company – the brothers' airplane  manufacturing business – turned out parts for the airplane engines and drive trains.

In 1909 or 1910, the Wrights sold all their remaining bicycle parts and the rights to the Van Cleve name to W.F. Meyers, a bicycle salesman, repairman, and machinist. Meyers did not make his own bicycles, but had another company put them together and he put the Van Cleve nameplate on them. Meyers continued to sell Van Cleve bicycles until 1939.

In Their Own Words

  • 1900 Wright Van Cleve Bicycle Catalogue – A 12-page catalogue, written and produced by the Wright brothers, explaining the virtues of their built-to-order bicycles. The catalogue was printed in the Wrights' print shop, just across the street from the Wright bicycle shop.
     

This newspaper ad for the Wright Cycle exchange appeared in 1893.

The third Wright bicycle shop at 1034 West Third Street. It was at this location that the Wrights changed the name of their business to the Wright Cycle Co.

The fourth shop at 22 South Williams Street. Here the Wrights began to manufacture their own bicycles.

The Wright Cycle Co. at 1127 West Third Street, where the Wrights built gliders and airplanes.

A Wright Van Cleve bicycle.

A Wright St. Clair bicycle. The horizontal wheel is part of an aeronautical experiment from 1901.

St. Clair and Van Cleve nameplates, thought to have been designed by Orville.

1897 newspaper ad for Wright Van Cleve bicycles. "Van Cleves get there first," was a play on words, but you had to know local history to get the joke. The Wright's great-great-grandmother, Catherine Van Cleve, and her daughter Mary Van Cleve had been the first to step ashore from a boat of settlers that had traveled upriver in 1796 to the site where Dayton was built.

A section of a page in the 1900 Wright Van Cleve catalog, describing the Wrights special wheel hub.

A Meyers Van Cleve made in the 1930s.

A page from the Wright Van Cleve catalog.

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