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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
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
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
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,
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
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."
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.
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
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
- 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 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.