Just the facts
1897 Wright Van Cleve Bicycle

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1900 Van Cleve    

  1900 Van Cleve  
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he Wright brothers had been selling and repairing bicycles in Dayton, Ohio for four years when in 1896 they announced they would begin manufacturing their own. By this time, they had experience with hundreds of bicycles and dozens of brands. As repairmen, they knew what problems they were seeing most often. They were also avid cyclists or "wheelmen." So they knew what bicycle brands  ̶  and what parts of those brands  ̶  were performing best.

In those days, most brands of bicycles were made by "boutique" manufacturers. These small shops rarely manufactured anything from raw materials; they simply bought frames, wheels, handlebars, saddles and other parts from large businesses that specialized in making them, then assembled bicycles from those parts. This is what the Wright brothers set out to do, and they drew on their experience as repairmen and wheelmen to build a better bicycle. They had learned not just what parts endure, but also how to combine those parts to create a safe and comfortable ride.

Or, at least, as safe and comfortable as one could make a bicycle in 1896. The safety bicycle had been introduced in 1876 by English engineer Harry John Lawson, but it didn't catch on until 1885 when inventor John Kemp Starley produced the "Rover," a bike with same-size wheels, a chain drive, and direct steering. This English design became popular in America when the Overman Wheel Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts began producing them in 1887. But it was still very much in flux when the Wrights introduced the Van Cleve nine years later. Some of the components that modern cyclists take for granted on a bicycle, such as brakes and inner tubes, were still in the future in 1896.

Nonetheless, the Van Cleve was fairly advanced for its day. The Wrights adopted the latest version of the "double diamond" frame with a horizontal crossbar that put the rider almost directly over the pedal. The frame was tall enough and the telescoping seat post long enough that the rider could adjust his machine so his legs would be fully extended and all his weight over the pedals with each down stroke  ̶  this gave him maximum power. The Van Cleve was a racing machine.

The biggest problem facing American bicycle designers in 1896 was the poor conditions of America's roads. There were less than twelve miles of paved road surface in Dayton, Ohio at the turn of the century, and very few gravel roads. Most city roads were little more than dirt paths, sometimes "combed" with a horse-drawn grader to smooth the ruts and sprinkled in dry weather to keep the dust down. (The Wrights' older brother Lorin had a part-time job as a street sprinkler.) But even these combed patches rapidly deteriorated. The challenge was to design a bicycle that would produce the smoothest possible ride over an uneven, rutted surface.

The first step was to make the wheels big enough to roll over the bumps. The Van Cleve had 28-inch diameter wheels, the largest that were commonly available on safety bicycles at that time. Next, the designer had to somehow absorb the shock and vibration of the rough ride. This is the reason for the decorative steel plates that join the arms of the front fork on the Van Cleve. They are actually leaf springs, meant to reduce the worst of the shocks that reached the rider from the front wheel. This also explains the wooden handlebars. Unlike steel, wood flexes slightly without breaking, and then returns to its former shape without bending. This property of wood further reduced the shocks that reached the arms and shoulders of the rider. Finally, the coil springs under the seat dampened those shocks that would have affected his or her spine.

The poor condition of the roads afflicted the bicycle as well as the rider. The loose dirt and dust kicked up by the wheels got into every moving part and ground away at the metal like sandpaper. The most susceptible were the bearings in the wheel hubs. These parts had to be lubricated to roll smoothly, but the lubricating oil or grease mixed with the dirt to create gritty, grinding mess. Consequently, early bicycle bearings had to be periodically disassembled, cleaned, and lubricated.

To counter this problem, the Wrights invented a hub sealed with felt washers. This sealed hub could be filled with oil, creating  an oil reservoir. When the wheel spun, the resulting centripetal force created a small positive pressure inside the hub forcing the oil against the felt seals. This kept the dust and dirt from working its way inside. The Wrights claimed that owners could wait as long as two years before adding more oil or cleaning the parts. And if for some reason the oil leaked or dirt got inside, the hub carried its own spare parts. The outer bearing "races" and the nuts that captured them were interchangeable. If an outer race  ̶  the most likely part of the bearing to wear  ̶  became unusable, all the owner had to do was exchange the position of the parts.

As advanced as the Van Cleve may have been in 1897, its design was constantly evolving. The Wright brothers changed and improved components constantly to keep up with developments in the bicycle industry. By 1900, the Van Cleve was a very different bicycle from this early model. The Wrights discarded the tall frame for a shorter one that was easier to mount. The rear hub was redesigned to include coaster brakes, allowing the owner to stop simply by back-pedaling. As Dayton roads improved to accommodate bikes and automobiles, the wooden handlebars were replaced with steel. And these are just a few of the changes that were made.

And no matter when the Wright brothers made a bicycle, their standard Van Cleve design was just a jumping-off point. Wright advertisements emphasized that customers could pick and choose from an ever-increasing variety of components. The bicycles that rolled out of the Wright Cycle Company were customized for each client to fit their personal preferences and financial needs. Perhaps the only consistent Van Cleve feature was that each bicycle had been planned and assembled with the expertise of two inventive and knowledgeable wheelmen.

The Van Cleve is commonly displayed in the Wright Cycle Company building in Greenfield Village. It sits atop a display case in the retail part of the shop.

The bike has wood wheel rims with single-tube tires (no inner tube), 28 inches in diameter including the tires. The large wheels helped to negotiate the bumps and ruts in the unpaved roads of Dayton just before the turn of the twentieth century.

The Wrights offered the Van Cleve painted with the "finest rubber baking enamel" either black or carmine. This bike was once carmine -- a deep wine-red as shown in the color swatch. The pigment, an organic substance extracted from insects, has faded over the last 120 years.

The underside of the seat, showing a two-piece seat post.

Another view of the handlebars, showing the cork grips.

The Wrights were partial to "rat trap" style pedals  ̶  these could be easily fitted with toe clips for racing.

All the frame tubes are reinforced by "sleeve joints" where they join other tubes, adding strength to the frame. This detail shows the tubes that join the bottom bracket, where the crankset was housed.

The front hub of the Van Cleve -- note the oil filler cap.

A rear view of the Van Cleve, to better show the seat stays and chain stays.

Hawthorne Street in 1895. This is where the Wrights lived in Dayton, Oho. Note that the street in unpaved; there isn't even any gravel. The surface is just packed dirt, with a few piles of horse manure here and there. The Wright house is the one with a porch, second from the right.

When the curators brought it down for us, the first thing we noticed is how tall the machine is. To start this bike, you have to mount it at a run. To stop it, you must dismount while it's still moving. There's no way a person could straddle the bike at rest unless he/she had very long legs.

The badge is hot-stamped in brass and screwed to the head tube. The log cabin was meant to remind Daytonians of their pioneer past.

The saddle was made of leather and stuffed with horsehair.

The handlebars were made of ash wood, which helped absorb the vibration from the rough roads. It's interesting to note that the Wright made all the bent wood parts of their airplanes from ash.

The Van Cleve has a unique two-piece crankset. Most cranksets at that time consisted of three pieces -- two crank arms that attached to an axle. On this set, the left crank arm and the axle are cast and machined as a single piece. Additionally, the chain sprocket attaches directly to the right crank arm rather than the axle, as with other designs. This arrangement was much stronger and less likely to wear than the common three-piece cranksets.

The underside of the bottom bracket is stamped "45." This may be a manufacturer's mark to indicate the frame size, or it may be a Wright serial number.

The rear hub and chain tensioner. The mounting peg (attached to the right end of the axle) aided the rider in mounting and dismounting the tall bike. Mounting pegs were usually attached on the left. It was customary to mount a tall bike from the left, the same as you would a horse.

Orville and employee Ed Sines working in the Wright Cycle Co. in September of 1897. The frame that Orv is working on is the same as was used to make the Van Cleve at Greenfield Village. The wooden handlebars hanging on the back wall are the same as well.

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