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What’s old is new again

Miscellaneous 4 194

I love to look at old pictures and drawings from the early days of the safety bike era. What an innovative time it was for the young bicycle industry. The books shown in this picture are some of favorites. Archibald Sharp wrote “Bicycles and Tricycles” in 1896. It is a very detailed book on the science and engineering behind the bicycle and has some really great drawings of machines that were state of the art at the end of the nineteenth century. Until Whit and Wilson’s “Bicycling Science” was written almost a century later, this book was the only published text that thoroughly explained the technical details of bicycle design and construction. Now that Sharp’s book is available in reprint, I would recommend it to anyone interested in the workings of man’s greatest machine. The other book, “Bicycle” by David Herlihy, tells the history of the bicycle and explains some of the innovation along the way. The illustrations are great, but this one is definitely worth reading cover to cover.

It is particularly interesting to look at these old designs and see ideas that many people think of as recent innovations. The latest issue of the Rivendell reader has a great article about 50+ year old French innovations. The article shows old pictures of clamp-on stems, cassette hubs, indexed shifting drivetrains, combined shifter/ brake levers, and more. Sharp’s book is also full of nineteenth century inventions that are also currently back in fashion. Full suspension bikes have been around since the 1860s. One that I like is the British Star spring made safety. It appears to be a very early URT design with the bottom bracket behind the lower pivot point. The Invincible from 1889 is a monoblade design front and rear. I would assume that easy tire changes were a big reason behind this design since nineteenth century roads were probably considerably rougher than the ones that we are used to today. A molded 4-spoke wheel and rear disc was manufactured by the Disk wheel Company Ltd. in the 1890’s. If you didn’t know better, you might confuse the formed sheet metal front wheel with the late nineties offerings from Specialized or HED.

Just recently, I found another great source for information about old bicycle designs. Bob Shaver’s Patent Pending blog has many posts that feature bike patents. I particularly like the rear suspension bike from 1892 that he posted recently.

If any of you know additional sources for designs like these, let me know. I can’t get enough of this stuff.


  1. bikefridaywalter November 3, 2005 at 2:13 am -  Reply

    remember, folding bikes are old school, too.

    that page has some pithy info you might like, too, james. and thanks for the suggestion. as a “bicycling science” owner, i’m excited to get a copy of this book.

    interesting aside: the orb has an album with the same name as the book.

  2. James November 3, 2005 at 12:10 pm -  Reply

    Thanks for the link Walter. Your right I left out folding bikes. Recumbents too.

    If you think “bicycling Science has a lot of math, wait until you check out “Bicycles and Tricycles”. It definitely was not written in layman’s terms, but it is a great piece of history.

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