By way of preamble all cyclists know that the correct answer to the question, “How many bicycles should one own?”, is n+1, where n represents the number of bicycles currently owned. There is always room for one more bike in a cyclists collection. So, while a history explained through objects may not be the most original of ideas the formula of n+1 seems apt for cycling, and in addition has the advantage that I’m not limited to a specific number and can always add another.
Our first object is the wire spoked bicycle wheel, not only an essential part of any bicycle but as we see from the definition of the word in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary an object that defines the very essence of what a bicycle is; literally ‘two wheels’:
bicycle n. a vehicle consisting of two wheels held in a frame one behind the other, propelled by pedals and steered with handlebars attached to the front wheel. – Origin C19: from BI- + Gk kuklos ‘wheel’.
Remarkably the wheel as applied to transportation is a relatively late invention of humankind possibly first seen depicted on the Bronocice pot (3,500-3,350 BC) found in southern Poland near Kraków in 1976. A crude pictogram on the pot has been interpreted as a four wheeled wagon which may have been drawn by aurochs: Horns from which were recovered in context with the pot showed signs of wear indicative of friction caused by rope, suggesting a primitive yoke.
Our oldest securely dated wheel-axle combination comes from Stare Gmajne near Ljubljana in Slovenia. Dating from 3,200 BC the wheel, belonging to a two-wheeled handcart, is 70 centimetres in radius and is built of carved planks secured by transverse struts. A square axle aperture indicates that the wheel and the 124 centimetre axis rotated together.
The relation between the wheel and the axle points to one reason why the invention of the wheeled vehicle came so late. For a wheel-axle combination to work effectively they need to be built with a certain level of precision. It was not until the introduction of metal tools in the 4th millennium BC that such precision was possible, allowing makers to carve smooth rounded axle terminals to fit an equally smooth centre bore.
The next development in wheel technology was the introduction of spoked wheels circa 2,000 BC among the Sintashta-Petrovka culture in what is now modern day Russia and Kazakhstan. By 500 BC the technology had spread throughout Europe and much of Asia giving rise to the much famed war chariots of the Hittites, Egyptians, Persians, and Celts, and the sport of chariot racing most famously carried out at the Circus Maximus in Rome and the Hippodrome of Constantinople, centre of the city’s social life and the scene of the rivalry between the factions of the Greens and the Blues until its decline following the 6th Century Nika riots.
With the introduction of the iron rim in the 1st millennium BC the spoked wheel was to continue in use without major modification until the nineteenth century. George Cayley had created the concept of the wire spoked wheel in 1808 but it was not until the later invention of the bicycle that the idea achieved any commercial success. Initially with the invention of Baron Karl von Drais’ Laufmaschine, known in the English speaking world as a draisine or more popularly as a hobby-horse, it was cartwrights such as Denis Johnson of London who met demand and wheels continued to be made of wood with iron rims.
It was to be in the middle decades of the century that a number of developments led to the bicycle wheel as we know it today. In 1849 William Ford Robinson Stanley, then aged twenty and working as a Pattern Maker’s Improver at an engineering works in Whitechapel, London, invented steel-wheel spider spokes. In Paris in 1868 Eugene Meyer developed an all metal wheel that relied on the tension of wires rather than compression of heavy metal spokes to achieve structural integrity. In 1870 William Henry James Grout, a builder of velocipedes from Shadwell, London, patented spokes that had eyed nipples at the outer end, a design that continues in use today.
These and other inventions created a much improved bicycle wheel but it was the designs of James Starley, described by cycling historian Andrew Ritchie as ‘probably the most energetic and inventive genius in the history of bicycle technology’ that achieved commercial success and defined the wire spoked wheel as we know it. His firm the Coventry Machinists Company had been making bicycles since 1861 and in 1870 Starley, along with William Hillman, patented an all metal bicycle which went to market as the Ariel. It was the first commercially available suspension wheel to come with tangentially arranged spokes.
Though an improvement on other available wheel designs it was not without fault. Individual spokes could not be tensioned so a wheel could not be trued, and while back-pedalling the spokes came under compression making the wheel slack and risking collapse. To resolve this Starley next patented the Tangent in 1874 which provided for threaded spokes to be screwed into studs in the hub flanges and created a tangent-spoked wheel that was rigid in both directions.
Twentieth and twenty-first century improvements have tended to focus on lightness, rigidity, and improved functioning of the hub and bearings while retaining the fundamental advantages of the tangent-spoked wheel. Lightweight materials such as carbon, ceramic bearings, new spoke designs, and in the case of Campagnolo water transferred logos which save 15 grams compared to traditional adhesives, have produced wheels with performance levels that could only have been imagined in the wildest dreams of Starley. He should however be pleased that, subsequent refinements aside, nearly every bicycle wheel made since 1874 has been built using the tangent-spoked method.
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