Cycling History

A History of Cycling in n+1 Objects: No 5 – The American Star Bicycle, 1881-1893(?)

Today the basic elements of John Kemp Starley’s Rover Safety Bicycle, introduced in 1885, are the standard form for bicycles but in the late Nineteenth Century the ‘safety’ was just one of many innovations in bicycle design. Its triangular frame, chain drive, and equally sized wheels were in part a design response to the inherent dangers of the ‘Ordinary’, the famed penny farthing with its propensity to cause a rider to take a ‘header’ over the top of the handlebars.

Bicycle race accident, 1880

Bicycle race accident, 1880

Across the Atlantic, George Washington Pressey of Hammonton, Atlantic County, New Jersey,  had arrived at his own solution to the problem a few years earlier when, in  May 1880, he submitted his first patent for “a new and useful Improvement in Velocipedes” that was brought to market a year later as The American Star Bicycle [1].

Illustration for George Washington Pressey’s velocipede design, US Patent 233640, October 26, 1880.

Pressey’s design resolved the penny farthing’s stability issues by reversing the order of the wheels thereby placing the rider’s centre of gravity further back on the machine. The hub mounted pedals of the penny farthing were replaced by a treadle system on the large rear wheel, one advantage of which was to allow the rider to stand on the levers when going uphill. A design feature that saw riders on an American Star win numerous hill climb events. Another feature of the drive system that appealed to the scorchers of the day was that the levers were independent and both could be pushed down at the same time to achieve a fast start [2].

Despite clear advantages over the ordinary, the American Star, which went into production in 1881 under license by the H. B. Smith Machine Company in Smithville, Burlington County, New Jersey, did not fully resolve the stability issues of the penny farthing. The low weight of the front wheel tended towards loose steering over gravelled surfaces leading to riders being thrown off sideways rather than forwards [3].

Initial sales were relatively low but a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign by company owner, Hezekiah Bradley Smith, successfully raised the profile of the American Star. Appearances at events such as the Capital Bicycle Club’s second annual meet on 18 July 1881 saw appreciative onlookers gathering around the examples on display[4]. Races across the country demonstrated the worth of the machine as a racing bicycle, while the antics of John Stout, a deaf mute from Chicago, and other hired performers helped raise the profile of the Star. Stout gaining notoriety when he rode down the steps of the Michigan State Capitol [5].

A positive press response contributed to the Star’s reputation, as with The Watchman and Southron of Sumter, South Carolina, when it reported in 1881 that the American Star bicycle “was better than any yet introduced,” being “safer, easier to mount and dismount, and easier to master” [6]. Smith also organized for The American Star to be given away in the form of prizes for gaining first place in races at meets such as that of the Capital Bicycle Club in Washington D.C., in November 1882 which attracted participants from across the eastern states [7]. In 1892 Smith also commissioned  the services of one Chas. W. Nathan to pen a piano piece titled, Star Bicycle Galop, and John Ford to write a piece for piano and voice named The Star Rider. Song & Chorus in 1893, the first verse and chorus of which goes:

Labor now is o’er, and once again we meet,
To mount our gallant steeds, so graceful and so fleet,
Then away we’ll go in search of fields afar,
Where none may hope the race to win, who fails to ride a “Star”.
Like a meteor gliding down the azure stair,
Like an arrow speeding thro’ the balmy air,
Glide we down the valleys, speed we o’er the plains,
No fairer constellation, heaven’s vault retains.

Onward then we’ll rove in search of field afar,
Fearing naught of danger while we ride the “Star”,
And as swift we go, the crowns we win and wear,
Will fill the boys on other steeds with envy and despair [8].

Sheet music cover for The Star Rider. Song & Chorus, by John Ford, 1893

Elswehere, E. H. Carson of East Rochester, New Hampshire, made the papers in 1883 when he rode down Mount Washington from the summit to The Glen in one hour and fifty minutes on an American Star which behaved ‘beautifully’ according to the New York Tribune and several other papers that carried the same news agency telegraph release [9]. And in  1885 Will Robertson of the Washington Bicycle Club emulated Stout’s stunt by cycling down the steps of the United States Capitol on an American Star, an event that was captured on camera. To avoid arrest the stunt was reportedly performed in the early hours of the morning [10].

Will Robertson of the Washington Bicycle Club rides an American Star Bicycle down the steps of the United States Capitol in 1885.

Will Robertson of the Washington Bicycle Club rides an American Star Bicycle down the steps of the United States Capitol in 1885.

The marketing was successful with demand and production increasing from an initial run of eighty machines in 1881 to a peak of 1,355 in 1884. The following year saw a number of improvements to the design when William S. Kelley of Smithville, New Jersey, applied for letters patent for his modifications to the frame and drive mechanism. Where Pressey’s patent had included a claim only for the unique aspects of the design of the American Star, Kelley’s list of claims ran to forty clauses, many of which covered aspects of the design of the Star that were implicit in Pressey’s patent [11].

Illustration for William S. Kelley’s bicycle design, US Patent 321819, 1885

The production changes that followed Kelley’s patent award soured the relationship between Pressey and Smith, the former suing the latter for unpaid royalties in June 1887 and the latter arguing that the changes to the design made by Kelley meant that Pressey’s patent no longer applied to the Star in the form it was built after 1885. Smith died in November 1887, the case unresolved.

Regardless of who owned the intellectual property rights the future of the American Star and of all high wheelers was ultimately to prove short lived. By the early 1890’s the success of the Starley Rover, of rival safety designs, and the coincidental development of the pneumatic tyre offered men, and women, a reliable, safe, and relatively comfortable mode of transport that led to the rapid decline of the ordinary and its variants as a commercially viable venture. Production of the American Star appears to have ceased in 1893 when just fifty machines are recorded as being built. With 7,282 manufactured between 1881 to 1893 the Star was never a great commercial success. Priced at $150 when the average annual salary was approximately $500 it was a luxury item in an industry and market that at its peak in the 1890’s was churning out one million bicycles annually.

The H. B. Smith Machine Company did attempt to meet demand for the new style of safety bicycle, introducing lever driven and chain driven models in the 1890’s. Bicycles, however, were never more than a sideline for the company whose main business was the manufacture of woodworking tools and machines. The American Star is perhaps best seen as a sideline for Smith that ultimately had greater value as a marketing tool that raised the profile of his company in the United States. It should also be remembered as the only major American innovation in the design and configuration of the bicycle during a period when bicycle design was led by British and European engineers.

The Kendall Green Bicycle Club, Weston MA, 1884

The Kendall Green Bicycle Club resplendent on American Star bicycles, Weston MA, 1884

______

Footnotes:

[1] George W. Pressey. “Velocipede.” US Patent 233640, October 26, 1880.
[2] “American Star bicycle, 1885-1890, 1885 – 1890.” Powerhouse Museum, http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=249216 ; David V. Herlihy, Bicycle: The History (Yale University Press, 2006), 219-220.
[3] Ibid.
[4] David V. Herlihy, Bicycle: The History (Yale University Press, 2006), 220.
[5] “Bowling bicyclers,” The National Republican (Washington, D.C.), June 20, 1881, 4.
[6] “The American Star bicycle,” The Watchman and Southron (Sumter, SC), December 13, 1881, 6.
[7] “The wheelmen’s day,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), November 29, 1882, 1.
[8] Chas. W. Nathan, Star Bicycle Galop, 1892; John Ford, The Star Rider. Song & Chorus, 1893. Those of you with more of a musical bent than I can view the sheet music online at https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/30991 and https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/12554
[9] “Mt. Washington on a bicycle.” New York Tribune (New York, NY), July 19, 1883, 1.
[10] David V. Herlihy, Bicycle: The History (Yale University Press, 2006), 220.
[11] William S. Kelley, “Bicycle,” US Patent 321819, July 7, 1885.

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2 comments on “A History of Cycling in n+1 Objects: No 5 – The American Star Bicycle, 1881-1893(?)

  1. Nancy Smith
    June 20, 2017

    Saw Aaron’s comment on packers.com. Had to find something about this cycle, as my brother-in-law would ride a “big wheel” back in the 1940s during the local 4th of July Parade. He would alternate between that or “Uncle Sam on Stilts: ( he was 6′ 4” so the stilts really put him “up there”!). Wish I could post the cycle photo! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • aaroncripps
      June 20, 2017

      Hi Nancy, thanks for sharing a little bit of your family history. If you ever upload the photo to the web please post a link here.

      Regards
      Aaron

      And Go! Pack! Go! 🙂

      Like

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