Cycling History

Cycling Patents of Yesteryear: No. 8 – Ulysses F. Henderson’s Bicycle-Handle, 1897

Handlebars, like saddles and pedals, are important components of the bicycle because they are the contact points between the rider and the machine. Poor adjustment or a design that doesn’t fit the anatomical proportions of the rider can swiftly lead to discomfort and even injury. Handlebars also play an important part in a rider’s position on the bicycle and have a significant effect on their aerodynamic profile.

The first handlebars, seen on the Draisine and other velocipedes, were made of wood. A material that was still being used at the cheaper end of the bicycle market in America as late as the 1890’s. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, iron or steel was, however, by far the most common material in use, with handlebars made from round-section rod or tubular steel. Early handlebars were of the straight variety, with designs that included varying degrees of curvature  that swept the hand grips back towards the rider.

Cyclists soon learned that adopting a stooped position reduced air resistance and allowed them to go faster, which in turn led to designs that had an element of drop in them. For example, the adjustable handlebar patented by Morgan H. Vanevera in 1896 allowed the rider to adjust the handlebars along the vertical plane allowing for a more or less upright position as desired.

Detail from Vanevera's patent, US patent 620,684 of 1899.

Detail from Vanevera’s patent, US patent 620,684 of 1899 [1]

Vanevera’s patent certainly provided a solution but was arguably impractical. Vanevera envisaged the rider releasing a locking pawl with one hand while rocking the handlebar into the desired position with the other. All whilst in motion. More sensible designs left the handlebar fixed, instead making use of bends in the tubing to provide for multiple hand positions.

Three years before Vanevera received his patent, one Ulysses F. Henderson of New Lebanon in the county of Mercer, Pennsylvania, submitted his own patent application for a handlebar, of which in his own words:

The leading feature of the design resides in a handle-bar formed at each side of a central point between its ends with a complete circular convolution or coil whose center lies in a plane approximately parallel with a plane disposed longitudinally of the bar, thereby giving the convolution or coil a vertical disposition, the twist of the bar forming the convolution or coil thereof following a spiral line’ and thereby deflecting the terminals of the bar in an outward direction [2].

By which convoluted language he meant that the handlebar looked like this:

Detail from Henderson's US Patent No. , 1897

Detail from Henderson’s US Patent No. 26,542, 1897

While not adjustable on the move, the “complete circular convolution” meant that the handlebar could be installed to either allow the rider to adopt an upright position or a dropped position, depending on which way round the handlebar was fitted. A solution that was both “useful and ornamental” [3].


[1] Morgan H. Vanevera, Adjustable handle-bar for bicycles, US Patent 620,684, filed February 24, 1896, and issued March 7, 1899.
[2] Ulysses F. Henderson, Design for a bicycle-handle, US Patent 26,542, filed December 16, 1896, and January 19, 1987.
[3] Ibid.


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