Wright Cycle Company
35 artifacts in this set
The Wright brothers' first business venture was a print shop, opened in 1889 with a printing press designed and built by Orville. They published their own newspaper, and then focused on commercial printing. The brothers entered the bicycle business in the midst of a nationwide bike boom -- a fad rooted in technological developments throughout the 19th century.
German inventor Karl von Drais created a direct ancestor to the modern bicycle in 1817. There were no pedals, and it had no mechanical propulsion system. Riders simply sat astride the wooden rail and pushed off with their feet. Drais called his vehicle a draisine, but others called it a velocipede -- from the Latin "velox pedis," meaning "swift of foot."
French blacksmith Pierre Michaux made a key improvement in the mid-1860s when he attached pedals to the front wheel. Riders could now propel the vehicle without touching their feet to the ground. But the solid wheels and rough ride left much to be desired. People called them "boneshakers" for a reason!
High-wheel bicycles emerged in the 1870s. They brought new enhancements like lighter tubular steel frames and smoother-riding solid rubber tires. The tall front wheel maximized the pedaler's effort, moving the biker farther and faster per crank of the pedals. But it took skill to mount and dismount a high-wheeler, and many would-be riders were intimidated by the big machines.
The safety bicycle, developed in the mid-1880s, introduced the design we still know today. Both wheels were the same modest size, which eased mounting and dismounting and made falls less dangerous. Instead of the high-wheel's direct-drive pedal crank, the safety bike used two gears connected by a chain -- achieving the high-wheel's efficiency through the gears' mechanical advantage.
The safety bike made cycling more accessible than ever, and it kicked off a bicycle craze in the United States. Women and men alike enjoyed the freedom of traveling under their own power on their own schedules. Many riders compared the sensation of cycling to "flying" -- a description the Wrights would especially appreciate one day.
The bike boom arrived at the Wright home in the spring of 1892, when Orville purchased a new Columbia bicycle for $160. Wilbur bought his own bike -- an $80 used Columbia -- soon thereafter. The brothers quickly came to enjoy riding in and around their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Orville competed in races, while Wilbur preferred more tranquil country rides.
Friends flooded the mechanically inclined Wrights with requests for bike repairs. Sensing an opportunity, Wilbur proposed that the brothers open their own bicycle shop. In October 1892, he approached their father, Bishop Milton Wright, with the idea. The bishop gave his blessing.
The Wrights set up shop at 1005 West Third Street, stocking their store through the winter of 1892-1893 and opening it to the public that spring. They sold bicycles and accessories, but most of their work involved bike repairs. The brothers relocated multiple times before settling at 1127 West Third Street -- the building preserved in Greenfield Village -- in 1897.
The Wrights believed in quality, and Wright Cycle Company carried high-end bicycle brands like Coventry, Duchess, Fleetwing, and Warwick. Some models were priced over $100 -- at a time when the average annual wage in America was less than $450. To offset high prices, the brothers offered time-payment plans, and they accepted customer trade-ins toward the purchase of new bikes.
Initially, the Wrights struggled with the seasonal nature of bicycle sales, and with growing competition from other bike shops. They obtained at least one loan from their father, and Wilbur even considered leaving to become a teacher. But imaginative advertisements and a weekly cycling newsletter -- printed in their own shop -- improved the brothers' sales.
In 1896, Wright Cycle Company expanded operations significantly by producing its own bikes. The brothers worked on them over the winter when business was slow. The Wrights built each bicycle to order, hand-making parts with basic tools. The brothers named their first in-house brand Van Cleve, after family ancestors who were some of Ohio's first white settlers.
True to the Wrights' philosophy of quality, Van Cleve bicycles featured high-grade materials and durable enamel finishes. The bikes also employed special oil-retaining wheel hubs and coaster brakes of the brothers' own design. The first Van Cleve cycles were priced from $60 to $65 -- though prices later dropped as the bicycle fad waned and sales slumped.
Wright Cycle Company also offered a lower-priced model called St. Clair -- honoring Arthur St. Clair, who governed the Northwest Territory from 1788 to 1802. St. Clair bikes sold for a more modest $42.50 when introduced. Apparently less successful than the Van Cleve, the St. Clair was discontinued in 1899. This photo shows a St. Clair modified for aeronautical experiments.
Each Wright bicycle was more or less a custom job made according to the buyer's specifications. Wright Cycle Company built men's and women's styles as requested. Frames, wheels, cranks, and hubs were made in-house. Handlebars, seats, and tires were selected by customers from inventory carried in the shop. Altogether, the Wrights produced about 300 bicycles between 1896 and 1900.
Even at the turn of the 20th century, Wright Cycle Company had no electricity. The shop's gas lights were fed by city gas lines. That same gas also fueled a single-cylinder engine designed and built by the Wright brothers. The engine powered an overhead line shaft that, in turn, powered several machine tools used when repairing and making bikes.
The brothers purchased this drill press, built by W.F. & J. Barnes Company, in 1898. It was one of three drill presses used at Wright Cycle Company at various times. The machine allowed for accurate, consistent drilling, and it was both more powerful and more precise than smaller hand-held drills.
The Wright brothers obtained this metalworking lathe, made by the Putnam Machine Company, in 1901. It was used to remove material from metal workpieces placed onto it. The lathe turned the workpiece as it cut, ensuring consistent and symmetrical results. This machine later served Wright Company -- the Wrights' airplane company -- until that business was sold in 1915.
This band saw, a product of the Crescent Machine Company, was also used for bicycle repair and manufacture at Wright Cycle Company. The brothers purchased it in 1899 and kept it for the next ten years. The band saw permitted uniform straight cuts. It could also make curved or irregular cuts when needed.
By 1898, the Wrights had hit their stride. Wright Cycle Company provided them with an income around $2,000 or $3,000 a year. They weren't rich men, but the brothers had a successful small business that put them comfortably in the middle class. But their minds and interests had already begun to wander toward a new challenge.
As boys, the Wrights built and flew toy helicopters. Their childhood fascination with flight was rekindled after Wilbur read about the death of German aviator Otto Lilienthal in 1896. The brothers' formal aviation work started three years later, when Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution for a list of recommended readings on aeronautics and aviation experiments.
The Wright brothers designed and built their first kites, gliders, and airplanes in the Wright Cycle Company building. They had converted the building's back room into a modest machine shop for bicycles. But the equipment -- and the skills the brothers had gained using it on bikes -- served them well in their aviation work.
Dayton was fine for testing the Wrights' earliest kites, but they needed more dependable winds for larger kites and gliders. With advice from the U.S. Weather Bureau, the brothers selected the Kill Devil Hills, on North Carolina's Outer Banks, as their outdoor laboratory. The area provided steady winds, open space, and soft sand dunes on which to land their craft.
The seasonal nature of the bicycle trade -- a challenge in their first years -- proved advantageous as the Wrights' aviation work continued. When business at Wright Cycle Company slowed down in the fall, the brothers were free to travel to North Carolina to test their aircraft. Their 1900 glider was controlled by a novel method -- twisting, or warping, the wings.
Katharine Wright, younger sister to Wilbur and Orville, managed Wright Cycle Company during her brothers' 1900 North Carolina trip. The brothers had arranged for a couple of acquaintances to handle bicycle repairs and day-to-day store operations -- but these men did so under Katharine's supervision. Time and again, Katharine provided essential support, feedback, and advice for Wilbur and Orville.
The brothers controlled their 1900 glider by a novel method -- twisting its wings to roll the glider to the left or right. Wilbur hit on the idea in July 1899, when he was in the cycle shop absent-mindedly twisting the empty box for a bicycle tire innertube. The Wrights used their wing-warping technique on subsequent aircraft, including their 1903 Flyer airplane.
Before returning to the Outer Banks in 1901, the Wrights hired their first full-time employee, Charles Taylor (center), to run Wright Cycle Company in their absence. Skilled as a mechanic, Taylor later built the engine for the 1903 Flyer. Later still, he assisted Henry Ford and Orville Wright in relocating the shop to Greenfield Village, as seen in this photo.
The Wrights' 1901 glider was their largest yet. Although it flew, its wings did not produce as much lift as the brothers expected based on their calculations. It was also difficult to control. The Wrights considered the 1901 glider a failure, and it led them to suspect problems with the aerodynamic data they were using.
Undaunted, the Wrights determined to create their own data on wing shape and aerodynamic lift. They started by testing model wing foils mounted on a bicycle's handlebars (illustrated earlier in this set). Then the brothers built a wind tunnel at Wright Cycle Company and made more precise measurements. These tests proved the Wrights' theory -- the existing aerodynamic data was faulty.
The Wrights never received any outside funding for their early aviation work. The gliders, the trips to North Carolina, the wind tunnel, the 1903 Flyer -- the brothers paid for it all from their own pockets, and from Wright Cycle Company profits. Fiercely protective of their work, the Wrights preferred it that way. External sponsors would have threatened their independence.
The Wrights' wind tunnel work was rewarded at Kill Devil Hills in October 1902. Their 1902 glider -- designed and built with the new data -- performed beautifully. The brothers made more than 700 glides that fall, with some more than 600 feet long. They returned to the Outer Banks in 1903 with a new aircraft equipped with an engine and propellors.
The bicycle's influence is plainly visible on the Wright brothers' 1903 Flyer. The wire braces on the wing struts resemble wheel spokes. The steel-tube frames supporting each propellor are similar to bicycle frames. The chain connecting the Flyer's engine and propellors is much like the chain drive used on a bike.
Even the Wright Flyer's control system is -- at its most basic -- much like a bicycle's. The Wrights controlled their airplane in part by shifting their bodies in a hip cradle that warped the wings for steering. Bike riders control their own machines by subtly and constantly shifting their body weight as they travel.
Control, more than anything, was the secret to the Wright brothers' success. While other aviators struggled to build airplanes that were inherently stable, the Wrights realized that an unstable aircraft could be piloted safely. It takes practice to ride a bicycle but, once learned, the bike is operated with ease. The same was true of the Wrights' airplanes.
Wright Cycle Company closed in 1908 as the brothers fully committed to their airplane business. It was just as well. The bicycle boom was over, and the automobile was beginning to dominate personal transportation. But bicycles had given the Wrights the skills, the money, and the insight to build the first successful airplane -- not a bad legacy.