How to Use
Reading 3: From Bicycles to Airplanes
By the time Wilbur and Orville Wright opened their first bicycle shop in 1892 to repair and sell bicycles at 1005 West Third Street in Dayton, the nation was already in the midst of a cycle craze. In fact, so great was the appeal for the newly developed safety bicycle that it was extolled as the "greatest invention of the nineteenth century," and the decade of the 1890s was celebrated as the golden age of the bicycle.¹ The millions of bicycles that poured out of American factories during the decade of the 1890s set an entire nation on wheels. For both industry and society--the bicycle was a transitional technology, bridging the gap between the age of the horse and that of the automobile.
The bicycle enterprise provided a brisk business for Wilbur and Orville, and necessitated the relocation of their cycle shop at 1005 West Third Street to more spacious quarters. In early 1895, the Wrights once again made the decision to move their bicycle business to larger facilities this time to 22 South Williams Street. However, this time they chose to combine their bicycle and printing interests under the same roof. In addition to their repair business, the brothers stocked a line of parts and acquired the local distributorship for eight lines of new bicycles. Competition was still fierce, as there were 14 bicycle shops in Dayton by 1894-95, four of them within two blocks of the new Wright shop.
Late in 1895, the Wrights decided to expand their cycle business to manufacture their own brands of bikes. In a pamphlet printed early in 1896, the Wrights announced:
With the new year we begin our fourth season in the bicycle business, and we take this occasion to thank the public for its increasing favor. Each year we have more than doubled the business of the preceding one. For this reason we feel that we are justified in making special preparation for the accommodation of our customers in the coming year. Our salesroom at 22 South Williams Street is being nicely refitted, and a visit from you will be much appreciated. We are adding new machinery to our shop, and before the riding season opens we hope to have on the market a bicycle of our own make, which in commemoration of Dayton's Centennial Year and in honor of our own ancestor, we have decided to call it the "Van Cleve.". . .We shall also put out a cheaper bicycle which will be known as the "Wright Special." ²
In preparation to produce their own line of bicycles, the Wrights transformed the building into a well-equipped machine shop. Within no time, the back room of the bicycle shop was outfitted with a turret lathe (a turning lathe with a vertical cylindrical revolving head), drill press, brazier (a metal pan for holding burning coals or charcoal), tube cutting equipment, and an overhead line shaft. Likewise, the Wrights used many other tools such as files and wrenches, which would be necessary to manufacture bicycles. However, most important among the Wrights' inventions for the bicycle shop was an experimental gas engine. The one-cylinder internal combustion engine was designed by Wilbur and Orville to power the bicycle machinery and was the first engine they ever built.
The first bicycle produced was the Van Cleve. Named for pioneer ancestors of the Wrights, it was always the top of the line of Wright bicycles and sold for $65.00.³ The St. Clair (named in honor of Arthur St. Clair, first governor of the Northwest Territory), a lower priced model marketed towards school children, was also introduced in 1896. While most major bicycle manufacturers were mass-producing machines using techniques that helped set the stage for the assembly line, the Wright bicycles remained hand-crafted originals. Most of the Wright cycle frames were built from raw tubing, brazed (or soldered) with a machine the Wrights had developed themselves. The Wrights built their own wheels with either wooden or metal rims, according to individual customer orders. One particular element of their Van Cleve bicycles that they were proud of was their specially designed hub (the center of a wheel, from which the spokes radiate), which they announced, has "been a chief feature in making the Van Cleve reputation. We are certain that no hubs have been used in bicycles so satisfactory in all respects….they are absolutely dust proof, and oil retaining to a degree that one oiling in two years is all they require."4
Overall, between 1896 and 1907, when the Wrights discontinued their bicycle enterprise, the brothers manufactured and sold hundreds of several models and brands. But bicycles had given Wilbur and Orville more than just the wherewithal to build and test their experimental flying machines. Their experience in bicycle building had provided them with the wood- and metal-working tools and skills that would be required in the construction of an airplane. In fact, many early aviation enthusiasts predicted that the invention of a successful flying machine would be the work of bicycle makers.
The year 1896 at the bicycle shop was significant for other reasons as well. In August, after the line of Wright bicycles had been successfully introduced to the Dayton community, Orville contracted typhoid fever from a tainted well at the rear of the bicycle shop. While Orville remained bedridden until early October, Wilbur occupied his time contemplating the aeronautical problems of human flight. Around the time Orville became ill with the fever, Wilbur learned of another tragedy that would fuel the brothers' desire to conquer the air. On August 10, Otto Lilienthal, the German engineer and aeronautical pioneer who was the first man in the world to launch himself into the air and fly, died from injuries received in a glider accident. Lilienthal's death, which Wilbur learned of through a news service the brothers subscribed to for their printing firm, inspired the brothers' to work on overcoming the obstacles to human flight. As Wilbur remembered:
My own active interest in aeronautical problems dates back to the death of Lilienthal in 1896. The brief notice of his death which appeared in the telegraphic news at that time aroused a passive interest which had existed from my childhood...and as my brother soon became equally interested with myself, we soon passed from the reading to the thinking, and finally to the working stage.5
From 1896 and on, the Wrights harbored a growing belief that man could fly, and they began to focus their attention on the problems of mechanical and human flight. Time and again the Wrights returned to the study of Lilienthal's crash and the reasons for it. After all, the German pioneer had constructed wings that could carry him aloft, but his primitive weight-shifting technique had been inadequate to provide sufficient control over his machine. Most would-be aviators had, in fact, moved in the same direction as Lilienthal, toward designing a machine that would be inherently stable, requiring the intervention of the pilot only when a change in direction or altitude was required. The insistence of the Wright brothers that the pilot be an integral part of the mechanical system, exercising complete and constant control over the balance and direction of the machine, was their first major step toward success.
Inside the building at 22 South Williams Street in Dayton, Ohio the Wright brothers began their incredible journey into aviation. The bicycle business not only provided the funds necessary to pursue their interests in aviation, but also allowed them time, as the business was seasonal in nature. Bicycle manufacturing was the ideal preparation for engineering the structure of an aircraft. Weight control is a primary concern of both bicycle and aircraft designers, though for very different reasons. In the key areas of balance and control, the bicycle had helped to shape the Wright brothers' approach to aircraft design. In the fall of 1897, the Wrights shifted their operations to 1127 West Third Street, the final location of their bicycle enterprise. It was in this building that the brothers constructed their experimental gliders and later machines, conducted much of their aeronautical research, and built the world's first airplane. They successfully flew that airplane on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolona.
After their success at Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers proved that flight was possible. But they needed to prove that flight was practical. For aviation to take its next steps, they needed a convenient, private place--a flying field--closer to home. Their experiments continued--not at Kitty Hawk, but at a cow pasture eight miles east of Dayton, Ohio, known as Huffman Prairie. Even though their first experiments at Huffman Prairie in 1904 were filled with frustration, their experience as bicycle makers helped them master the mysteries of control and balance. Eventually, the brothers were able to stay in the air long enough to practice turns, circles, banking and stalling. It was here, at Huffman Prairie, that the brothers built the first practical airplane and learned to fly. They were no longer dependent on the wind; they could take off and land numerous times without injury and they could stay in the air longer than ever before. By the end of 1905, the Wright Flyer III could fly 20 miles or more at a time. The Wright brothers truly conquered the skies.
Questions for Reading 3
1. Besides their bicycle trade, what other Wright business was located in the building? Which of the two businesses was more profitable?
2. What was the most important invention the Wright brothers made for the bicycle shop? Why?
3. Why was 1896 important for Wilbur and Orville Wright? Which event do you think was the most important for the development of aviation? Why?
4. What skills did the Wright brothers gain from their experience in the bicycle business that they were able to apply to their experiments in aviation?
Reading 3 was compiled from David G. Richardson, Jill York O'Bright, and William S. Harlow, "Wright Cycle Company and Wright and Wright Printing" National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990); Tom D. Crouch, "How the Bicycle Took Wing," American Heritage of Invention & Technology, (n.d.); Tom D. Crouch, The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989); Fred C. Fisk, "The Wright Brothers' Bicycles," Wheelmen, November 1980; and Arthur G. Renstrom, Wilbur and Orville Wright: A Chronology Commemorating the Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Orville Wright August 19, 1871 (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1975).
¹ Tom D. Crouch, "The Wright Cycle Company," pamphlet (Dayton, Ohio: Aviation Trail, Inc., n.d.).