Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
You could make the case that the most forward thinking bicycle mechanics in history were the Wright Brothers. At the turn of the 19th century, legions of bicycle makers launched the motorcycle and automobile industries. Yet, the Wrights used two-wheel engineering to help develop human controlled flight.
I learned more about how the bicycle influenced their invention of the Wright Flyer when I visited Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan and walked into the original Wright Cycle Company building, which Henry Ford purchased and moved there, along with many other historic buildings, like Thomas Edison’s workshop. If you haven’t been to Greenfield Village – also where you’ll find the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, I highly recommend it.
The docent in the original Wright bike shop told me a story of how the brothers knew how to get their plane to glide through the air, however they were stymied by how to control it. Gusts of wind would knock it off course and ground it. Having seen how birds constantly adjust their wings to counter the effects of the wind, the brothers were trying to invent something that would allow them to do the same with the fixed wings on their plane.
Then, one day while working in the shop, they were handling an empty cardboard box that had held a bicycle tire inner tube. Flexing the ends of the box they suddenly realized that it was possible to get one end to move one way and the opposite end to move the other. This turned out to be the spark that allowed them to invent “wing warping.”
The Wright Flyer’s two wings had that same box shape so their tips could be connected with wires. The ends of these wires were attached to a harness worn by Wilbur or Orville. And, by simply moving the correct way in the harness, they could control the wings to account for changes in the wind. With wing warping, the Wrights finally had a way to mimic the birds and ride the wind.
On another trip east I visited the Smithsonian Institution Museum in part to see the Wright Flyer and saw that they had used bicycle chainrings in their propeller drivetrain and a simple front bicycle hub as their takeoff wheel. The plane’s “runway” at Kitty Hawk was a plank of wood buried on edge in the sand. A front bicycle hub was the perfect shape to follow and keep the plane on the board.
And, before the brothers built a miniature wind tunnel to test different wing shapes for the amount of lift they provided, they tested them on a bicycle. The wing shapes were attached to the handlebars in such a way that the wing could move. As they got the bike up to speed they could judge the effect of the wind on each wing. Brilliant.
The thing that has me thinking back to those days learning more about the Wrights, their bicycles and plane at Greenfield Village and the Smithsonian is a recent press release telling of “The Wright Brothers USA, the commercial arm of The Wright Brothers Family Foundation, now offering two ‘Built Wright in the USA’ bicycles, the Van Cleve 1896 ($4,750) and the St. Clair 1896 ($3,950), both named in homage to Wright family history.”
According to the National Park Service that maintains the Wright Cycle Shop, Van Cleve was the Wrights’ grandmother’s name. And St. Clair is from Arthur St. Clair one of Dayton, Ohio’s founders (where the Wrights lived) and the first governor of the Northwest Territories. Learn more about these early bicycles here.
The 2018 Wright bicycles are hand-made of Reynolds 725 heat-treated, double-butted chrome-moly steel tubing by Co-Motion Cycles in Oregon and assembled in Dayton, Ohio, also home of the Wrights’ first bike shop.
These sturdy adventure bikes are the original gravel grinders, able to handle asphalt, cement, crushed limestone, or dirt. They simultaneously represent old and new cycling heritage. The premium-spec’d, built-to-order bikes are currently sold consumer direct through The Wright Brothers Store.
Proceeds of the sales of the bikes “fund the work of The Wright Brothers Family Foundation which is dedicated to preserving the Wright brothers’ legacy worldwide. Its initiatives include maintenance and programming of Hawthorn Hill (the Wright brothers’ success mansion), restoration of the original Wright Company buildings (the first U.S. airplane factory) and preservation of aviation history around the globe.”
If you’d like more stories about the Wrights and the invention of flight, read David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers. I found it fascinating.
Ride total: 8,933
A great article! Thanks.
Kenneth Botts says
Inspirational article regarding “…the most forward thinking bicycle mechanics in history…” Bravo to Road Bike Rider and Jim’s Tech Talk. The easy-to-understand storyline revealing the influence of the bicycle on the invention of flight, in particular, is nicely wordsmithed.
Jim Langley says
Thanks very much for the kind words, Ed and Kenneth! You made my day.
Tom in MN says
One quibble: “human powered flight” is something else, You mean “powered human flight.”
Jim Langley says
Thanks, Tom. I’ll see if Lars can change that to human controlled flight. That’s what I was trying to say. People had flown before but the Wrights were the ones who finally figured out how to control flight. I just allowed my fumble fingers to type “powered” because I’ve written so much about HPVs (human powered vehicles) over the years. Appreciate the sharp eyes!
Have a nice weekend,