The Bicycle Craze

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n 1892, Wilbur and Orville bought new "safety" bicycles and soon cycling – or "wheeling," as it was then called – became a shared passion. Wheeling was, in fact, becoming a passion all over the United States. Safety bicycles were the first practical form of personal mechanical transportation, offering considerable advantages over the horse especially when traveling short distances. There had been bicycles before the 1890s, but they were hardly practical. High-wheel or "ordinary" bicycles with huge wheels in front and small wheels in back had been the province of daring athletes. Wilbur, in fact, had owned an "ordinary" and learned to ride it while the Wright family still lived in Richmond, Indiana. His training as a gymnast probably served him well when mounting and dismounting the awkward machine.

The invention of the safety bicycle, with two wheels of equal size, made the bicycle relatively easy to mount and ride, opening the activity to almost everyone.  The Wrights joined a local bicycle club, the YMCA Wheelmen, went on long country rides, and did a little racing. In 1894, Orville won three medals and a rocking chair in various cycling contests. And because their scratch-built presses had made their reputations as mechanics, they were set upon by friends in need of bicycle repair. Soon the Wrights had a good repair business.

Wilbur opened a bicycle shop in 1892, the Wright Cycle Exchange. He was soon joined by Orville. The brothers retained their printing business, but left the day-to-day running of it to Ed Sines. In addition to repairing bicycles, they also sold new bikes and accessories. Business was brisk, and in early 1893 they moved to larger quarters, and then later that same year they moved again and renamed the business The Wright Cycle Company. In a year's time, bicycles had become their primary business and they hired their brother Lorin to take over the print shop and work with Ed.

The Big Race

After several years of repairing bicycles, the Wright brothers decided they could build a better bike than they could buy. In 1896, they began to manufacture the top-of-the line Van Cleve and the lower-priced St. Clair, both named for Ohio pioneers.  It was a good marketing ploy -- 1896 was the centennial anniversary of the founding of Dayton and these names were familiar to the Wright's customers. The Wrights in fact were descended from Catherine Van Cleve, a member of the first wave of pioneers to settle the area. Her daughter (and the Wright's great aunt) Mary Van Cleve has been the first person to step off the small boat of settlers that sailed up the Great Miami River onto what would become Dayton. The motto they chose to advertise their bikes was a pun on their own ancestry: "Van Cleves get there first."

Wright bicycles were not mass-produced machines, but were hand-built to a customer’s specifications. At that time, the bicycle industry was analogous to computers today. Small-time manufacturers could build their own brands from readily available components. The Wrights added a few original improvements, including an oil-retaining wheel hub (designed by Orville) and coaster brakes. By 189y, they were earning $2000 to $3000 a year in gross sales from the bicycle business, a respectable income for the times.

The Wright Special

In Their Own Words


A Van Cleve bicycle built by the Wright brothers in the mid-1890s.

The nameplates for the Van Cleve and St. Clair bicycles.

Although bicycles became their mainstay, the Wrights kept their job printing business until 1899. Among the jobs they printed was "Snapshots," a humorous newsletter for their bicycle customers.

An ad for Van Cleve bicycles and the Wright Cycle Company.

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The Wright Story/Career Choices/The Bicycle Craze

Part of a biography of the Wright Brothers
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