The commercial arm of a foundation run by the great-grandnephew and great-grandniece of Wilbur and Orville Wright has made available the licence to brand bike products with the Wright Brothers name. The brothers pioneered powered heavier-than-air flight and they funded their early-1900s aviation experiments with the profits they made from their upscale bike shop in Dayton, Ohio.
The licensing programme from the Wright Brothers USA – commercial arm of The Wright Brothers Family Foundation – will allow cycle manufacturers to use the name of The Wright Brothers on select cycles, equipment and accessories, as well as bicycle-related businesses such as bike shops and cycle-touring businesses.
The programme is in addition to the branded cycles already available on The Wright Brothers USA’s website. These cycles are two Wright-inspired bicycles, the St. Clair 1896 and the Van Cleve 1896, which are built to order with modern-day specifications.
Cycle journalist Gary Boulanger used these brand names on bicycles he made in 2004 for his then Cycles Gaansari marque.
The Wright Brothers USA's current bike guy, Richard Luthas, helped Cycles Gaansari with those bikes, which ceased production when Boulanger took on an editorial role with Bikeradar and then other titles.
Wilbur and Orville Wright operated a number of bike shops in Dayton during the bike boom of the mid-1890s, from which they produced their own models of boutique bicycles.
Wright Brothers USA president Kenneth Botts said: “Our bikes invoke the Wrights’ indomitable spirit of innovation, persistence, and pursuit of perfection. They’re limited editions, built in the same Dayton city block where the brothers conducted their bike shop business."
Botts continued: “We are seeking licencing partners in the bike industry who see the appeal of the Wright brothers’ near-universal name recognition, and appreciate its connection with history, quality manufacturing, and integrity.”
Proceeds from licensing ventures fund the work of The Wright Brothers Family Foundation, which is advised by Stephen Wright and Amanda Wright Lane, great-grandnephew and great-grandniece of the Wright brothers.
On May 30th 1899, Wilbur Wright wrote to the Smithsonian Institution, asking for papers on aviation. He paid for the papers from his and his brother’s bicycle business. The accounts for the Wright Cycle Co. includes an 1899 entry of $5.50 “for books on flying.”
“I am an enthusiast but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine,” he wrote to the Smithsonian, revealing he was “about to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work to which I expect to devote what time I can spare from my regular business.”
He and his brother would take turns to man their bicycle store as they tested first a kite prototype and then larger scale gliders in 1900, 1901 and 1902. Their first powered aeroplane, on December 17th 1903, used bicycle chains and sprockets to link the propellors. Their aeroplane frames were made up of bicycle-type double-triangles. Wilbur’s visionary ‘wing warping’ technique of controlling an aircraft’s pitch, roll and yaw was developed in 1899 after twisting an empty bicycle tube box with the ends removed. Wing warping is still used today, albeit with ailerons.
The Wright Brothers had used one of their bicycles to work out their ideal wing shape. The brothers took turns pedalling their converted machine in Dayton, Ohio. A handlebar-mounted wheel was fitted with two metal plates, one flat, one curved, ninety degrees apart. Orville and Wilbur used the device to measure air resistance.
“The results obtained with the rough apparatus…gave evidence of such possibility of exactness,” wrote Wilbur.
By riding along and generating some wind flow, the brothers were able to disprove earlier theories on lift.
The brothers later invented the wind tunnel to fine tune their early experiments in aerodynamics. This was a box six feet long and sixteen inches square on the inside. They mounted a fan attached to a sheet metal hood to one side and replaced a panel on the top of the box with a pane of glass so they could see inside. The fan moved the air through the tunnel at 27 miles per hour and the brothers tested hundreds of small sections of wings and wing shapes. High-tech wind tunnels would, of course, be later used to fine-tune the best aerodynamic shapes for bicycles.
By 1903, the brothers had achieved their goal of constructing a practical flying machine capable of remaining in the air for extended periods of time and operating under the full control of the pilot.
The earlier, smaller machines had been built and tested in the Wright’s bicycle store, in full view of customers.
In a later patent infringement case, the Wright brothers had to recall these early experiements to prove their patents.
Orville remembered spending long hours at the bicycle shop, waiting on customers, performing repairs, and constructing his kite.
“I was not able to be present when the structure was flown as a kite, but I operated the machine in our store before it was taken out to be flown,” Orville told the court.
The brothers were cycling enthusiasts. In 1892, Orville bought a new Columbia safety bicycle for $160. In the same year, Wilbur purchased a used Eagle safety bicycle for $80. Orville entered bicycle races put on by the YMCA Wheelmen. Wilbur liked to ride more slowly, taking in the passing scenery and, importantly, watching birds fly.
It’s therefore entirely possible that powered flight was conceived from the saddle.
Originally small-town publishers and jobbing printers, the Wrights were inspired by their new found passion for bicycles to open a bicycle sales and repair shop called the Wright Cycle Exchange at 1005 West Third Street in Dayton, Ohio in 1892.
As their business grew, the Wright brothers moved their bicycle shop six times and changed the name to the Wright Cycle Co. in 1894.
In April 1896, the Wrights introduced their first in-house bike, the Van Cleve. Catharine Benham Van Cleve Thompson, the Wright brother’s great, great grandmother, had been among Dayton’s first settlers. Later in the year, the Wrights introduced a second, less expensive model called the St. Clair. Again, the name was drawn from local history; Arthur St. Clair had been the first president of the Northwest Territory, which later became Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
Today’s version of the St. Clair is handmade of Reynolds 725 tubing, with a Shimano Alfine 8 internal hub and SRAM Avid BB5 disc brakes. It sells for $3,950.
The Van Cleve model retails for $4,750 and features Shimano Alfine 11-speed internal rear hub, TRP Spyre brakes, and Gates Carbon Drive CDX belt.
The Wright Bicycle Co. was profitable for many years. In 1897, their best year, they made $3000 between them at a time when the average American worker was doing well to make $500 per year. The Wright’s stopped producing own-label bikes in 1904. The bike store continued to sell branded bikes and P&A but was converted to a machine shop in 1909 when the Wright Company, an aircraft manufacturing business, started producing bicycle-inspired parts for aeroplane engines.