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[In America] …the chainless had a checkered history that is still largely undocumented. The bevel-gear version was invented twice, in 1893 in France by the Metropole firm and in 1892 in Springfield, Massachusetts, by S.A Grant. Grant assigned his patent rights to a new firm organised by a group of investors in Hartford, the League Cycle Co, who had their bicycle on the market by 1893. The bevel gears had to be machined to exacting tolerances and it appears that League could not do the job in-house, contracting the job to the Leland & Faulconer machine shop in Detroit, at that time acclaimed as the best precision machinists in the nation. (Henry M Leland would go on to found the Cadillac Motor Co). It seems that League could not afford Leland & Faulconer’s work and the firm folded in late 1894 or early 1895 and was bought up by Pope, who kept the Grant patents and threw away the rest.
Industry insiders apparently believed that the Colonel would re-introduce League’s chainless as soon as the bankruptcy paperwork was settled. [But a] …subsequent two year delay seems to have resulted from both design and fabrication problems.Norman Clarke, who was president and owner of Pope’s successor firm, the Columbia Manufacturing firm had several Columbia shaft-drives and noted that hey “always got out of adjustment” …The Metropole L’Acatene did not appear to share this problem.
In late June 1897 the Pope firms slashed the prices of all their bicycles, with the flagship models cut from $100 to $75 …Three weeks after the big announcement, Albert Pope and A.G Spalding sailed off to Europe. George Day, Harry Pope, Henry Souther and Hayden Eames were already there looking over automobiles, but the fact that the Colonel and Spalding were taking William Redding, Pope’s patent lawyer, raised a few eyebrows. “It is not the habit of either Colonel Pope or Mr Spalding to start away on an expedition accompanied by an expert in patent matters,” one New York newspaper noted. “Some move is to be made which will have direct bearing upon the cycle business throughout the world.” The trip did not move the world, but Pope did buy the rights to the French Metropole company’s L’Acatene (chainless) bevel gear system, which he combined with the League shaft-drive system he acquired in 1895. On the same trip he purchased an alternative to the bevel gear system using angled roller bearings from a British concern …Pope introduced his Columbia chainless bicycle in the fall. It cost $125, fifty dollars more than his best chain-drive bicycle.
– Peddling Bicycles to America: The Rise of an Industry, by Bruce D. Epperson, pages 167/8
The first European bevel geared bicycle was the French Omega, also known under the brand name L’Acatene of the Metropole company, dating from 1893. The Acatene-Metropole was on the market from 1896 onwards and influenced the British market when Humber marketed it in 1897 under licence from Acatene-Metropole.
Both American and British inventors patented chainless bicycles but, despite their revolutionary design, the American ‘League’ Chainless and the English Quadrant were not popular enough in their respective countries to warrant full-scale manufacture. France’s Acatene was therefore the first chainless bicycles to go into full production, followed by the FN in Belgium.
The League was beset with problems and it was not until Colonel Pope of Columbia purchased the American rights to the bevel-gear patents of both Quadrant and Metropole that he was able to create a satisfactory American chainless bicycle, which became his most promoted model.
Female versions of the Metropole Acatene were marketed under the Acatene, Metropole and Velleda names. The company’s most famous advertising poster (below) combined its promotion of the Acatène Metropole bicycle with that of the American G&J tyres. It showed the Germanic priestess Velleda who, like Boadicea in England, was a legendary leader of an uprising against the Romans. Both were immortalized by the Roman historian Tacitus.*
The bird of prey next to her is carrying chains in its talons, and the Latin motto ‘Vae Catenis’ or ‘Woe to Chains’ is displayed in the sun above its head.
As well as the amusing anecdote of Velleda throwing off her chains (of the Roman Empire) to ride a chainless bicycle, this was a powerful statement of freedom for women at the turn of the century. But it was not purely an advertising gimmick. Emancipation at the turn of the century was truly epitomised by ownership of a bicycle.
1904 Metropole Acatene Chainless bicycle (badged as Alcyon)
Alcyon saddle-mounted tool bag
The Metropole Acatene was one of the world’s best chainless bicycles, and its gear was available for other French companies to fit it to their bicycles as required. I’m not sure if this example was badged as an Alcyon from new or when it was restored.
My assumption is that it was built for a customer as a special order, as it has a tall 26″ frame size, which is unusual for early 1900s French bicycles.
It’s in excellent working order and ready to ride.
THE ACATENE BEVEL GEAR SYSTEM
I photographed the chainless movement before and after the cases were fitted. The number on the gear is 21033, while the number on the case is 47779, so it’s obviously a replacement case.