Bicycle frame tubing in 1890 was around half inch diameter with 50% thickness. By 1896 it was around one inch diameter with 2-4% thickness. The reason for such rapid development in frame tubing was because it had a precedent …rifle barrels. Rifle barrels may have started out as one hollow piece of metal, but rifle-making had evolved to such a degree by the 1890s that toolmakers were able to use several very thin diameter tubes to make a strong but lightweight barrel.
The manufacture of pistols and rifles, which flourished in America in the 19th century (particularly as a result of the Civil War) is an integral ingredient in the history of the bicycle. Likewise in Britain: BSA, for example, was an amalgamation of various arms manufacturers united into one company in 1861 to fulfill a large government order.
Arms manufacturers invariably started in small workshops. The successful makers employed staff or merged with others. Having established engineering workshops and production lines, and also negotiated distribution networks (usually via larger arms companies), they were in an ideal position to capitalise on the popularity of the bicycle when it arrived.
Arms and bicycles shared similar metalworking techniques. But the main point in common was the need for constant innovation and invention to refine each product. The start of the cycle industry – and the automobile industry that followed on its heels – was an era where ordinary working class men, engineers and toolmakers, through experimentation and diligence, could refine an existing product and receive immediate rewards from a manufacturer. In fact, creating and patenting a prototype, or patenting ‘improvements’ to a product, was usually more financially rewarding than actually manufacturing it.
This era was also the beginning of the modern advertising industry, which got rich and evolved directly as a result of sales of guns, bicycles and then cars. So we’re able to observe this time in history more easily a century and a half later through magazine advertisements. Patents are also available to help us piece together the early history of the bicycle industry…