The Cycle Industry (1896)

The Cycle Industry

When Baron von Draise bounded along the Paris boulevards astride the dandy-horse, which he is supposed to have invented, nobody imagined that the idea would develop into the bicycle as we know it and would give rise to an enormous industry. The process of evolution has been slow, for it is now nearly a century since the hobby-horse first made its appearance in France and England. To judge from examples of the machines which have been handed down to us and from old prints such as those in the British Museum collection, it is not a matter for wonder that the thing was laughed out of existence. Seated across a couple of bars connecting to heavy wooden wheels, one behind the other, the rider’s feet just touching the ground, allowing him to push himself along with a kind of waddling movement. There was a great lack of symmetry about the machine, to say the least of it and the rider’s progress was anything but graceful. For a time the gentlemen of the period patronized the hobby-horse pretty largely; but there was absolutely nothing to be said in its favour as a means of locomotion. At the same time, the modern cyclist regards it with kindly feelings, because it was the forerunner of the beautiful machine of today. There does not appear to have been any very great improvement upon the hobby-horse until the year 1866. It is true that “self moving machines” fixed up with lever action, were brought out in the twenties [1820s] and that one Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a Dumfriesshire mechanic, is credited with having ridden in the thirties [1830s], the first bicycle driven by cranks fitted to the back wheel; but it was not until 1866 that a clever Parisian named Michaux introduced the bicycle proper. This machine was soon afterwards improved upon by M Magee, another Frenchman and early in 1869 it was imported into England. Various developments followed; the old “bone-shaker” gave way to the spider-like “ordinary,” constructed of steel and iron, with its high driving wheel and later on in the “safety” the pattern got back to something approaching the lines of the old wooden machine – that is to say, it was constructed with two wheels of equal size driven from the rear. In its general outline the bicycle has since remained very much the same. As soon as the type of machine began to change it was at once seen that there were possibilities in the way of development which might prove far-reaching. The enterprising manufacturers and mechanics of the Midlands and especially of Birmingham and Coventry, saw their opportunity and were not slow in taking advantage of it, for it was plain that the gun-fitters and machinists of Birmingham and the workmen in the sewing machines factories of Coventry were the very people to apply their inventive faculties and their skill as craftsmen in this direction. Some facts relating to the growth and magnitude of the industry, which now affords employment for an immense amount of capital and work for many thousands of skilled artisans, will be found interesting. Perhaps Birmingham has done more to popularise the cycle than any other town in the kingdom. The city not only manufacturers a great number of cycles, but it also supplies accessories to most of the makers throughout the country. When it is stated that there are nearly a thousand parts in a complete machine, that there is hardly a single maker in the Midlands who himself produces a cycle from beginning to end and that Birmingham firms supply every requisite, it will easily be understood that the industry there is of great extent. To take one important branch of the trade, no development has been more remarkable than that in the manufacture of weldless steel tubes, of which the framework of the modern bicycle is constructed. The ordinary cyclist knows very little about the working up of the material out of which the principal part of the machine, to which he entrusts his life, is made; all he sees is a beautifully enamelled tube frame and if it will carry him and is tolerably light, he thinks very little more about it. The production of weldless steel tube took its rise in Birmingham some 30 years ago and at the present time is a very large local industry. It was first produced by a drawing process principally for rifle barrels and engineering purposes. But the process was costly and difficult and in later years improvements were made in the drawing appliances and in the manipulation of the material out of which the tube was produced. In 1882 the tube began to be employed for the backbone and fork of the older type of machines and for the framework of the tricycles. Very soon it came into general use for the best cycles; but the great demand arose when in 1885 the “safety” type of bicycle was brought out by Mr J K Starley. The “Diamond” frame required a greater length of the tubing than was used in the old type and it was necessary that this should be as light as possible. There are many appliances for producing a cold-drawn steel tube, but there is practically no difference in principle. A very high class of steel must be used. Most of that hitherto employed has been Swedish charcoal steel, containing a particular proportion of carbon. The steel is taken in the form of a billet 2ft long and about 6in in diameter. A hole is bored through the centre and it is heated, annealed and rolled in the form of a tube about 1¾in in diameter and with a wall of about 10-guage in thickness. This is then drawn through a die and over a mandrel by means of a drawbench, until a length of about 800ft of bright tubing is produced. The steel is not all drawn at once. Between each operation the undrawn metal has to be repickled and reannealed to obviate the crystallization to which the drawing process tends to give rise. The first drawings of the tube are about 3/8in thick, but the thickness gradually decreases until a tube is produced of which the wall is of the thickness of stout writing paper. It is this class of tube that is employed in cycle-making and that imparts to a bicycle those qualities of strength and rigidity which appear to be out of all proportion to its lightness. There is another class of tube which is being used by one of the largest manufacturers in the construction of cycle frames. This is the helical tube. The primary object in the process is to increase the strength and durability of the frame without adding to its weight. Crucible cast steel, converted from Swedish (Dannemora) iron, is used, the breaking strain of which, in the bar, is twice that of ordinary merchant Bessomer steel, and this, according to tests made, is about the relative strength of helical tube and ordinary weldless tube of equal weight. In 1894 the cycle trade was in a very depressed condition. Prices were low and in that and the following year the weldless-tube concerns fared badly. The result of the low prices was that practically the whole of the cycle tube trade was attracted to this country. What happened will to some extent explain the difficulty which many people had in obtaining bicycles this summer. Judging that the prices of the tube would be certain to go up, the American cycle makers placed forward contracts for practically the whole of the English output of tube at the exceptionally low prices then prevailing, which contracts have been running this year, though at unremunerative prices. It is estimated that the Americans built over 400,000 machines in 1894-95 and upwards of a million in 1895-96, English tube being used for about two-thirds of these. Then came a revival of the cycle trade in this country and with the revival the difficulties of English cycle-makers began. The Americans having secured nearly the whole of the English tube, the English makers were at a loss to know where to get tube to fulfil the orders for machines which poured in upon them, and, moreover, American-made machines were at the same time being sent across to the English market in great numbers. Home manufacturers possessed all the other cycle necessaries, but these were useless in the absence of the tube with which to construct frames. In order to meet the demand, therefore, new tube companies have been formed and old and unremunerative concerns have been refloated. A great deal of capital is now being expended in laying down with all speed, so that very soon there will be an ample supply of tube, and, very possibly, over production, as the American contracts must in time run out, when the production of the old firms will be thrown into the market with the addition of the tube made by the new concerns at home, in Germany and in America. All the other branches of the cycle trade have been working this year to the full extent of their capacity and many old trades have been revived by the extraordinary popularity which cycling has attained. For instance, a large and increasing business in lamps for cycles has been built up; the leather trade has been very active in consequence of the demand for saddles; wire drawing concerns have been busily working to supply material for spokes; rubber makers have found their hands more than fully employed, while there has been a large increase in the number of chain makers and tool makers. It is estimated that in Birmingham alone the various branches of the industry carried on by about 150 firms give employment to 15,000 or 18,000 workpeople. Birmingham deserves credit for the invention of one very important accessory to the cycle – viz., the ball-bearing. This bearing is now affixed to all parts of a machine where there is friction and it is recognised as an essential part. Cyclists know what it has done to promote ease and speed and what a fast improvement it is upon the bare crank. The ball-bearing was patented in 1877 by Mr J H Hughes, who sold the sole right of manufacture to Mr W Bown. As, however, the patent rights have expired, the balls are now being manufactured in many centres throughout the country. The perfection of the invention is shown by the fact that the bearing has never been modified since it was originally introduced; and so highly is it valued that it is now being adapted to carriages and to many forms of machinery. As to tires there is a vast output in Birmingham. During the present season the pneumatic tire has been turned out at the rate of about 1½ millions a year and a very large portion of this trade is centred in Birmingham. The excitement which has been created this year in the financial world over the formation of a pneumatic tire company with a capital of £5.000000 will be fresh in mind. When it is considered that the tire is only one of many cycle accessories and that there is nothing more liable to change than any of those articles, it is somewhat remarkable that one of them should have given rise to so large a financial operation. But if the chief town in the Midland counties supplies all the parts which go to make up a cycle, it does not produce so many complete machines as Coventry, which must be regarded as the principal centre of the cycle manufacture. Coventry at different periods of its history has been famous for many things; but its peculiar characteristic seems to be its capacity to substitute for a failing industry by a new and flourishing trade. Thus in turn it has been known as a centre for woollen goods, ribands, watches and sewing machines. These are things of the past and the town is now flourishing on the cycle trade, in which at the end of last year 94 firms were engaged. This number has since increased and the industry in the town now gives employment to about 17,000 workpeople. There are various other centres, like Wolverhampton, Nottingham and Newcastle where the trade has expanded enormously during the past two years, indeed, throughout the kingdom there are very few towns of moderate size where it has not taken root to some extent. If a complete census of the branches of the cycle trade could be obtained, some interesting figures might be recorded. Owing, however, to the great subdivision of labour and the variety of the industries represented by a complete bicycle and its accessories it has not been found possible to collect minute particulars. But there are certain facts which enable a very fair approximate estimate to be made of the bulk of the trade. The returns of the various railway companies and of the ire manufacturing companies – the tire trade being practically in the hands of half-a-dozen concerns – afford an excellent basis for this. From these returns and from other trustworthy sources the output for the British trade at the present rate of production may be stated at about 750,000 cycles per annum, which may roughly be valued at between £11.000,000 and £12.000,000. The exports of cycles last year were of the value of £1.393, 810, against £1.200,913 in the previous year; and the increase has been of larger volume this year. For the first three months the exports were valued at £444, 509, against £329, 096 in the first quarter of 1895 and £329, 535 in the same period of 1894; while for the month of March last the figures were £178,377 against £144,397 in 1895 and £142,184 in 1894. Since then the increase must have been even still greater. Thus in the export trade as well as in the home trade there has been a remarkable advance. As to the state o0f the industry financially, that again is a difficult matter to estimate. The figures of those firms which are formed on the limited liability principle can, of course, be obtained; but there are far more firms outside than inside this list, besides which there is a vast scattered industry in small agencies, manufacturing and repairing depots, and the like. Up to the end of 1895, according to the “Cyclist Year Book,” the returns of the limited companies represented a capital nearly approaching £6,000,000. Since then there have been a number of large developments. Reference to the list of new companies which was recently published in The Times shows that during the first half-year no fewer than 29 limited companies either for the making of cycles or for the manufacture of accessories were formed. The total capital issued by these companies reached the sum of £10,327,000. Two or three concerns – one with a capital of £600,000 – do not appear in the list; but it may be taken that the amount of capital represented by the new limited cycle companies exceeds £11,000,000, which, with the above-named sum of £6,000,000, makes a grand total of over £17,000,000. As already stated, to this large sum must be added the large investment of capital in the numerous private concerns in different parts of the country. The above figures will give some idea of the magnitude of an industry which has had its origins in what may be termed a new sport and pastime and of the amount of labour which is employed in it. As to the labour side of the question, a glance at the beautiful parts of one of the best machines will be sufficient to prove that highly-skilled and therefore highly-paid artisans are required to do the work, a fact which will go a long way to explain how it is that the cost of a machine remains at a high figure. An immense amount of ingenuity is shown in every separate part. The inventive faculties of clever people have been stimulated to a high degree, as is evident from the fact that last year as many as 1,933 patents were applied for in connexion with cycle and accessory construction. But invention has not confined itself to the production of cycles for the purposes of sport and pastime; carrier machines have been made for business purposes; while the War Office have been customers for “safety” bicycles for the use of the troops and the constabulary authorities, both in England and Ireland, have placed orders for special machines. This department of the trade is being encouraged as much as possible.

The Times, Sep 08, 1896; pg. 9

Leave a Reply