Staring at spokes: The DNA of a cycle engineer

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Everything is laid bare on the bicycle, you’d think. The motorcycle is cylinders and sparkplugs; but you can replicate a bicycle design out of Lego – pretty simple Lego at that. The mistake, however, would be to confuse simplicity and boldness of design with lack of character.

If you were cavalier enough to get on your bike and ride across the Welsh hills, through the Powys countryside to the town of Llandrindod Wells you’d be able to visit the UK’s National Cycling Museum and see bicycles lined up from 1819 right through to the current day. You’d see that, from an aesthetic standpoint, the machine’s evolution has been sporadic and rarely featuring the kind of leaps forward that captured the imagination of the general public the way space travel or the internet have.

Moving through the years, the adjustments and innovations have left most of the key ideas in tact. You might get the feeling that if you were somehow able and willing to be locked in a shed for decades on end, you too might be able to come up with the same kinds of advances that take you from one end of this timeline of bike design to the other. But that, again, is the illusion of design.

Engineers see things differently – like a mathematician or a doctor, part of the skill of the science lies in unpicking problems and seeking elegant solutions free of waste. Even among these creatures, cycle engineers have been a rare breed indeed and were there to be a museum dedicated to their individual stories, it might serve to better illustrate the development of bike design.

In Michael Embacher’s book, Cyclepedia (Thames & Hudson, 2011), the author offers a brief history of bicycle design.

“Over the last one hundred years bicycle design has continued to evolve, but all successive versions have been refinements of the original idea. That has not prevented many of them from being astonishing in their success.

“Innovations have tended to come from constructors who are themselves avid cyclists, rather than engineers who drive to work in their cars or ‘outsiders’ who want to be at the forefront of an industry. Bicycle design might not have moved on that far, but it is the technologies and new materials that have allowed the components to be revolutionary.”

Mavericks and magicians

The death of Alex Moulton, aged 92, in early December prompted heartfelt tributes from the cyclists, engineers, students and professors. What was described by architect Norman Foster as the “sparse beauty” of the Moulton bicycle, a small-wheeled reimagining of the traditional bicycle design, inspired engineers to think differently about bicycles.

Moulton was a graduate of King’s College, Cambridge who had built a living finding new engineering uses for rubber, most notably developing suspension for Morris Minors and Minis. But the fuel crisis in the 60s prompted Moulton to turn his talents elsewhere. As fuel shortages made the bicycle a more appealing option, so he discovered the joy of cycling and saw temptation in the challenge of improving the bicycle, which, he contended, presented safety issues in the positioning of the top tube and the inefficiencies of larger wheels. His design were admired, though rebuffed by manufacturers, so, undeterred, he set about building his own versions, which he launched at the 1962 Earls Court Cycle and Motorcycle Show.

Since then, there have been copies, patent disputes and international recognition of the design and private production of a machine that made its name for fine craftsmanship. A following of connaisseurs and enthusiasts grew over the subsequent half a decade and Moulton became something of a hero for his willingness to pioneer design when the manufacturers were focused on low-cost production.

Moulton’s obituary in UK newspaper The Guardian included this snippet:

Moulton was not a technocrat. Though adept at mathematics and engineering science, his inventions were all human-centred and focused on the experience and enjoyment of the user […] His car suspensions and the cycle developments were entirely aimed at providing a superior experience for the user. He was very taken […] with the Japanese sense of the “spirit” of an artefact, reflecting its origins and the care with which it was made. He liked the idea that by seeing and using something one can detect this “spirit”, which fitted his own conviction that manufacture and industry are morally rewarding. “Man should make things … Make a profit, of course, but don’t take the money gain as the prime judgment.”

The impact of the small-wheeled bicycle changed the cycling world, but there are two strands to the story that resonate through the lineage of inventors and designers. The first of these, the nominated mother of invention, is necessity.

Moulton’s push to revamp the wheels and frame of the bicycle came as rising fuel prices gave him the impetus to turn his talents to the bicycle. You might look to one of the first innovators in this industry – it’d be inviting criticism to call him the inventor of the bicycle – for another example of where conditions have brought creativity to a two-wheeled problem. In 1817, Baron Karl von Drais propelled a wooden horse with wheels – but no pedals or chains – from Mannheim to Schwetzinger Relaishaus to test out a less food-intensive method of transport than the horse. A period of disruptive climate change, traced by scientists to a massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia, had severely damaged crop output and made horses valuable as food; Drais was meeting a problem with a sharp piece of engineering.

Like Moulton, the German’s creativity had been applied across several areas and though he’s best known for the ‘laufmaschine’, he invented an early incarnation of the typewriter and a wood-saving cooker. That he died penniless in 1851, having spent years exiled in Brazil, speaks of a life of drama and tragedy, rather than that of a recognised genius.

This is where the second strand of the DNA of the innovator is expressed: individualism.

Say what you like

Izhar Gafni looks casual, even a little goofy, as he rides around on his cardboard bicycle. However the Israeli inventor, an amateur cycle enthusiast and an expert in designing automated production lines, recognised the need for cheaper materials to be used in the cycling process and this year unveiled the prototype of a bicycle whose bill of materials are estimated at around $9.

“When we started, a year and a half or two years ago, people laughed at us, but now we are getting at least a dozen e-mails every day asking where they can buy such a bicycle, so this really makes me hopeful that we will succeed,” he told Reuters in the summer as he launched his prototype.

Gafni’s idea is left field and it’s easy to think of reasons why it won’t catch on. But his argument that cheaper materials are needed and that the structural and durability issues of cardboard can be overcome has the kind of defiance of conventional thinking that characterises the most successful inventors.

Having spawned what he envisages as the start of a cardboard empire in his garden shed, Gafni is another archetypal outsider – crackpot to some, genius to others.

That same description applies comfortably to British manufacturer and James Starley. Having made a name for himself in the factories and workshops of Coventry as a manufacturer of repute in the second half of the 19th century, Starley’s prolific production of ideas and designs to improve on the nascent bicycle and tricycle were matched by a defiance of public disinterest and even derision of the odd-looking contraptions that rolled the streets around his neighbourhood from time to time.

C.W. Nairn and Henry Sturmey’s The Wheel World: A Bicycling & Tricycling Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Sport, published in 1881, proclaimed Starley as a goliath of the world of design, but even they acknowledged that his achievements were just as much about fighting opinion as it was sketching out new cranks and gears.

He invented the double-throw crank, and the chain and chain wheels to obtain rotary motion in tricycles; and the rack and pinion steering gear was his application to the same machines. Possibly hundreds of other details in the construction of the various machines were due to him. His original ideas and suggestions were from the commencement of the bicycle industry of incomputable value, and it is probably that, but for his perseverance, Coventry would never have been the centre of so great, important and increasing an industry. The bicycle was established and improved by him, and of the tricycle he was without doubt the inventor, pressing quietly onward with the ideas that presented themselves to his fertile brain, notwithstanding the laughter and ridicule which in some quarters were heaped upon him.

Starley’s influence earned him royal recognition and the nickname as the ‘old man’. His legacy sits in contrast to the likes of Mikael Pedersen, the inventor of the esoteric Pedersen bicycle, who brought cycling production to the market town of Dursley around the turn of the 20th century. Where Starley had been able to harness his genius within the confines of the system, Pedersen’s poor commercial sense saw him struggle financially despite his great success in patenting his ideas. However, as recently as 1995, enthusiasts of the machine he designed started a collection to bring his body, which had been shipped to Denmark following his death in 1929, back to Dursley for reburial – they got their wish.

In the blood

The passion that people have for cycling as a form of expression and a forum for engineering ideas has ensured that the great names don’t often get lost. The richness of cycling’s design heritage is an echo and an effect of the passion that infused the individuals wielding the wrenches and the welders.

Tullio Campagnolo might be a final example of an inventor who turned passion for cycling into game-changing design. As a racer, the Italian was said to be hard-working and determined, but not a great. That said, when during one race in 1927 in particularly difficult conditions he was forced to change a flat and struggled to remove the wheel. His response was to design the quick release skewer, a piece of design that was patented in 1930 and is still in use today.

That was only the beginning.

“The genius of Campagnolo,” said Guido Rubino, co-author of Campagnolo: 75 Years of Cycling Passion at an Italian industry event in 2008, “is the simplicity of a derailleur that worked. In the early 1900s, before Campagnolo, derailleur prototypes already existed, but they were complex, complicated, and heavy. Tullio Campagnolo was able to create a derailleur that was effective, lightweight, and functional, beating the competition of that time and keeping faith over the years with this philosophy: simplicity and ingenuity.”

Today, the Campagnolo brand towers among cycling manufacturers. But the origins: the press of necessity, the passion for engineering and the bravery to defy convention, this is line that crosses continents and decades to unify a group of individuals that are joined together in a special corner of the cycling Valhalla.

Steve Hall

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