Before they built airplanes, the Wright brothers built bicycles. Even has children, the Wrights were innovative "businessmen" and in the early 1890s they were cashing in on the bicycle craze that swept the country in the wake of the invention of the "safety bicycle." The safety bicycle had two equal-size wheels which made it much easier to mount and ride than the "ordinary bicycle" which is now known as the high-wheel bicycle.
Wilbur Wright bought a used high wheel bicycle for just $3 (about $87 today) while the Wright family lived in Richmond, Indiana between 1881 and 1884. In 1892, Orville bought a new Columbia safety bicycle for $160. That wasn't cheap! In those days a blacksmith made a bout $16 a week. a carpenter $19 and a laborer about $9.
Both brothers enjoyed cross-country cycling and Orville occasionally enter races and once won a rocking chair as a prize. The Wrights opened a bicycle sales and repair shop called the Wright Cycle Exchange at 1005 West Third Street in Dayton, Ohio in 1892. They carried a variety of brands with prices ranging from $40 to $100. The Wrights also rented bicycles and sold parts and accessories.
The League of American Wheelmen held their twelfth annual meet in Dayton on July 4 and 5, 1892. It was a huge event with thousands of cyclists visiting the city to compete in thirteen different races for prizes worth up to $500. The visiting cyclists were also invited to tour the city and visit the Central National Soldiers Home with its exquisitely landscaped grounds. The Wheelmen would have passed right by the Wright Cycle Exchange.
As their business grew, the Wright brothers moved their bicycle shop six times and changed the name once. From 1897 to 1908 the company was known as The Wright Cycle Company and was located at 1127 West Third.
In late 1895, the Wright brothers began to make preparations to manufacture their own bicycles and introduced the "Van Cleve" on April 24, 1896; it sold for $65. The Van Cleves were ancestors of the Wrights and had been among Dayton's first settlers, arriving in 1796. Dayton was about to celebrate its centennial in 1896 and historical awareness was high so it was a good choice for a brand name.
Later in in 1895, they introduced a less expensive model called the "St. Clair" which was named after Arthur St. Clair, the first president of the Northwest Territory which later became Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. It sold for $42.50.
During their peak years of production, between 1896 and 1900, they manufactured about 300 bicycles. During the time the brothers were assembling bicycles, they constantly improved them to remain on the cutting edge bicycle technology.
The Van Cleve featured a wheel hub with three unique features. 1) bearings adjusted by screwing the inner bearing races or "cups" in or out of the hub. Most bearings were adjusted by tightening nuts on the axle. Their design allowed for the wheels to be removed without changing the adjustment of the bearings, 2) the bearings were sealed with felt washers. Dayton only had 12 miles of paved streets in those days and the dust played havoc with bearings and the washers kept the dust out and, at the same time, created a reservoir that bathed the bearings in oil. 3) each hub carried it's own spar parts consisting of two extra outer bearing races or "cones" on which the bearings rode. These were likely parts to wear out on early bicycles.
The "coaster brake," a friction brake inside the rear hub that was activated by back-pedaling, first appeared in 1898. That same year the Wrights designed their own version of the coaster brake that would work with their special wheel hubs. In 1901 they contracted with Charley Taylor, a local machinist, to make the brake parts. That turned out to be a fortuitous arrangement because two years later it was Taylor who helped them to build their first aircraft engine.
Another bicycle innovation came in 1900 when the Wrights announced a pedal that couldn't come unscrewed. Pedals were mounted to the crank by threaded spindles and on early bicycles, both crank arms had standard right-hand threads. As the cyclist pedaled, the action tended to tighten one pedal and loosen the other and so one pedal kept falling off. A British inventor named William Kemp Starley had solved a the problem years before when he simply reversed the thread direction on the right pedal. The Wrights were among the first to offer right-hand threads on one crank arm and left-hand threads on the other.
They did well in the business. In 1897 (their best year), they made $3,000 in a time when the average worker was doing well to make $500 a year. They also managed to save $5,000, which went a long way in financing their aviation experiments
Beginning in 1898, bicycle manufacturers began to go bust because the market had been saturated by thousands of small firms that had sprung up to satisfy the initial rush to buy bicycles. The big manufacturing firms with their mass production and were able to sell bicycles for $10.
To remain competitive, the Wrights had lower their prices and build customized bicycles. Customers could choose different cranksets, forks, handlebars, saddles, pedals and add fenders, chain guards and brakes.
Nevertheless, their business was declining and in 1898 Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt convinced the War Department to pay the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Samuel Langley $50,000 to develop his 1896 Aerodrome into a man-carrying flying machine. This was supposed to be a secret, but the money was the largest sum ever paid by the War Department to develop a weapon and the news leaked. In any case, the Wrights were already studying about aviation and had come to the conclusion that they problem with the current airplane design was that they lacked controls.
The Wright manufactured very few bicycles after 1902 and by 1904 were out of the business and were busy developing airplanes. When they finally started selling aircraft in 1909, the bicycle shop was converted to a machine shop that turned out parts for airplane engines and drive trains.
In 1909 or 1910, the Wrights sold all their remaining bicycle parts and the rights to W.F. Meyers, a bicycle salesman, repairman and machinist. Meyers had another company assemble the parts and slapped the name Van Cleve on them and sold them until 1939.
Of the several hundred bicycles the Wrights made between 1896 and 1904, only five still exist including the only known example of a women's bicycle built by the Wrights. They are all owned by museums.