May 19 is Bike to Work Day. Whether you walked or wheeled your way into work this morning, you may be interested in the surprising connection between cycling and flight.
In the 1890s, a bicycle craze swept the United States. The introduction of the safety bicycle from England made riding easier and more accessible to a wider market. At the height of the boom more than 300 companies were producing over a million bicycles a year. Among them were Wilbur and Orville Wright.
Before they became known as the inventors of the world’s first powered heavier-than-air flying machine, the Wright brothers were in the bike business. In 1892, they opened the Wright Cycle Co., where they repaired and manufactured bicycles. The business provided the brothers with an outlet for their mechanical interests and was a hobby they both appreciated. Wilbur enjoyed long country rides, Orville enjoyed racing and considered himself a “scorcher” on the track.
Their experience and knowledge with bicycles also proved valuable in their development of a successful airplane. There are a number of links between bicycles and airplanes. James Howard Means, editor of the influential journal, The Aeronautical Annual, suggested such a link in an 1896 article, “Wheeling and Flying.” He writes:
“It is not uncommon for the cyclist … to remark, Wheeling is just like flying! … To learn to wheel one must learn to balance; to learn to fly one must learn to balance.”
Balance was not the only similarity. The Wright brothers also drew on these bicycle concepts when designing their airplane: control, the need for strong but lightweight structures, a chain-and-sprocket transmission system for propulsion, and the effects of resistance and aerodynamics.
So as you pedal home from work this evening or go for a leisurely ride over the weekend, consider the Wright brothers, and how their bicycles inspired their pursuit of flight.