Left (W)right

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Next in the blog series from Manchester based documentary photographer and journo David Dunnico celebrating the inventors and innovators that shaped bicycle design.

You may remember me "going on with myself" in a previous blog about designers, then making a tenuous link with bicycles before stretching it a bit further to make a point about cycle clothing. So in keeping with the age old adage that if something's worth doing it's worth doing again and again until you get blisters, here we go again…

It’s fair to say Wilbur and Orville Wright, the mechanically minded brothers from Dayton Ohio in the US of A, changed the world a century ago with an invention that revolutionised transport forever. We are of course, referring to the self-tightening bicycle pedal.

In 1900, they announced a “bicycle pedal that can’t come unscrewed.” Pedals are mounted to the crank by threaded posts. On early bicycles, both posts had standard right-hand threads. As the cyclist pedalled, the action tended to tighten the right pedal but loosen the left one, with the result that the left pedal kept falling off. Wilbur and Orville used right-hand threads on the right pedal and left-hand threads on the left, so the pedalling action tended to tighten both pedals and from then on pedals were marked with an ‘L’ or an ‘R’. A quick look on Wikipedia sees the engineering behind the principle described as “precession”.

If stopping pedals from flying off wasn't a big enough contribution to modern life, the Wrights then patented a self-oiling hub. Oh and on 17th December 1903, at Kill Devil Hill in North Carolina, the Wright Brothers also became the first people to fly a powered, controlled, heavier than air machine. They never did anything else to improve bicycles. 

Of course people had flown before. Gliders had been carrying (and sometimes killing) people for fifty years, but history does not record which of these pioneering aeronauts was the first to think, "Wow! This feels just riding a bike”. Of course the Wright Brothers achievement of 1903 was completely overshadowed by the first Tour de France, which took place in the same year. However Kill Devil Hill is now a National Park with a museum, giant obelisk and statues to mark the spot where the two bicycle mechanics swapped their wheels for wings. There's also a sign at the bottom of the hill prohibiting bicycles.


The giant obelisk  at Kill Devil Hill, no bicycles though…

Wilbur and Orville gave up building their 'Van Cleve' branded bicycles the following year to concentrate on building aeroplanes. Bikes were becoming cheap mass produced items, so the profits from making them wasn’t going to pay for experimenting with flying machines for much longer. People thought of the Wright's dreams of flight as crazy (until they actually did it, then they just thought they were crazy for doing it). For their part the Wrights didn't initially think of the airplane in terms of mass transport, but more as fulfilling an age old dream of man to fly like a bird. Some probably thought they should have stuck to their bikes.

Louis J. Helle Jr. wrote, “Bicycling is the nearest approximation I know to the flight of birds. The airplane simply carries a man on its back like an obedient Pegasus; it gives him no wings of his own”. It must be that same feeling of freedom (or maybe the feeling of wind in your hair, now lost to pilots in modern aircraft with enclosed cockpits) that makes descriptions of flight and cycling sound so similar.

Today, flight is commonplace – it makes travel seem trivial. Rather than a delight it has become something to be endured before your holiday can begin.

Jets shrunk the world, bicycles broadened horizons. I ride my bike for lots of practical but mundane reasons – commuting, shopping and all the rest, but I try to remember to find time to ride just for the joy of it.  A few years ago I visited the site of that first flight and on the way back to the UK gazed out of the airliner’s window at the clouds below and thanked Wilbur and Oliver for keeping the pedals on my bike and not in the air. 

Now please excuse me, I must fly.

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