Smithsonian Bicycle Collection Rise of the Ordinary


By the early 1870s, bicycles and tricycles using wire-spoked wheels were commonly seen, notably in England. James Starley of Coventry introduced the Ariel in 1871, a high-wheeled bicycle with wire spokes that was copied for two decades. This type of cycle, with modifications, gained popularity and later became known as an “Ordinary” in the 1890s.

Americans again became interested in bicycles, and began importing machines from England. Albert A. Pope became the first American bicycle manufacturer. In 1878 he began manufacturing bicycles under the trade name “Columbia” in Connecticut.

Ordinary Bicycle Tour, 1879.

Ordinary Bicycle Tour, Readville, Massachusetts, 1879.The first rider is Charles E. Pratt, noted bicycle author, coorganizer, and first president of the League of American Wheelmen, and later attorney for the Pope Manufacturing Co. The second man is Col. Albert A. Pope, president of the famed company bearing his name, manufacturer of the Columbia bicycle.

The Ordinary, or high-wheel bicycle, was light weight and fast. But it was also hazardous, since the rider's center of gravity was only slightly behind the large front wheel and the rider was in danger of taking what came to be called a “header”—flying over the handlebars. Because of the Ordinary's inherent danger, efforts were made to design a safer bicycle. Some people tried to modify the Ordinary to make it safer, others put their efforst into redesigning the bicycle.

The latter path won out as “Safety” bicycles became more popular. These cycles had two small wheels of equal size, a chain driver, and gears. Soon after the advent of the Safety bicycle, John Boyd Dunlop patented a pneumatic tire (in both England and the United States). Brakes were also improved in the 1890s. The number of bicycles in use boomed as production rose from an estimated 200,000 bicycles in 1889 to 1,000,000 in 1899.