Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Bicycle Chain - 1896

The technological improvements in modern bikes over those of the 1890s are much less than the 120 years would suggest likely. One of the critical "ingredients" for the first "safety bicycles" was the use of a chain to connect the rear wheel to a drive shaft with pedals (rather than pedals at the center of a large front wheel). The basic structure of a bicycle chain has not changed in all that time, but I was surprised to see that there were variations - the 1896 Victor Bicycle catalog (from Overman Wheel Co.) shows a chain where the sprocket teeth are spaced further apart and engage the chain only between every other (rather than every) link.

1896 Victor bicycle chain

1896 Victor bicycle sprocket

Commercial catalogs collection. Overman Wheel Co. Victor bicycles. 1896, University of Michigan.
Available online:

Perhaps the perceived advantage was that each of the sprocket teeth could be much more substantial, but the trade-off of having half as many teeth makes this seem a wash and somehow the symmetry of the chains we use today seems more efficient (and in any event, that chain won out). Would this approach mean that the pins would bend less? (That may have been a problem in those days.) And maybe the relative cost of chains was more than today so a sturdier chain for the money seemed wise. Hard to know at this distance in time.

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