Bicycle Technology - Fact and Theory


Between 1890 and 1917, the number of individual bicycle brands produced by manufacturers across the United States went from a low number to over 3,000 (according to a study by The Wheelmen, a bicycling heritage group).  Some manufacturers were large, established concerns pursuing new opportunities, and some were very small operations - there was a LOT of room in the early market for the marvelous new thing, the bicycle.

There are many more great stories and pictures about the Fowler Cycle Mfg. Co. on The Online Bicycle Museum web site, along with lots of other early-day bicycle topics and insights, such as:

  1. How Ford and General Motors copied bicycle manufacturing methods (the stamping methods of Albert Augustus Pope then adopted by the Western Wheel company of Chicago) to ‘invent’ the mass production of cars

  2. That the demise of the American cycle industry as a result of corporate greed illustrates how patent law – rather than invention – was the primary force affecting the evolution of vehicles.

  3. How the 1894 ‘Good Roads’ campaign to improve roads for bicyclists enabled early automobile makers as well.

  4. How the bicycle had an impact on female emancipation.

  5. ‘Mile-a-Minute’ Murphy’s accomplishments!

  6. Who was “Daisy” on that Bicycle Made for Two?

  7. ..and lots more.

The Fowler Truss Tube frame first appeared in 1893; you can see its first appearance in the Hill Mfg Co catalogue below. The company name changed several times. A youthful Ignaz Schwinn was employed by Hill and Fowler prior to striking out on his own to found Arnold Schwinn & Co.

Chicago became a magnet for many smaller makers in the trade as well – including Featherstone, Spalding, Hill and Moffat – along with countless suppliers and retailers. Many of these concerns quickly assembled in and around Chicago’s central business district, the Loop, and particularly on a stretch of Wabash Avenue that became known as Bicycle Row.

Online Bicycle Museum

During the 1890s, a new-style ‘safety bike’ took the public by storm. The predecessors - such as the vélocipède, - was equipped with a large front wheel, was very heavy, difficult to maneuver and dangerous to ride, and expensive to own. Other designs, like the high-wheelers, were also beasts to ride.

The innovations in bicycle technology during this era produced a safer, simpler and less costly individual travel method, especially when compared to horse-powered travel.  These benefits were especially true for those living in cities and without the need to travel long distances.  Within cities, the bicycle could also be used to reduce operating costs for businesses providing, for example, delivery services.  Beyond the practical applications, new-style bicycles provided recreation and sport (bicycle racing became very popular) and ‘wheels’ quickly moved beyond being a rich-person’s plaything into universal appeal.

OK, let’s go for it! 

In the United States, there was nothing less than a flood of technical innovations paving the way for industrialization during the period of 1870-1914. 

One of the most popular innovations was the BICYCLE (or, wheels).

To address the growing popular demand for this new wheel technology, many people tried to find commercial success with their own novel bicycle ideas.  Some were successful, and some; not so much.  Frank T. Fowler was one of the successful ones.  Why?

Frank Thomas Fowler was born in Beverly,  Ohio, February 7, 1867, the son of Royal Arch and Mary Fowler.

At the age of 18 he moved to Chicago, Illinois, and found work at a couple of elevator companies, until he realized the great utility and universal popularity of the new-style bicycles.

Was the success enjoyed by his bicycle companies pure luck, or did an astute application of technology-as-knowledge enable it? 

Early bicycles and your Car?  Well, as an example, the Fowler bicycles can be directly traced to later automobile manufacturers (the Trinity and Steamobile companies).  Also, the very successful Rambler bicycle links directly to automobiles; to the Nash company, to Rambler cars, to the American Motors corporation, and eventually to JEEP and Chrysler.

Fowler Cycle Mfg Co grew into one of Chicago’s largest bicycle businesses but, as the bicycle industry expanded, every manufacturer of expensive machines faced increased competition from cheap bicycles. This 1897 article from The Chicago Daily Times sums it up:

  1. Chicago, October 22nd: An assignment was made today by the Fowler Cycle Co, one of the largest bicycle concerns in the West. The company has not been doing a flourishing business for some time and has keenly felt the competition of cheap wheels.

The press reports below shed further light on the company failure. The article about the winding-up of the Fowler Cycle Mfg Co is from the New York Times of 23rd October, 1897.

Online Bicycle Museum

In 1897, the Fowler Cycle Co. without Frank T. Fowler, faced a dramatically changing market, and started production of the ‘Fowler Straight Frame Bicycle’ which was marketed as a lower-cost alternative to the ‘Truss Frame’ bicycle, while claiming the same quality level as other Fowler bikes.  It apparently missed the mark. The 1890s were a golden age for bicycles, but later in the decade the bicycle market became saturated with low-priced alternatives - the ‘Bicycle Trust’ is mentioned as a force working against the formerly profitable independent bicycle dealers.  Also changing the market was the increased availability of bicycle products from mail order firms like Sears-Roebucks.

To illustrate market saturation, this list includes 3,366 models of bicycles between 1890 and 1918.

  1. “Sears Roebuck & Co. didn’t cause the bicycle crash of post-1897 but it made life much more difficult for bicycle retailers. The mail order giant was selling bicycles for as low as $7.50 by 1900.”

  2. Roads Were Not Built for Cars; Reid

The Big American Bicycle Craze of the 1890s

In 1896, Mr. Fowler sold his business, which had grown to a worldwide operation with around 600 employees.  Soon afterwards, he moved from Chicago to Massachusetts where he organized the Trinity Cycle Manufacturing Company. This clipping from the New York Times, January 25, 1886, provides some detail about the transaction:

It’s very hard to accurately identify exactly what happened without Mr. Fowler at the Fowler Cycle Manufacturing Company leading to insolvency - it’s equally difficult to say exactly why Mr. Fowler had such great success running these companies.  Too much time has passed, the stories have faded and the people are gone.

However, some things stand out enough to inspire a theory.  So, switching from facts to optimistic conjecture, the following is presented starting, again, with the classic observation:

Also in 1897, the company started to fail: 

In late 1887, Mr. Fowler reconsidered the Trinity bicycle operation in Massachusetts and returned  home to Chicago.  (?what happened to Trinity Bicycle?  Click here)

He then bought his old company back, resumed operations, and once again, built it into a successful business: 

New York Times, 1897 (Online Bicycle Museum)

“Technology is not things; it is knowledge – knowledge that is stored in hundreds of millions of books, in hundreds of billions of human heads, and, to an important extent, in the artifacts themselves. Technology is knowledge of how to do things, how to accomplish human goals.” 
Simon, H.A.; 1973

So, based on the story of the Fowler bicycle companies presented thus far, and with this observation in mind, the following is presented as explanation for why Mr. Fowler was a successful bicycle entrepreneur, even in tough times. 

  1. 1.Awareness of potential value has to exist before the pursuit of technology advancement.  Mr. Fowler   acknowledged the utility and appeal bicycling was to have for the general population well in advance of the tremendous popularity growth throughout the 1890s, and made bicycle manufacturing his career.

  1. 2.Technological design advances depend on a knowledge of current designs, on having a goal in mind, and on understanding what people want in a design improvement.  Mr. Fowler spent a great deal of time studying old patents and learning about current design and at the same time discovering needs in human terms along with the technological possibilities while working on his ideas for a new light wheel design.  It became a very successful product, as well as a successful business approach.

  1. 3.Successful manufacturing and marketing an advanced product is the result of knowing how to do things and how to address human goals.  This is true especially during unfavorable market conditions, like what the bicycle industry experienced after 1897.  Mr. Fowler, according to several accounts, was a very sociable and engaged business person, who attended the trade shows and racing events representing his company, honestly believed in his products and enthusiastically promoted them.  Listening to, learning from, and communicating with via newsletters and publications, was an ongoing activity.  Beyond  having the technology to build high-quality bikes, they had insight of what the market demanded.

  1. 4.Human goals are accomplished in concert with technological knowledge.  Mr. Fowler actively participated in the political efforts to improve roads, and was an influential member of the League of American Wheelmen, (L.A.W.), a group that organized the ‘Good Roads’ movement.  At the same time, similar efforts demanding road improvements were organizing in England.  These efforts not only resulted in better roads for cyclists, but literally paved the way for roads that enabled the success of motor car technology years later.  Success, beyond making money selling a thing, requires an immersion in efforts for greater achievements in human goals and knowledge.

About the same time Mr. Fowler quit making bicycles, he became politically active in Chicago in positions that allowed him to continue the effort to improve roads.  He served as an Alderman, on the Board of Local Improvements, and was the Superintendent of Streets, 1909-10, where he directed street paving and repairing, becoming recognized as a paint and paving material expert.  It is clear he fully understood the concept that “technology is knowledge of how to do things; how to accomplish human goals.”

Also about the same time, other innovations, especially Albert Pope’s stamping techniques, and then the methods used at the Western Wheel Works in Chicago, brought the price of bicycles down to where they were affordable by just about everyone - this was the inspiration for the ‘invention’ of automobile mass production.

End of an Era - End of a Cycle

In 1902 William R. Manierre purchased the charters of the Fowler Cycle Works (Fowler Cycle Manufacturing Company, Chicago IL, 1896-1898, Fowler Cycle Works, Chicago IL, 1899-1900), the Manson Cycle Company (1895-1900), and the Sherman Cycle Company (1896-1900), and consolidated all three as the Fowler-Manson-Sherman Manufacturing Company, 241 South Jefferson Street (later at 45-47 Fulton Street), Chicago, with himself as the proprietor. Making this purchase and consolidation possible may have been the end of the great boom in bicycle sales that came at the close of the nineteenth century. This company occupied William R. Manierre’s attention until his death.

The Online Bicycle Museum

Just a few images from the ONLINE BIKE MUSEUM are presented below - please visit this site for MORE!

If you like driving your car,

if you appreciate being able to afford a car,

If you expect to get to where you are going on good roads,

you owe a lot of gratitude to some early bicycle makers!

“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do
I’m half crazy all for the love of you
It won’t be a stylish marriage
I can’t afford a carriage
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two”

Daisy Bell written in 1892 by the British composer and cycle enthusiast Harry Dacre.

This page reflects on the idea presented above.

To frame this concept, a compiled study of the 1890s Fowler Cycle Manufacturing company is provided, along with an outline of the life, career and philosophy of Frank T. Fowler, who applied this concept as an inventor and promoter of bicycling throughout this era. 

The conclusion is that any effort, as for example one to create a desirable commercial product, succeeds only when this concept is understood and applied toward human goals. The artifacts may represent an obsolete technology, but the concept is timelessly true.

To help understand the events of the early Hill and Fowler bicycle companies, the following information is provided from The Online Bicycle Museum:

George Moffat, mentioned above, was one of the small makers in Chicago who didn’t do so very well - strong product but weak marketing know-how - and was forced to sell off his concern:


  1. George Moffat started the plant and failed in July, 1891. Then Mark Hill, Mr. Fowler’s father-in-law, secured control and ran it under the name of the Hill Cycle Mfg. Co. until November 11, 1892, when the name was changed to the Fowler Cycle Mfg. Co., and Mr. Fowler became the absolute head. January 4, 1896, F. M. Sproehnle, L. E. Crandall and others secure the business and all the stock, Mr. Fowler later organizing the Trinity company. The company failed October 22 1897, after a hard, but determined struggled to keep alive.

  2. The Wheel & Cycle Trade News; January 7, 1898.   

William R. Manierre

One of these days--hint, hint--some historian is going to sit down at his keyboard and start typing up the real story, telling everybody about just how profoundly the late 19th century's ground-shaking explosion of enthusiasm for bicycles affected the development of the American automobile.   Jim Donnelly; February, 2007; Feature Article from Hemmings Classic Car.

UPDATE:  In 2015 just such an account was published!  Roads Were Not Built for Cars

But it was the manufacturing innovations developed by early bicycle makers in response to the need to produce more affordable and competitive products, that most benefited the pioneer automobile makers, leading to their ‘innovations’ of steel-stamping and assembly line production.  Bicycle makers had these methods down before 1900.

In the United States between 1890 and 1918 there were over 3300 brands of bicycles produced by various manufacturers;  very few are still in business. 

Between 1900 and 1930 there were hundreds of US automobiles manufacturers offering various models;  very few are still in business.  Although many factors affect business success, an astute awareness of the technology-as-knowledge concept most certainly promotes success and longevity in the marketplace.

Technology is not things; it is knowledge – knowledge that is stored in hundreds of millions of books, in hundreds of billions of human heads, and, to an important extent, in the artifacts themselves. Technology is knowledge of how to do things, how to accomplish human goals.”

 Simon, H. A.; 1973. Technology and Environment. Management Science